The 'world's greatest living travel writer' has spent 32 years in Japan. Here's what he's observed.

Pico Iyer headshotPico Iyer.Brigitte Lacombe

  • Pico Iyer is the author of eight works of nonfiction and two novels. The following is an excerpt from his book, "A Beginner's Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations."

There are eleven arrows on the sign above you, as you disembark in Kyoto Station. They point left, right, straight ahead and backwards. In the middle is a question mark.

Beginner's Guide coverA Beginner's Guide To Japan.Courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf

Platform 0 is close to Platforms 31 and 32, and a large "Restaurant Guide" board informs you that there are one hundred and seven dining options around the station alone. There are also 22 hotels in the immediate vicinity, just one of which offers 15 banquet halls, 516 rooms, a halal menu, a clinic, a photo salon and a church.

So much is available, almost nothing can be found. You're in a living web site of sorts - boxes and links popping up on every side, leading to art gallery and "Happy Terrace," to six-story post office and 13-floor department store - but nobody's given you the password.

{{}}

View As: One Page Slides

The enigmas of arrival

The enigmas of arrival

There are snatches of English, French, German everywhere, but serving almost as decoration—like colors or sounds — and surrounded by characters in three non-overlapping alphabets. The net effect is of 101 people speaking a 1,0002 languages, none of which they understand.

There are no addresses, it's said, in Japan — or, worse, there are collections of numbers, but sometimes they refer to the chronology of construction, sometimes to something else. When my daughter, my wife, and I write down the address of the flat we've all shared, each one of us inscribes a completely different street name.

'A castle town needs to confound invaders.'

'A castle town needs to confound invaders.'

Before the West arrived, there were twice as many T-junctions and dead ends in Tokyo as there were thoroughfares. A castle town needs to confound invaders. After World War II, the city was reconstructed along the pathways that had come up around the rubble of bombed buildings, rendering the terrain even more impenetrable.

On the train into Kyoto, I point out to my Japanese wife a sweet ad full of teddy bears, one sporting a badge, another next to a bright-red ambulance.

"Yes," she says. "It says that if you see a child who's been beaten, please call that number. If you do not, the child may die!"

"And that picture of the cute fox and bear exchanging whispers?"

"A lawyer," says Hiroko. "If you have some kind of accident, he can help."

Dressing the part

Dressing the part

After a rabbit appeared in Japan in 1873, the craze for the creatures grew so intense that a single animal fetched the equivalent of $20,000.

After a woman threw herself off the roof of a Tokyo apartment complex in 1970, roughly 150 others threw themselves off the same roof.

I board the train on a Saturday morning, and face a gaggle of schoolkids in uniform, lines of
businessmen with badges on their lapels, squadrons of young women in dark suits. The next day I board the same train, to be greeted by a young guy in sockless canvas shoes and his date clomping along in high-fashion snowshoes (in a place where snow is all but unknown). Everyone's taken on a part, but in the off-hours, even partners may find they're acting in different plays.

'I sought out the man said to have invented karaoke ... '

'I sought out the man said to have invented karaoke ... '

Thus, Japanese couples on honeymoon traditionally plan matching outfits for every hour of their trip. Even girls on a Sunday shopping spree often sport the same hairstyles, false eyelashes, and white boots. Fashion becomes less about standing out than fitting in, at least within the micro-group of which you are a part.

For a foreigner, therefore, clothes don't make the man here; they simply mark the role. But roles shift at the speed of light in Japan, as people adopt a radically different voice (even a different word for "I") for colleague and secretary and boss. If it's treacherous to judge a book by its cover, how much more so if it's a foreign book and has a dozen covers to go with every audience.

In 1999, I sought out the man said to have invented karaoke, to tell him that my editors at Time had chosen him as one of the "100 Asians of the Century." He handed me in response a business card advertising his services as a dog trainer.

Excerpted from A BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO JAPAN by Pico Iyer. Copyright © 2019 by Pico Iyer. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Add Comment()
Comments ()
X
Sort By:
Be the first one to comment.
We have sent you a verification email. This comment will be published once verification is done.