Book Reviews

Water, Wood & Wild Things Review: A Beautiful Book About The Yamanaka Way Of Life

In Japan, there are many remote places worlds away from the bustling megacities of Tokyo and Kyoto. The town of Yamanaka in Ishikawa Prefecture is one such place and writer Hannah Kirshner reveals the intimate details of this mountainous town in Water, Wood & Wild Things: Learning Craft And Cultivation In A Japanese Mountain Town. 

Lyrical, vivid and beautiful, Kirshner’s book is a window into a part of Japan that few have explored in literature and from the very first page, you’ll be transported to Yamanaka and feel right at home.

A colourful cast of characters 

Kirshner begins the book with her first trip to Japan and her reasoning for being drawn to the country. She also gives a great summary of Yamanaka for those who’ve never heard of it:

“Yamanaka claims a thirteen-hundred-year history of tourism because of its hot springs, but most of its visitors still come from within Japan and other Asian countries. 

Looking at its tourism data over the past hundred years is like watching the ups and downs of the Japanese economy: the number of visitors gradually increased after World War II, then peaked in the 1970s and again in the 1990s. Most years in the past half century about 500,000 people visited Yamanaka.

Fewer than eight thousand people live in the town and its surrounding villages, and that number is shrinking. And yet young artists, designers and entrepreneurs move there to make a life in the countryside.”

From there, Kirshner tells the stories of a wide cast of Yamanaka residents who each represent a different aspect of the town. One example is Shimoki, a sake evangelist who convinced Kirshner to work in his bar Engawa and be introduced to the Yamanaka way of life.

Then there’s the stoic Nakajima, a master woodturner who’s part rockstar, part living national treasure, part pillar of the community. Other days, Kirshner finds herself hunting boars with Sakura, a female hunter who shows her the ropes and what it means to live as close to nature as possible.

Beautiful language and timeless practices 

The way Kirshner writes makes it seem as if every encounter is a short story, balancing realism and surrealism. It’s a strength of her writing style, which flows as easily as her thoughts and her use of Japanese words that feel natural in the context of what she’s describing. 

She hones in on several specific traditions within Yamanaka, such as saka-ami hunting, or duck hunting that was popularised by the samurai of the region hundreds of years ago. Another intriguing practice is the creation of wagatabon, wooden trays that are as unique as the people who create them.

There’s so much intimacy on every page and you really feel Kirshner’s respect and love for the citizens of Yamanaka and the place itself. There’s also a melancholic quality as she acknowledges that the Yamanaka way of life may not last forever, but she plans to make the most of it every time she returns and as the reader you hope that way of life does remain strong.

Water, Wood & Wild Things truly is a wonderful book that captures the unique culture of a small place against the backdrop of something much bigger. Travellers, Japan enthusiasts, artists, chefs and designers will all enjoy reading the book and you can pick up a copy here.

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