Baha'i News -- A very foreign life
salon.com > Travel Feb. 22, 2000
A very foreign life
In Nara, Japan, a universe of connections and contradictions unfolds daily
By Pico Iyer
My daily life in Nara is itself a curious artifact, belonging to a kind of existence that even I could
not have imagined only a decade ago, before "home office" fax machines and Global Village modems, with
international telephones on every other street corner, made centrifugal lives possible. In terms of the world I
grew up in, almost none of it makes any sense, but in terms of the world we're entering, it forms the outlines
of a complete sentence.
I go to sleep here every day by 9:00 p.m., in part so as to wake up at 5:00 a.m.,
when my employers (thirteen time-zones away) are at their desks (their office hours stretching from 11:00 p.m.
to 7:00 a.m., Nara time). My research facility, if I need to check on something, is an English language
bookstore ninety minutes away by train, and my version of the Internet is a copy of the World Almanac. The
person I see most often, outside my immediate household, is the Federal Express boy who comes to collect and
deliver packages from distant Osaka. In this newly shrunken world, I can complete articles or even books without
having to exchange a word with editors, and can draw out money in a local department store from a bank account
on the other side of the planet.
For breakfast, I generally enjoy some combination of asparagus cookies or chlorella biscuits, chaperoned by
what is here known as "Royal Milk Tea," and for lunch I go to a convenience store round the corner, where all
the goods of England and America are on sale, yet nothing is quite as I would expect. Little old women are
photocopying Chopin scores to the sound of piped-in Clash songs, and teenagers with safety pins all over their
faces are consulting magazines with names like Classy and Waggle and Bang. Though the whole place is only four
aisles wide, it is crammed with wild plum chews and mangosteen candies, tubs of Grand Marnier pudding and
vitamin jelly drinks. There are ice-cream sandwiches here made of Darjeeling tea, tandoori-flavored potato
chips and Kiss Mints that come in flavors of litchee and lime, kiwi, "Wake-up," and "Etiquette." There are
"Moisture Desserts" and cups of "Mango Dream Snow," injunctions on packages to "Listen to the sweet murmurings
of vegetables. You'll feel pleasure and find a smile." Once, while munching from a bag of potato puffs, I looked
down, to see three characters prancing around the bag, identified as Jean and Paul and Belmonte.
Usually, in the afternoons, I go to the post office next door where all the clerks look up as I enter, as at
the arrival of their daily soap opera. My principal means of communicating with the world at large is fraught
with hazards: the envelope I'm using (from my company) is too large -- measured against a transparent green
ruler the workers wield -- or I've neglected to attach a Par Avion sticker. Once I was rebuked for including too
long a P.S. on the back of the envelope, and once, during the holiday season, I came in only to be presented
with a special invoice for thirty dollars when it was discovered that my New Year's greetings exceeded the
regulation five words.
Afterwards, I walk around the local park, past the "bad boy" son of the electrician, polishing his Corvette
till it's red as his waist-length hair, past the dogs that bark furiously at my alien scent and children who
back away as if at the sight of the summer horror blockbuster from California. At one street corner in this
placid country neighborhood, there is a set of vending machines where I can buy 49 kinds of cigarettes, 36
alcoholic drinks, 92 nonalcoholic drinks, and a bewildering array of brightly colored cans advertising Corn
Potage soup and Melon Cream soda, Calorie Mate Block and Drafty Beer. In the supermarket, grannies handle
radishes with black-fingered gloves and the shifty character beside me at the butcher shop sports a gold star
on his breast that says ASSISTANT SHERIFF, LARIMIE.
Japan is notorious for treating all the world as a kind of giant souvenir store from which it can mix and
match at will, and many a newcomer, to Kyoto, for example, is taken aback to find the old imperial capital gaudy
with "Think Potato" bars, "Amazement Spaces," and stores styling themselves "American Life Theater" (while the
Eagles' "New Kid in Town" is piped into the geisha quarter). Yet the impersonality of Japan, to me, is not that
of a country that hasn't matured into character so much as one that keeps its passions to itself. The public
world strives to be generic, to keep friction and confusion to a minimum; individuality flowers behind closed
And though the reach of such daily oddities is only shallow, I often think of that moment in Christopher
Isherwood's "A Single Man" in which a woman from Sarah Lawrence reproaches California for offering "unreal
places" instead of history and nuanced depth. Instead of Gothic cathedrals, she implies, it serves up Motel 6.
