Review – Illusory Dwellings: Aesthetic Meditations in Kyoto

Review – Illusory Dwellings: Aesthetic Meditations in Kyoto

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

The cover for Allen S. Weiss' "Illusory Dwellings Aesthetic Meditations in Kyoto" superimposed over the dry sand garden at Ryoan-ji Temple.
Mystified by the depths of Japanese aesthetic tradition? Then Allen S. Weiss' new book, "Illusory Dwellings: Aesthetic Meditations in Kyoto", may be for you.

These days, I’m often afforded the opportunity to visit the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto. For this, I feel especially blessed; despite the current discourse related to the city’s palpable over-tourism, Kyoto remains one of the world’s most fascinating locales. Home to well over a thousand years of history, and much of that as the central node for Japan’s artistic, cultural, political, and spiritual production, diving deeper into Kyoto is endlessly rewarding. It’s a place that can be enjoyed on a surface level, gawking at storied Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, palaces, and tea houses. It’s all the more enjoyable to experience the layers of meaning beneath Kyoto’s sometimes obfuscated traditions. For that, books like Allen S. Weiss’ Illusory Dwellings: Aesthetic Meditations in Kyoto are a priceless resource.

A professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Allen S. Weiss is an impressively prolific author. His authorial blurb in the back of Illusory Dwellings notes his focus on “the fields of performance theory, landscape architecture, gastronomy, sound art, experimental theater, and ceramics.” Japan has been a focal point for Weiss, who has published books on Japanese ceramics and gardens. (He writes in both English and French).

Weiss brings his varied expertise to bear within Illusory Dwellings‘ eclectic, surprisingly brisk 157 pages. Weiss takes us on a meandering journey through philosophical musings on Kyoto’s tea rooms, museums, restaurants, gardens, and cemeteries. You’ll find new ways to appreciate the shadowy spaces of Kyoto’s tea houses and restaurants; to think about the place of craftsmanship in used ceramics and eating utensils. It’s often fascinating reading.

Exploring the Illusory Dwellings

First things first, though. This is not an ideal entry point for learning about Kyoto. Illusory Dwellings is the sort of book that’ll serve you best as your third, or even fourth, foray into your personal Kyoto Studies. There’s much discussion of esoteric artistic concepts and name-dropping of temples and shrines. Not much time is taken to provide background for newcomers. If that sounds a bit intimidating, you might be better off starting with John Dougill’s straightforward Kyoto: A Cultural History. For those looking for a fascinating insight into the finer details of Kyoto architecture and its deeper meanings, Alex Kerr’s Another Kyoto would make a good second entry.

But going into Illusory Dwellings for specific insights into Kyoto might be the wrong way of going about things. The book casts a wider net, dwelling more generally on elements of Japanese aesthetic presentation. That the setting tends to be Kyoto can sometimes seem circumstantial, although it’s no surprise that Weiss would experience many thought-provoking encounters in the ancient capital.

This is a book that grows more accessible, and more intriguing, as you continue reading it. It’s also the sort of work that has to be approached on its own terms. Illusory Dwellings is fairly academic reading, full of highly conceptual musings on the philosophy of space.

Comparative Musings

Take Chapter Two, “Other Modernities: The Museum.” It features discussions of how the white spaces and implicit framing of Western-style galleries have negatively affected the viewing of Japanese artwork. For some readers, the idea of comparative studies of museum walls and lighting may seem overly esoteric; nonetheless, the actual content is very interesting.


A repeated theme discussed is how Japanese works of art are meant to exist within a lived space; they’re often ceramic tea bowls, vases, wooden spoons; items to be admired in a darkened tea room while being used in an actual ceremony. The rustic backdrop of the tea hut and murky shadows are an integral part of the experience. Meanwhile, bringing these pieces into bright, white-backed Western-style museum spaces robs Japanese art of its context.

It’s insights like these that make Illusory Dwellings so enjoyable. Since Weiss’ expertise extends far beyond Japan, the book often acts as a study in comparison. Although certain references to decades’ old European art exhibits and avant-garde movements may mystify the uninitiated, they give the book a well-rounded, expansive outlook.

Tea ceremonies are more complex than one might grasp at first glance. Numerous aesthetic tools meld with actions, sounds, tastes, and a lived environment to create a single moment.

Aesthetic Anecdotes

Also appreciated are anecdotes from Weiss’ extensive cultural and artistic experiences in Kyoto. A favorite is a recollection of the sanctified, shadowy space of the tea room made mundane by a well-meaning guest turning up the lights. Weiss anticipated enjoying the shadowy atmosphere of the tea ceremony, only to have the mystique turn sterile thanks to the application of fluorescent lighting.

Shadows have been one of the most important aesthetic aspects of Japanese interior spaces; Weiss is one among many commentators on Japan affected by Tanizaki Junichiro’s seminal 1933 essay In Praise of Shadows. (「陰翳礼讃」.) Experience enough dimly lit temple halls, and you may start subconsciously understanding this focus on shadows. Reading aesthetic essays like Weiss’ or Tanizaki’s, and you may gain some extra epiphanies.

Bridging a Cultural Gap

A valuable concept explored in Illusory Dwellings is the lack of deeper cultural competency and knowledge exhibited by even well-meaning travelers. You can know the basics of the tea ceremony, its fastidious ordering and base utensils. But without knowledge of what flowers are associated with what seasons; what poetic and historical allusion is brought to mind by a certain bird or a four-kanji calligraphic scroll hung in an alcove; there will always be something you’re missing when engaging in culture-steeped experiences. Weiss explains:

“One must be an active participant in a tea ceremony, and not a mere spectator; one must merit beauty. Hence the nearly insurmountable difficulty for the foreigner who – even if admitted to such events – will most likely not have the aesthetic background, spiritual training, or even the language to actively participate.”

Illusory Dwellings, p. 67.

(Not that this is a problem faced only by overseas visitors; plenty of locals lack the necessary encyclopedic knowledge of more than a thousand years of Japanese literature and poetry.)

This book plays a role in introducing the reader to many of these concepts. By reading it, you may come a bit closer to traditional cultural competency. (Or, at least, become aware of how far you have to go to really obtain it.) So, if you’ve already learned a fair bit about Kyoto, and traditional Japanese aesthetics, Illusory Dwellings is a worthy read.

Illusory Dwellings: Aesthetic Meditations in Kyoto by Allen S. Weiss goes on sale November 12th, 2024. You can read a preview of the book here.

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

Japan in Translation

Subscribe to our free newsletter for a weekly digest of our best work across platforms (Web, Twitter, YouTube). Your support helps us spread the word about the Japan you don’t learn about in anime.

Want a preview? Read our archives

You’ll get one to two emails from us weekly. For more details, see our privacy policy