It's actually an interesting exercise to compare this colorful journal with Karin Muller's recent "Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa". Whereas Muller approaches her sojourn as an almost anthropological expedition, author-artist Kate Williamson takes a decidedly more visual approach based on her own yearlong stay in Kyoto where she was studying, of all things, sock design. What sets apart Williamson's book are the bright watercolor illustrations that depict somewhat random aspects of Japanese life and culture. They show a sharp eye for authenticity and concurrently a sense of playfulness that reinforces the allure of Japan to the foreigner's eye.
She is fascinated by the famous wedded rocks at Meoto-Iwa, the patterns on washcloths, the colors available for backpacks, the foam cozies around apples, the difference in accessories between maiko girls and geishas, the everyday dress of sumo wrestlers, and the delicacies in a bento box. Luckily so am I. In between the pictures are brief essays that serve to provide back stories for the illustrations. Her impressions reflect an idiosyncratic eye, and her topics range from Hiroshima's one thousand paper cranes to karaoke private rooms to the details of the vegetarian cuisine of shojin-ryori to the rock n' roll-obsessed temple carpenters of the Kyoto Rockabilly Club. It is obvious her designer instincts are well stimulated by the variety of textiles, umbrellas and accessories she discovers there. Williamson is able to bring this all together thanks to her singular perspective and an eye for minutiae that can truly define a culture. Nippon-ophiles can rejoice at her graphically pleasing book.
on July 11, 2006
It is a great pleasure to be able to casually open A YEAR IN JAPAN, which stays next to my desk, and find a page by chance. On any given day, I might see a lovely two-page spread of maple leaves; an absorbing story (one of my favorites) in the author's fine print/cursive mix about her task of carefully tracing out the characters of a sutra in order to gain admittance to the Moss Temple; a tempting diagram of "sweets made especially for moon viewing"; an account of GUYS AND DOLLS performed by an all-female, Japanese cast; an illustration of a very comforting view from the inside of a Japanese taxi.
Every page is a pleasant portal into a world other than my own. The book is built loosely around the seasons and their shifting, and is thus also exciting as a work to be read through from front cover to back. Occasional references to the seasons provide an anchor for the reader, for example, you find out how traditional Japanese sweets have a specific shape and flavor in autumn, and about the kinds of umbrellas available during the rainy season.
The illustrations and texts are crafted with such thoughtfulness, brightness and love (much like the above-mentioned sutra text) that I am immediately transported into the author's world when I open the book, and feel delighted to share in her enchantment and exploratory spirit.
I always show friends this book when they visit.
on January 4, 2008
Even before looking inside A Year in Japan, the fold-out back and front covers are wonders to behold. They contain smaller versions of the colourful interior illustrations and list topics that could be prompts for poems: Plum Blossoms, Signature Songs, Elegant Taxis, Electric Rugs, Indigo Fireflies, Lunch with a Geisha.
Kate T. Williamson designed and illustrated her book as well as wrote a journal of her year in Kyoto, Japan. She was enamoured with Japanese customs and objects (like apples in foam cozies and mangos impaled on chopsticks to make less-sticky eating) and created a book to celebrate them.
Williamson, who lives in New York City, studied filmmaking at Harvard University. Her love of travel and interest in sock design, along with a postgraduate fellowship, took her to Kyoto. For a year, she filled journals with her thoughts and sketches.
While reading of Williamson's discoveries during her year of noticing, I was reminded of Natalie Goldberg who has also written of her travels to Japan to explore the land of her Zen teacher. But mostly I'm reminded of Goldberg because of the attention paid to the celebration and naming of everyday things. As Goldberg says, naming something "wakes you up to it". Both writers illustrate their work and I find pure delight in Goldberg's naive drawings, accompanying her poetry, just as I enjoyed Williamson's drawings and watercolours.
As for the names, Williamson gives the names of the ordinary things in Japanese as well as English. Green tea is matcha, used in tea ceremonies. To sweeten the matcha one eats a piece of wagashi, of molded sugar or bean paste. The illustration is a cup of green on a stark white page as if the artist has just drawn it and presented it to the reader.
Among Williamson's drawings are four pages of socks. She believes the popularity of sock stores and the proliferation of sock designs is partially due to the custom of removing one's shoes upon entering a home. She also studied shiborizome, a traditional textile art using sewing and indigo-dyeing. One of the first things Williamson noticed when she left the train station in Kyoto, was a display of washcloths in plaids and polka dots, "orange and turquoise, red and magenta, lime and navy". Women carry them in their purses for drying their hands in public washrooms. Of course Williamson drew them too.