At this, Isherwood's stand-in narrator replies with passion, pointing out that it's precisely the unreality
of the look-alike motel that prevents one from taking it too seriously; synthetic surfaces, he says, are a good
deal less likely to keep one enthralled to them than that whole "old cult of cathedrals and first editions and
Paris models and white wine." California encourages transcendence, he argues, precisely because its surfaces
are so empty.
A position easier for an Old World exile to take, perhaps, than someone native to its state of permanent
revolution; yet a salutary reminder that a place of hollow surfaces has some advantages over one of seductive
ones. It's only the invisible things that make us feel at home.
My next-door neighbor in the four-apartment building where I spend my days is a Baptist minister who speaks
perfect English, from his student days in Chicago, and dispenses his wisdom from a drab second-story apartment
in the building across from ours, with a cross on the balcony outside and a sign reminding potential
parishioners that attendance of a service brings with it a free English lesson. Whenever he passes me on the
stairs, he looks away as if confronted by an agent of Beelzebub's. By contrast, the apartment upstairs from
mine is occupied by a yamama (or "young mother" crossed with "Yankee mother," as the cunning Japanese term has
it), who greets me with extravagant delight every time we meet, her long hennaed hair flying as she wrestles
with two toddlers, a stroller and the exigencies of her leopard-skin attire.
Occasionally, Jehovah's Witnesses appear at my door with copies of The Watchtower in Japanese and, rallying at
the sight of me, pass over a page on which their prayers are printed in fifty languages. Occasionally,
telemarketers call up to plug some international phone service, but they are quickly scared off by my
indecipherable answers. The world is here if one wants to follow it, even in this historically most closed of
cultures: my local English-language paper carries even the scores of the Albanian and Luxembourg soccer leagues,
and the monthly English-language magazine has notices for the Baha'i communities of Osaka/Kobe, the Synagogue
Ohel Shelomoh, even the Norwegian Seamen's Church, near its ads for "culture friendships" and "marriage-minded
But what the people in my small apartment block enforce every day is that, increasingly nowadays, a sense of
home or neighborhood can emerge only from within; I have never talked to the Baptist minister or to the rock 'n'
roll mother, but for both of them, in opposite ways, I am a symbol of a world they cannot touch. And I, in
reverse, can't begin to sustain the illusion that I know very much about them (as I might do "at home"). The
Global Age reminds us of how little we really know about the people we pass on the stairs every day; identity
will have to be deepened without much help from outside.
Every few weeks in Nara, in order to pay the bills, I take a bus down the street to a bank with stained-glass
windows where the cashier, as she changes my dollar traveler's checks into yen, hands me a Nara Bank toothbrush,
to ease the silence, or, as often as not, two packages of Kleenex. One woman, on the Foreign Exchange Door,
greets me every time I visit with a rapturous "Pico-san, long time no see!" and congratulates me on going back
to California to see my mother, or, on not doing so, protecting my family here. When she is absent, her place
is taken by a grimacing superior who glowers at me with obvious distaste, and pages through my passport in the
hope of finding an irregularity.
Afterwards, I generally stop in at the library, my only real source of English-language news, and then at
the Tsutaya Culture Convenience Club, where, when I rent, say, Chungking Express (in Cantonese, with Japanese
subtitles), I am offered a choice between a small box of Kellogg's Genmai Flakes and a 289-page book listing
all the store's animated videos. Though not enormous, the Culture Club has special sections for every actor
you can think of (and many whom you can't), right down -- or up -- to Charlotte Gainsburg, Vanessa Paradis and
Moira Kelly; and brings home to me that even the things I know get translated into something other here (as
Jerry Maguire becomes The Agent, and Up Close and Personal, Anchor Woman). When I watched Forrest Gump's rise
to fame on video in Japan, I was surprised to see the hero, during the turmoil of the sixties, attending UCLA
(as the Japanese translate Berkeley), though that is probably no stranger than the local baseball broadcasts,
with their talk of "dead balls," "timely errors," and "sayonara home runs," and their habit, when the tying
run's on third, with two outs in the ninth, of breaking for an ad for sanitary napkins or switching to the
next show because the time is up.
