Travel writer Pico Iyer was born into a life of constant motion. His childhood was split among three cultures—English, Indian, and American. He was born in Oxford, England, to Indian parents and moved with his family to California when he was a small child. He spent his youth mostly in England, earned degrees at Oxford and then Harvard, and later covered world affairs for Time magazine. In 1987, he made a life-altering decision to leave his busy life in New York City for a simpler life in Japan. He documented this experience in his second book, The Lady and the Monk, which also includes the tale of how he met his Japanese wife, Hiroko. The pair have called Nara, a small town outside of Kyoto, their home for 27 years.
This year, he released two more books on Japan. Autumn Light (Knopf, 2019), published in April, focuses on the challenges of aging and death. His latest release is A Beginner’s Guide to Japan (Knopf), which appeared on shelves this fall. Despite the title, this isn’t a guidebook but rather a glimpse into the humorous and profound moments that reveal the essence of the island nation.
In a recent interview, I asked Pico for his insights on his experience in Japan. His responses, like most of his writing, challenge the reader to look beyond the surface and focus on the details that are often the most culturally revealing. (Please note that responses were edited for length.)
1. A sense of home is important
“The very first time I met Japan—on an unwanted 20-hour layover at Narita Airport in Tokyo in 1983, traveling between a business trip in Hong Kong and my home in New York City—it felt so familiar that I felt I knew it better than I knew the apartment where I lived on 20th Street or the house where I was born, in Oxford, England.
“The sense of recognition—here was a place that made sense to me, and here was a place that might understand me—was so strong that, by the time I boarded my flight back to JFK, I had decided to move to Japan, simply on the basis of that 20-hour layover.
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“So Japan felt like the secret home that had been waiting for me, and though I could give you explanations, I wouldn’t really believe in any of them. The nature of affinity is mysterious.
“In finding a home, as in finding a job or a partner, one’s looking for a mix of the foreign and the familiar, something novel enough to keep the mind engaged and comfortable enough to keep the heart feeling safe and constant.”
2. Convenience has its drawbacks
“One challenge of a traveler’s experience in Japan is that everything is served up with such grace and efficiency that one can start thinking of the people around one as versions of the protagonist in the recent novel Convenience Store Woman. And everything is so friction-free that, though it’s easy to get lost in Japan and nowhere is more foreign, one’s without the explosive challenges that throw one off in India or Morocco.
“Japan’s surfaces are so sleek and consistent that they can prevent one from seeking out the depths, and Japan takes such good care of every consumer that it doesn’t prepare the Japanese very well for the much more erratic and aggressive outside world.”
3. We should all listen more
“I went there originally, just after I turned 30, to learn how to speak less, to listen more, to be invisible, and to pay more attention to everything around me, precisely because Japan is a place where I can never take very much for granted. And, of course, one of the things that’s so humbling and beautiful in Japan is that the convenience clerk, when you buy a bar of Kit-Kat, will wrap your $1.50 candy as carefully and hand it to you as gently, usually, as if she were giving you a Tiffany ring.
“So living in Japan is for many of us a training in listening with more attention, speaking with more care, and tending to every item around you—because it has a soul and because it is seen with respect—as you would to a shrine. That’s part of how one gives up (I hope) going on too much about one’s ‘thoughts’ or conclusions and starts giving oneself over to the richness in every room.”
. . . Living in Japan is for many of us a training in listening with more attention, speaking with more care, and tending to every item around you. . .
4. Experience local traditions
“I would definitely recommend a professional baseball game, in part to show how Japan can take an all-American pastime and make it something entirely Japanese. As I explain in my Beginner’s Guide, Japanese games end in a tie, if the score is level after 12 innings; and because league standings are based on winning percentage, a team with quite a few ties can finish ahead of one with more victories.
“At the same time, the real action in a Japanese baseball game takes place in the stands, where the fans are as boisterous, passionate, and welcoming as anyone you’d meet in Fenway Park. Old ladies will share with you their trays of fried octopus, young guys dressed from head to toe as tigers will wrap you in a bear hug. ‘LET YOUR YOU OUT’ cries the slogan in the Hanshin Tiger gift shop with the result that, in the ballpark, amidst 30 cheerleaders and trumpets and ritual dances for every player, you see a Japan as full-throated and extrovert as the rest of the time it can seem shy and reserved.
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“The other thing I’d recommend is just to go to a McDonald’s outlet, even in Kyoto. You’ll find Moon-Viewing Burgers on the menu in September in honor of the traditional harvest moon. You’ll encounter chicken tatsuta burgers and bacon potato pies and iced tea made of Earl Grey. And among customers who are usually elegantly dressed and beautifully mannered, you’ll see that even McDonald’s becomes somewhere as Japanese as a traditional inn.”
5. Find freedom from distractions
“The Japan I know isn’t so much a place of extreme modernity, but rather a place that offers a freedom from distraction. When I moved from Midtown Manhattan to an empty room on the backstreets of Kyoto, along the eastern hills, I was moving from what could feel like an over-stimulated, rushed, and congested life, only four blocks from Times Square, to somewhere where every day lasted a thousand hours.
“So it was a very conscious move on my part, back in 1987, to leave a comfortable-seeming apartment on Park Avenue South for a single room where I had no telephone of my own, no toilet, not even a visible bed. I felt that having fewer things in my life would leave more space for the new and the surprising, for living outside the reach of my habits, and for being transformed by the world around me; and I thought that not having a schedule or plan would allow me to stumble into places in the world—and in the self—that I might not otherwise come upon.”
6. Embrace the idea of impermanence
“My Japanese friends and neighbors love the cherry blossoms, precisely because they are usually visible for only 10 days or so and are the most temporary of visitors; if they stayed around for even a month, it would be easier to take them for granted.
“And my Japanese neighbors and friends flock out into the temple gardens and parks in late November to enjoy the interplay of brilliant blue skies and turning maples and gingko trees because, again, the mixture of radiance and melancholy will soon be replaced by bare trees and colder days and nights.
“I first moved to Japan to wake up. To try to learn to be aware of what was happening around me—as I did not have the time or space to be in New York City—and to try to bring my attention as fully as I could to all the beauties and realities that otherwise I sleepwalk past.”
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