Culture writer Ilina Jha reviews Florentyna Leow’s latest release, How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart, a collection of essays which authentically recount the writer’s own experience of living in the city.

Written by Ilina Jha
Images by Suyash Agrawal

How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart by Florentyna Leow is the latest release by local publishing firm The Emma Press. Reflecting on the two years of her life spent living in Kyoto, Leow describes her favourite places in the city, the highs and lows of her two jobs, and the memories of living with her friend and flatmate.

How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart is dedicated to anyone who has lost a friend, which would immediately suggest that this is a book about grief for someone who has passed away. However, Leow instead describes the grief of losing a person who is still very much alive, but just not in your life anymore. The book addresses the fact that we talk about relationship break-ups and how to deal with them, but have no equivalent for the friendship break-ups that are just as painful and raw. Leow perceptively examines the potential reasons for the break-up, finding no conclusive answers, and we are left to grapple with this lack of closure. The section of the book where Leow addresses her lost friend directly is very moving and saddening since one does not know if said person will ever read those words. Leow’s story of lost friendship will be familiar to many, and it certainly resonated with me.

Leow’s story of lost friendship will be familiar to many

It’s not all sadness and friendship heartbreak, though. There are some very funny moments in this book, and Leow demonstrates great insight into the oddities of life as a foreigner in Kyoto whom is perceived by many to be Japanese (Leow is Malaysian-Chinese). Structured as a series of short chapters reflecting on various aspects of Leow’s time in Kyoto, the narrative jumps back and forth across time. Leow’s approach is thematic rather than straightforwardly chronological. We find out early on that her friendship with her flatmate eventually ended, but Leow cleverly waits until later on in the book to reveal the details about what happens, keeping us desperately reading to find out.

Leow’s depiction of the persimmon tree and its fruit were particularly exquisite

The best bits of writing in this book were those pieces of prose that were the most thoughtful, poetic and beautifully descriptive. Leow’s depiction of the persimmon tree and its fruit were particularly exquisite and I would personally have loved even more of this style of writing throughout the book. I felt that the use of informal, conversational phrases and the occasional use of swear words were very out of the place, given the general writing style and tone of the book as a whole.

Ultimately, as the title suggests, How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart is a love letter to the city – a place described in such warm and affectionate terms that I defy anyone not to feel compelled to visit. Leow recounts her experience as a tour guide in the city whilst simultaneously taking us on her own personal tour of Kyoto, mapping the places and people who were special and important to her.

Overall, How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart is a well-done, thought-provoking and passionate read – and it might just break your heart too.

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