In short, the very notion of what is here and there -- what is familiar, what is strange -- has to be
reconfigured in the modern world. In Japan, it is the apparently familiar things -- the Western things (played
out here, as it were, in katakana script) -- that are most strange to me, as I have found it to be the tempura
palaces or the Buddhas by the hot tub that are most curious, often, for Japanese visiting America. Speaking a
foreign language one has scarcely learned is easier, perhaps, than trying to negotiate a tongue in which all
the letters are the same, but ineffably scrambled, so that home appears as oh me, and life comes out as
And once a year, on the night of the harvest moon, I make a trip to the center of Nara, the imperial
Buddhist capital of thirteen hundred years ago, and see costumed dancers in wooden boats ceremoniously floating
around a pond into which a heartbroken empress once threw herself. A four-story pagoda is reflected in the
water, and men in grass skirts brandish burning torches against the dark. Every now and then, the nighttime is
pierced by the long, plangent wails of a bamboo flute.
The courtesans in their boats look out at us like wraiths, faces ghostly white and kimonos the color of
blood against their crow black braids. The wind sends red lanterns fleeting against the trees. Old women,
hunched over, carry luminous globes up hills like shadows from a Hiroshige print, and schoolgirls at the stands
nearby giggle over Marilyn Monroe telephone cards and hand puppets in the shape of Buddha.
Somehow, at this ceremony for tourists (many of them Japanese, who are tourists in their own history), I see
something I recognize.
Perhaps the way in which my neighborhood most solidly uplifts and steadies me is by virtue of its tonic
blend of cheerfulness and realism, measured (as I see it) with the wisdom of a culture that's been around long
enough to know how to mete out its emotions. To many I know from the New World, the Japanese response to every
setback, from terrorists to burning houses to long hours, crowded trains, and sudden deaths -- Shikataganai, or
"It can't be helped" -- sounds fatalistic, and too ready to surrender power to the heavens. But to me, coming
from a California where it sometimes seems as if everyone is restlessly in search of perfection in his life,
his job, his partner, and himself, it feels bracing to hear of limits that imply a sense of past as well as
future. A republic founded on the "pursuit of happiness" seems a culture destined for disappointment, if only
because it's pursuing something that, by definition, doesn't come from being sought; a culture founded, however
inadvertently or subconsciously, on the First Noble Truth of Buddhism -- the reality of suffering -- seems
better placed to deal with sorrow, and be pleasantly surprised by joy. In a world that's overheating with the
drug of choice and seeming freedom, Japan, for all its consumerist madness, suggests, in its deeper self, a
postglobal order that knows what things can really be perfected (streets, habits, surfaces) and what
In practical terms, this very serenity -- some would say complacency -- is perhaps what gives an air of
pink-sweater innocence to protected neighborhoods such as mine. I do not believe the Japanese are more innocent
than anyone else, but they are, perhaps, more concerned with keeping up appearances, especially of innocence,
and whole communities are urged to play their part in this display of public sweetness (it is certainly the
only culture I know where women, to look seductive, don't narrow their eyes, but widen them). Much of this can
be converted in translation into what is regarded as hypocrisy, but it can also suggest a prudent drawing of
boundaries in a world where they are in flux, and a sense of which illusions can be serviceably maintained, and
which cannot (as the ad outside my building ambiguously promises: HONEST COSMETICS TO MAKE YOU FOREVER YOUTHFUL
The society urges its members to conceive of a purpose and an identity higher than themselves (people give
you their business cards when you meet them here, but not their resumes or dogmas). And even punky nose-ring
boys and scruffy Indians are implicitly urged to tend to responsibilities beyond their mortal bodies. I find
myself picking up stray pieces of trash as I walk down the street (almost as reflexively as I find myself, now,
bowing to a public telephone as I put it back in its cradle on my return to California); getting up from my
seat in the bank, I stop to brush it clean as I would never do "at home."