Rather than a chronological travelogue about her encounters and places visited, Williamson has written light-hearted and whimsical descriptions to remember Japanese customs, old and new. One of the old customs is "moon-viewing." Many old "residences have special platforms or rooms where nobles would gather to write moon-related verse as they gazed at the sky or into the moon's reflection in a nearby pond". There are sweets made especially for moon-viewing called tsukimi dango.
Among Williamson's watercolour illustrations are those of Kyoto's flowers and plant life. Some of the coloured drawings take up a two-page spread such as the hydrangea (ajisai) and cherry blossoms (sakura). Cherry blossoms last for only a week and their fleeting beauty and impermanence is a reminder to be aware and present. I am reminded of Basho's haiku about the cherry blossom as a threshold between our inner and outer worlds.
As in a journal, there are no page numbers. The type is even in script so that it is like a traveller's journal full of memories--but so very much neater! Williamson took such pleasure in how much thought goes into appearances and actions in Japan so that "details of beauty and nuances of word and deed are both expected and appreciated".
Whether you can visit Japan or not, the book is a reminder and tribute to all things Japanese. It's also a reminder to appreciate what is unique and precious about what's in front of us. You could call it an appreciation practice.
by Mary Ann Moore
for Story Circle Book Reviews
reviewing books by, for, and about women
on July 31, 2008
This beautiful book contains a wealth of detail, both in the artwork itself and in the author's commentary. The scenes will be instantly familiar to anyone who has visited Japan, and if you haven't, this book just might make you want to go. The artwork is complemented by the author's observations on Japanese visual culture - everything from package-wrapping to geisha style. The book allows you to see Japan not from a tourist's point of view but through an artist's eye.
In my opinion, some reviewers have missed the point - this book does not claim to be a novel, a travel guide, or even a memoir. It's simply a window into the everyday beauty of life in Japan.
on June 22, 2006
I love this book. It beautifully and poignantly focuses on observing the smallest details of Japanese life, and through these details creates a portrait of a culture, and of a place. What I found really refreshing was the book's unique, personal point of view. The handwritten text and striking illustrations, the delicately written observations, and the spare layouts are reverant and perfectly pitched.
This book meditates on and explores Japan generously and honestly. It doesn't claim to be definitive, doesn't attempt to objectively document Japan as a monolithic, easily consumed thing. It instead, through the accretion of detail, leaves one with a sense of wonder, a sense of timelessness, and a sense of grace.
The tone is personal and diaristic, but what emerges is an experience that the reader is engaged in and delighted by, and suggests an enriching, enchanting way of seeing and interacting with the world.
I felt like the book, and the author, were sharing with me.
Very highly recommended.
on June 23, 2010
It's nowhere near actually being there, but Kate T. Williamson's A Year in Japan manages to capture some of the magic that lies within Japanese culture. With her journal notes paired with such detailed watercolor illustrations, Williamson delves into the intricacies of everyday life and presents an eye-catching tour through the heart of Japan. A place where karaoke is taken seriously, tofu is sold from wooden carts pushed by elderly men and the people believe that a rabbit on moon pounds rice into mochi.
Some concepts, like riding a bullet train (shinkansen) and the difference between a maiko and a geisha, I'd already learned through my bf's adventures, but I thoroughly enjoyed this visual journey. Once I picked it up one morning, I couldn't set it down until I'd spent the entire year with her.
For more reviews, visit [...]
on February 17, 2015
Found this book in a thrift shop, bought it because it looked pretty, and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. The artwork is so charming, and the Japanese culture covers areas we haven't seen anywhere else. We intended to send it on to our Japan-obsessed Navy daughter, but we loved it so much we had to buy her another copy so we could keep ours. Please do buy this. Kate T. Williamson is entertaining and I'll be looking forward to reading her books in the future.
on June 26, 2006
All of the above reviews are right, incl. the guy who said it lacks depth. Yes, if what you are searching for is a travel guide or a novella, this is not it. If you are however, looking for a beautiful book of visuals and yummy little insights on Japanese culture, then you will not be disappointed.
I've not lived there, have visited a number of times, but the very day I received this book, I made plans to get back there ASAP!
on November 4, 2006
"A Year in Japan" plays-up the quirky side of Japanese culture with observations of the random differences an American student encounters in the Japanese culture. All short descriptions are illustrated in delicate watercolor paintings. The pages of full of vibrancy, life and a sense of humor, while it remains clear that the artist/author still appreciates and admires the culture she is experiencing.
on August 24, 2007
A Year in Japan is full of small, beautiful (and sometimes very amusing), observations about daily life in Japan. It does not aim to be a guide book or a history of Japan. Instead, it is a beautifully illustrated look at some of the things which make Japan so interesting to outsiders--from soy sauce containers shaped like little fish to sumo wrestlers and bento boxes. I've shown this book to people who know Japan well, and people who know nothing about it, and they've all been charmed by Ms. Williamson's drawings and wit.