Earlier this year I published a list of recommendations of books written by Japanese authors, list suggested by a very knowledgeable friend. At that point I found out about “The Old Capital” by Kawabata, a novel published in 1962. It was one of the books cited by the Nobel Committee in their decision to award Kawabata the 1968 Prize for Literature.

In a nutshell, the novel tells the story of Chieko, a 20-years-old girl who lives in Kyoto* with her adoptive family. We are presented with snapshots from Chieko’s life, ranging from her day-to-day activities to life-changing situations. Over the course of almost one year, Chieko goes through changes related to family, friendship, and marriage.

*Kyoto is called the “Old Capital” because it was Japan’s capital until 1968, when Tokyo became the capital city.

the old capital kawabata readers high tea

As a general feeling, I enjoyed reading the book! It is a short and charming story, and while reading it you can feel the delicacy that characterizes Japanese writing. What I liked most about the novel was the multitude of details about the Japanese culture. It seems that Kawabata pays tribute to Japanese values also in other books:

If ”A Thousand Cranes” was [..] Kawabata’s tribute to the tea ceremony, and ”Snow Country” his farewell to the geisha as artisan and feminine ideal, ”The Old Capital” is his elegy to the art of the kimono. (Salter, 1987)

While telling the story of Chieko, Kawabata provides many insights regarding the Japanese holidays such as the Gion festival and The Festival of the Ages. Given that Cheiko’s father runs a small kimono shop, the Japanese clothing takes a central role in the novel. While reading the novel I found out what are the main components of a kimono, how they are designed and created, and what’s their cultural significance. Now I know what an obi is!

traditional-clothing japan kimono readers high tea
Traditional Japanese clothing

What I did not enjoy that much was the slow pace of the story and the episodic structure, which made reading the novel more challenging than I expected. I am also aware that I might have missed some subtleties because I am not accustomed to the Japanese culture … there were moments when I felt that some details seemed important, but I couldn’t figure why.

Before wrapping up the post, here’s a peculiar side-info: according to the translator’s notes from 1987, Kawabata checked himself into the hospital right after completing the novel, to be treated for an addiction to sleeping medications that he had developed while he was writing the book.

eatsandretreats kyoto
Traditional street in Kyoto

To conclude, I recommend reading “The Old Capital” if you’re interested in Japanese literature or you want to explore a more delicate writing style. Those of you who visited Kyoto, who recognize the shrines and cultural heritages described in the novel, would be even more immersed in the story than I was!

Have you read any book written by Japanese authors? If yes, which ones do you recommend? 🙂

‘Till next time … happy reading!


PS: the book was adapted into Japanese movies in 1963 and in 2016.

Images from HistoryPlex.com | Eats and Retreats | Pinterest.com

One thought on “Kimonos and a life-changing discovery: The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata (book review)

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