Pico Iyer Journeys

The Writing Life

Arriving in Japan twenty-three years ago, on holiday from my job writing for Time magazine in New York, I knew just how I would master the alien and impenetrable island: by treating it as my weekly assignment. I read all the current books on Japan, I mastered all the standard ideas and explanations, I dutifully spent my two weeks in the country seeing the temples of Kyoto, the Peace Museum in Hiroshima and (ingeniously, I thought) the newly opened Disneyland in Tokyo (cleaner, more compact, more all-American even than my favorite theme-park in Anaheim). I took notes, voluminous notes, on every magazine called Lemon and video arcade called “We’ll Talk.” I scribbled down the notices seen in tiny Japanese inns–”Please have friendly relations with foreign people at meals”–and even wove in an account I’d read of Bruce Springsteen’s recent tour (“Kyoto ?” said a member of his band. “It was just like New Jersey”).

I couldn’t speak any Japanese, but that was no problem, I decided: I would just capture the country through baseball. A strike-out (or so I thought) is a strike-out in any language. Japan can be the most obliging and efficient of countries, very anxious that no foreigner comes away disappointed, and so, sure enough, I saw what I wanted to see: mysterious local heroes, who wrote the Zen word for “spirit” or “patience” when asked for an autograph; massed figures in the black-and-white stripes of their Hanshin Tigers, at once strikingly lyrical and yet ready (so I decided) for war; aged Major League stars come to make money in their retirement who–I knew–had to symbolize Japan’s equivocal relations with the Western world. My first days in Japan generated probably two hundred pages of notes and forty pages of finished, handwritten prose, saturated with detail and irony, and, I was sure, the definitive wisdom of a 28 year-old journalist, on what linked the silent rock gardens of Kyoto to, in fact, Tomorrowland in Tokyo Disneyland (this all went into my first book).

And yet beneath all the great movement and the excitement, something had caught inside me in Japan, and it was perhaps (I see now) all that I couldn’t explain, something I couldn’t begin to put into tidy boxes and pinwheeling sentences. I had walked around a temple near the airport at Narita, during a morning layover, waiting for my flight back to New York, and something in the mild October sunshine, the gathered quiet, the shelteredness of the scene took me back, unanswerably, to boyhood and England: something in Japan made me feel more at home than I’d ever been in a life of traveling the globe.

So I quit my job in New York and decided to come over to Japan for a year, to try out the premonition. I would do what every other earnest foreigner did in Japan in those days, join a Zen temple and study the nature of nothingness. I would sit in front of the rock gardens and pen haiku, with the autumn moon rising above a rustic tea-house, and put myself into the very scenes I’d savored in the novels of Kawabata, the woodcuts of Hiroshige. I’d also–since now I’d left my job and published a book (about my travels in Japan and nine other Asian countries)–make it an assignment: whatever happened in my year in Japan I would annotate, and whatever came of all this, I would turn into a book.

Within a week of arriving in a temple on the backstreets of Kyoto, I found, of course, that it was nothing like the pretty pictures I’d been admiring in New York. There was work involved, cooking and cleaning and raking and scraping. The hours of meditation were part of a strict military drill that included bowing and scraping, and not sleeping for days. It wasn’t an aesthetic domain at all; it looked, in fact, suspiciously like real life. I slipped out of the temple into a foreigners’ guest-house, fell in love with a Japanese woman and decided that her story would be my book and my way of understanding impermanence and egolessness: by evoking the changing relations of Japanese women (or one woman at least) as the country left its traditions behind without quite finding anything to replace them.

That book (The Lady and the Monk) found some friends and readers, as my first book (brilliantly titled by my editor, Video Night in Kathmandu) had done. But as books have a habit of doing, it threw off any number of unintended consequences. I now had a strong attachment in Japan (that lady). A part of me relished living thousands of miles from any life I knew. I could write my books to support myself–I’d been writing essays for Time while sleeping on a bare tatami mat in my temple–but there was something else in the country that tugged at me and tugged at me, and it was something I hadn’t quite got down in 338 pages of antic episodes, sonorous essays and–again–pages of chatter and analysis.

I came back to Japan, perhaps for good, and found myself (with that lady) in a two-room apartment, completely Western, in an entirely Western neighborhood, far from temple or shrine or aromatic backstreet or lanterned inn. Japan was now dry cleaning and tax receipts and taps that suddenly went kaput; nothing remarkable at all. I still had to work for my living–novels on Cuba and Iran, heavy tomes on globalism and the wars of our planetary neighborhood–but Japan now became my backdrop, not my subject. After all, I’d already written down everything I knew about the place.

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