The homes we choose, in short, deserve a tolerance we might not extend to the homes we inherit, and in a
world where we have to work hard to gain a sense of home, we have to exert ourselves just as much to sustain a
sense of Other. I choose, therefore, to live some distance from the eastern hills of Kyoto, which move me like
memories of a life I didn't know I had. To visit the city of temples from here involves a ninety-minute
pilgrimage by bus and train, and second train, and then another train, so that every trip has an air of
ceremony and anticipation. Thus Kyoto is unclouded for me by the routines of paying bills and cleaning clothes.
And coming to it from a suburb of white Ascots and Clever coffee shops, I still catch my breath when I see the
lanterns in the autumn temples, leading up into the bamboo forests, as into another life, or hear the temple
bells ringing along the Philosopher's Path at dusk.
Once every six months or so, I take my girlfriend back to her hometown (her Oxford, in a sense), and for six
hours we rent a car and drive deep into the countryside. The very novelty of motion, in a space of our own,
with a tape deck of our own, is itself a small enchantment, and Kyoto swings open, often, like a heavy gate
admitting us to a deeper, ancestral quiet.
One cold winter night, we went there to celebrate a ninth anniversary of sorts and, awakening in the dark,
saw the year's first snow coming down to cover the old spires and the few wooden buildings remaining in the
center of town. Going out into the freshened chill, still hushed and smoky in the early morning, we rented a
car and drove it up into the northeast, traditional area of demons and therefore monasteries, towards Mount
As we left the town behind and began climbing the narrow, winding roads of the old mountain, we found
ourselves in a festival of silver, the first car admitted up the mountain since the snowfall, and the only car
in sight in a world of silence and whiteness for as far as we could see.
Everything was newly minted, virginal in the fresh snow, and the pines were still coated with a sugar lining
against a sky now wide-awake and blue. We drove up and up, into a wonderland of sorts, with nothing around but
green trees and -- white, chunks of snow falling from their branches, and everywhere a newborn hush.
The large parking lots with their vending machines stood empty; the occasional tall red torii gates were
fringed with white.
We moved along the road in a suspended state of wonder, through a soundless trail that cut high into the
dark mountain. Stopping at last, we got out in a silent landscape of huge trees and silver everywhere. The sky
was blue and the day was windless. There was no sound anywhere, nothing but dark trees, white lacing, stone
Buddhas fringed with snow. A steep slope led up to a temple, hidden away in a grove like a secret pendant
against a heart. Huge clumps of white kept falling and there was nothing else to be heard.
Outside Shyaka-do, we sat on a wooden platform while a gong sounded within and a man prepared the day's
austerities in front of a large Buddha. My stockinged feet were cold on the wooden steps, and as far as I could
see, across the valley, there were just ranks of pines, in whitened rows, extending towards the cloudless sky.
Then, briefly, four young monks in blue work clothes, tramping into the forest, headbands white against their
shaven scalps. And the silence and the whiteness and the calm.
We sat for a while in the secret sanctuary, quiet on this quiet day. Then we drove back into the high rises
and belching trucks and maddened pachinko parlors of the ancient capital.
A large part of the liberation of being here comes, I think, from the enforced simplicities that accompany a
very foreign life. Living far from anywhere, without a bicycle or private car, I conduct my days, nearly
always, within the boundaries of my feet; living without newspapers or magazines -- and a television most of
whose words are modern Greek to me -- I can be free, a little, of the moment and get such news as I need from
the falling of the leaves, or the Emerson essays on my shelf. Living in a small room, moreover, prompts me to
be sparing, and to live only with the books and tapes that speak to me in ways I can respect. And not knowing
much of the local tongue frees me from gossip and chatter and eavesdropping, leaving me in a more exacting
This can, of course, be an evasion more than a transcendence, and in any case, I cannot hold very much to
these austerities: I fly back to California every now and then to pay my bills, and sometimes I can't resist
turning on the computer to see how the Lakers are doing. I cannot refuse technology too aggressively when it is
technology that allows me to communicate with bosses half a world away, and to get on a plane when I need to
see a dentist. Yet being in so alien an environment is the first step towards living more slowly, and trying to
clear some space, away from a world ever more revved up. In our global urban context, it's an equivalent to
living in the wilderness.
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About the writer
Salon Travel Contributing Editor Pico Iyer is the author of "Video Night in Kathmandu," "The Lady and the
Monk," "Cuba and the Night," "Falling off the Map" and "Tropical Classical."
©Copyright 2002, Salon Travel
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