A very foreign life

In Nara, Japan, a universe of connections and contradictions unfolds daily.

Published February 22, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

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

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

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 doors.

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 Canadians."

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

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 file.

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 cannot.

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 AND BEAUTIFUL).

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 Hiei.

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 silence.

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.

By Pico Iyer

Salon Travel Contributing Editor Pico Iyer is the author of "Video Night in Kathmandu," "The Lady and the Monk," "Falling off the Map," "Cuba and the Night" and "Tropical Classical."


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