A Year in Japan

This delicately crafted artist’s journal offers colorful impressions of a young woman’s extended visit in Kyoto, Japan. Williamson’s watercolors are playful, bright and spare, and each section illustrates a theme or topic that has inspired the artist/author over her travels to a country devoted to attention to detail. For example, Williamson explores numerous rituals of dining, such as offering a guest green tea accompanied by a piece of wagashi, or bean paste confection, and illustrates over two pages the elegant lunch she ordered at a temple serving shojin ryori, the vegetarian cuisine of Zen Buddhist monks. The sacred rope that unites the "male" and "female" rocks of the Shinto site Meoto-Iwa warrants both an intimate view (the rope) and a full, breathtaking seascape of the wedded rocks. Williamson renders eye-catching holidays from August’s O’bon, featuring a trio of three white-socked and sandaled feet under pink kimonos, to April’s stately sakura (cherry blossom) season. For travelers to Japan, and those who treasure their visit, this is a splendid record. (Amazon.com)
Year of Publication
Number of Pages
Princeton Architectural Press
New York
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Average: 4.5 (2 votes)


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Like "an outsider looking in"

Field of Interest/Specialty: Japan / Japanese
Posted On: 01/09/2016

Reviewed by Bridget Beaver, Japanese Language Teacher, North Carolina Virtual Public School
As a teacher who instructs solely online, using materials with strong imagery tend to be fantastic teaching tools. Hurling only text at students, with no visual aides, is sometimes completely counterproductive to learning in the online environment, which is what initially attracted me to this book.
The cute pictures provide the reader with a perspective on Japan as “an outsider looking in” but do little to build a bridge between cultures or help to experience the culture within the context of language. Some of the illustrations are on the verge of being stereotypical, such as geisha, zen gardens, sumo wrestlers, etc.
One part of the book I did find to be insightful toward Japanese culture were Williamson’s sock illustrations. She posits a theory that colorful and varied sock designs found in stores commonly found in Japan that are completely dedicated to selling only socks may be due to the custom of removing one’s shoes upon entering a home. This proved perhaps a bit silly, but also may have some truth to it!
There is very little target language used in the book, which is understandable, again, within the context of how this book was written. However, beyond illustrations, there are small vignettes written about some the items depicted. It is definitely helpful to put each item in a specific context with a small paragraph or two, so that the reader, not familiar with Japan or its culture, can understand what they are looking at.
My feeling is that this book might be useful to introduce cultural artifacts perhaps in a novice-level class, especially since many of my own students have never visited Japan, encountering artifacts in this way might be a good way to start conversation using language they already know.
However, beyond the drawings, there was no real content to the book. It was more of a pictographic travel diary, if anything. I would definitely share it with students to introduce some cultural artifacts that may be unfamiliar to them, if they were directly related to our thematic content for our lesson.

A delightful book with charming drawings, offering unique insights into Japanese culture ...

Field of Interest/Specialty: Studio Art & Art History
Posted On: 11/13/2014

Reviewed by Kachina Martin, Studio Art & Art History instructor at Muhlenberg High School; grades 10-12
What a delightful book! A Year in Japan is an artist’s journal of her impressions and experiences of living in Kyoto, Japan. It is a very enjoyable, subjective view of Japan, offering readers unique insight into the daily lives of the Japanese and their culture through short, descriptive vignettes and charming drawings by the author, Kate Williamson. Williamson was in her early twenties when she lived in Japan and her observations regarding cell phones, food and social outings will resonate with older students, however her drawings would appeal to students of all ages. I think that this text could be used multiple ways. As a Studio Art teacher, this is a wonderful example of an artist’s journal. I am always seeking works beyond the European tradition to use as examples for my students. Williamson’s descriptions of daily occurrences, such as “Safe Fruit” which details the way in which her purchase, a single apple, was wrapped in a “foam cozy and placed inside a paper bag, which was then sealed with a sticker bearing the department store’s name and handed to me in a plastic shopping bag,” demonstrates the care with which products are wrapped and presented to the consumer. Her drawings are equally engaging, whether she is drawing a single apple encased in foam or replicating the stamps which are found at almost every public space as a way to create souvenirs. Her compositions seamlessly integrate writing and imagery; they are not only beautiful, but invite studio students to analyze Williamson’s use of the elements and principles.
Additionally, given that the author is an American viewing the Japanese culture, the text offers an opportunity to talk about American culture, having students consider what moments in their day might be a uniquely American experience. What events might they, an American teenager, choose to represent? What media would best represent their experience – collage, pencil, paint – or even watercolor, as the artist uses? As such, this text could be used as a visual prompt for art students to create a single composition or a series of images using Williamson’s text as a sample. The text could also be effective outside the studio as way in which to illustrate the ability of visual images to convey information. By creating a brief PowerPoint using images from the text, teachers in both Literature and History could introduce Japanese culture by asking students to delve deeply into the images, creating a writing exercise based on what they are seeing (What do I think is happening? What is this representing? What else do I want to know about this?). The author offers historical information when relevant, but overall, her work is focused on contemporary Japanese culture.
Personally, having been fortunate to travel to Japan thanks to NCTA, many of Williamson’s experiences resonated with me, such as her amazement over the many shops dedicated only to socks. Her lively drawings beautifully illustrate the Japanese love of pattern and color in everything from washcloths to clothing, and Williamson’s focus on the importance of natural beauty speaks to the influence of Shintoism, pervasive throughout Japanese culture. This text offers the reader a highly personal and intimate look at Japanese life and I highly recommend it to all ages, both artist and non-artist alike!