The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata


“The old capital was known as the place in Japan where many of the innovations from the West were first adopted. This trait was evident among many of the people of Kyoto as well.

But perhaps there is still something of the old capital in a city that would keep the streetcar running so long. Naturally, the streetcar itself was small; one’s knees almost touched those of the passenger sitting opposite.

Now that the street car was to be dismantled, however it seemed that everyone hated to part with it.” (p. 103)

Cited as one of the three novels specifically mentioned when Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, The Old Capital is a lovely, atmospheric, deeply moving book. It seems to examine many dualities: between twin sisters, old traditions and new, successful businesses and struggling ones.

Chieko has been adopted by two parents who love her immensely. She has grown to be a sweet and beautiful girl, one whose countenance makes any one who gazes upon her sigh. Completely by accident, she comes across her twin sister one day, who works in the mountains. They instantly form a bond of love and understanding.

Chieko had caught wind of the neighbors’ whispers and realized that she was a foundling, but she had forced herself not to wonder about what sort of parents had abandoned her. no amount of wondering could have helped her understand. Besides, Takichiro and Shige’s love for her had been so warm that she saw no need to pursue her origins. (p. 93)

The background of the story contains her parents; her father is a kimono designer. They struggle financially. They also struggle with a sense of guilt, for who is to say that Chieko has been adopted or kidnapped? It is never quite clear, and perhaps ultimately, it doesn’t matter. What we become is more important than from where we’ve come.

I found this novel to be melancholy, but beautiful. Much like I feel when I’m sitting in the pine forest on a gray winter day. There is much to think about. But there is even more to absorb simply by being still and letting the flakes fall where they may.

26 thoughts on “The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata”

  1. I remember thinking how lovely the descriptions were, or just the whole atmosphere of Old Japan, when I read this book. I think it's a book I could read again.


  2. That's just the thing; the atmosphere is so enjoyable! Probably lots of the meaning goes over my head because it's so obscure. Yet the description and the mood make this novel such a worthy read.


  3. Ally, thanks for that recommendation. Autumn Brocade is a totally new title to me. So glad you're enjoying the re-discovery of Japanese literature. It's such a wonderful genre, isn't it?


  4. Interesting premise, and surely eternally apt. The message it seems to give, from what you've said, sounds very poignant too, we can't choose where we're from but we have a say in what we become. You've written just enough about it and included no answers, which has had the positive effect that I'm going to go and look it up on Goodreads because not knowing more is difficult to let go!


  5. Bellezza,

    You know how much I've enjoyed Kawabata from past JLC, and this title I've known for some years. It does sound poetic and I'd love to read it. However, I regret that at the moment I just have too many TBR waiting, I may not be able to participate this time. Still friends? 😉 P.S. I'll meet you in Paris in July… and, you're welcome to visit the wrap-up posts of Midnight's Children comes June 30.


  6. It sounds lovely, but melancholy, eh? Something about your description (“melancholy, but beautiful. Much like I feel when I'm sitting in the pine forest on a gray winter day.”) reminds me of my reaction to The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama, which I read several years ago. I loved that quiet little novel and think it might be time for a re-read.


  7. It's tricky to write a review which compels someone to look up, or buy, a certain novel. I'm glad that you found that I wrote “just enough but included no answers” which is my aim. This is a book which everyone one enjoys Japanese literature, and even some who don't, ought to read. For the mood alone.


  8. Vintage Reading, there are a few short novels (such as even this one) that wouldn't take up much of your time should you wish to dip deeper than a toe. 😉 Might I also suggest a novel by Banana Yoshimoto, of a completely different generation, but she writes short and eloquent novels all the same.


  9. The cover made me want to see real cherry blossoms in their true Japanese setting. I'd love to visit one of their gardens, many of which are so beautifully described in this book. Kawabata also wrote of the cedars and the red pines which I love just as much…


  10. What? Many books on one's pile(s)? How can that be?! 🙂 I have such a similar situation, and we never want our joys to become jobs. There must be some place to draw the line. It's for that very reason I don't feel so compelled to finish Rushdie right now. I have so many books I both need, and want, to get into.

    Glad that we're going to 'meet again' in Paris in July. My list for that challenge is really exciting to me, too. (And, the novels are a bit shorter.) I have chosen Bonjour Tristesse which looks like it could be read in one afternoon, as well as Bel Ami by Maupassant. I think you might want to read that one as well since it's soon to be a film.


  11. Fortunately, it won't take your whole summer to read. It's a fairly short novel, although I didn't read it fast because I didn't want to zip through the atmosphere Kawabata created. I hope you find time for it before the JLC6 ends.


  12. I haven't read that novel by Tsukiyama, only her novel (The Street of the 1,000 Blossoms? Is that correct?), but I know what a beautiful writer she is. You and I, Les, might be some of the few who could appreciate a pine forest on a gray winter day just as much as we would sitting under the cherry blossoms on a sunny spring day.


  13. I liked Thousand Cranes, but I liked this one perhaps a little more. Neither one expresses a plot as much as a mood…a slice of life both in the characters' lives and that time in Japan. I look forward to your thoughts on Cranes, and if you get to it, Capital. Kawabata is a fabulous author; no wonder he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968.


  14. Yes I've read somewhere that Bel Ami is already a film. But whether I'll come to my city is another question. And I know my fave Kristin Scott Thomas is in it. I just might look it up. Maybe I can even find it online.


  15. Your city might not get the good films; ours doesn't get the good books (in our libraries there only seem to be trashy romance novels). Somehow we'll muddle through…


  16. All the reviews I see of this are positive, and I trust you when it comes to seeing beauty. I'm beginning The Master of Go soon, trying to fit in as much as I can for the JLC!


  17. Kawabata is not my favorite Japanese author, but surely he knows how to write of beauty and place.

    I need to read more Japanese literature for my own challenge! I've only read three books so far, and it's all over at the end of January. Still, we have Norwegian Wood to look forward to.


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