Kyoto Teramachi Sanjo no Holmes: A Review

(NOTE: I’ve noticed a lot of folks peeking at this recently–this is an old review for the Japanese version of the light novel. Just FYI!)

As someone who lives in a foreign country, one of my goals upon coming here was to eventually become literate. My definition of literate is that I’m able to walk into a bookstore, pick something off the shelf, and be able to read the blurb inside the cover to see if it’s something I might enjoy.

In December 2015, I passed the JLPT N2 by a meager two points, so I suppose that technically puts me at the level of “able to use business-level Japanese”. In my day-to-day life, however, I place myself comfortably at N3, which is more “able to use daily conversation and sometimes rant about the economy in short sentences level Japanese”. I am able to go to a movie without subtitles, read the messages my Japanese friends send me on Line, and other daily activities without too much trouble.

But there is always room for improvement, and as an avid reader I decided, along with a friend, to start up a Japanese Book Club. Very recently, we finished the first book for said club: 京都寺町三条のホームズ by 望月 麻衣。

The story follows a high school girl named Aoi, who has just moved to Kyoto from her home up in Tokyo after the ending of a rocky relationship. Upon wandering the covered arcade street Teramachi, she finds a little antique shop, in which a university student, Kiyotaka, works. Kiyotaka is an enigmatic young man who people often come to in order to solve little mysteries about their antiques, and for that–as well as other reasons explored in the book–he is granted the nickname “Holmes”. As such, Aoi slowly but surely becomes the “Watson” in the tale as she starts a part-time job at the antique shop and learns more about his family and Kyoto as a whole.

Originally, I expected it to be more of a mystery novel with an overarching plot. To my surprise, the book is actually broken up into several smaller “books”, each with its own story arc. While several little mysteries are explored in the text, the tale is really more about the developing relationship between Aoi and “Holmes”.

As someone who knows Kyoto fairly well by now, I enjoyed reading Aoi’s perspective on several places, from Teramachi street itself to Kamogawa River and the shrines throughout the city. Likewise, reading Holmes’ explanations of the local customs were also interesting for me as they often tied in with my own experiences. Someone who has been to Kyoto is likely to get more enjoyment out of the story, but the descriptions are pretty easy to follow and I found myself picturing certain places pretty clearly.

Another thing I enjoyed was the character of “Holmes” himself. Aoi plays as a great foil to his personality. Like Sherlock Holmes, his interest in a given case is gone the instant he’s solved it, even while others are still trying to understand how he figured everything out. He also has a tendency to set up his “Watson” to unwittingly help him on cases, which can leave her irritated at him.

One thing that I found odd was the author’s (or perhaps the publisher’s) choice in furigana. As someone who is still regularly struggling with kanji, I look for furigana to understand the reading of new vocabulary so I can easily look it up and, in the future, pronounce the word properly. While furigana was littered throughout the text, especially for Kyoto-centric things people wouldn’t be familiar with, I found it strange that a kanji would be introduced first without the help. Then, after it had appeared two or three times, you would finally stumble across it with the helpful furigana next to it. Why was it not introduced together the first couple of times instead?

Another thing that bothered me somewhat was the ending. It did not feel like a conclusion at all. Rather it felt like the ending of an episode to a TV series or cartoon, where nothing has been resolved because the writers are confident there will be a sequel. While there are in fact, several books following this one, I don’t like the idea that the book can’t stand entirely on its own.

That said, I will be reading the second book to see if it provides any better conclusions to the story. I’ve already invested enough time in these characters and settings, so why not?

In short:
Geared toward: Given the main characters’ ages and personalities, this is geared toward people in high school/university and up.
Level required to read this book: Definitely JLPT N3, preferably higher if you don’t want to spend hours looking up vocabulary
Good for study: I’d say yes. Lots of repeating vocabulary, and the main characters tend to use standard Japanese (with hints of Kyoto-ben here and there from side characters)
Length of time to read it: Took me about 3 minutes per page at my current level without looking anything up, and the book is 306 pages.
Read it again: Yes. I’ll want to look at it again in a year or so to see if I’ve improved any reading-wise.

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