Five Questions for… Pico Iyer

As one of the most distinguished voices of our time, Pico Iyer is a scholar and author who has dedicated his life to the study and exploration of modern travel in a globalized world. Through his work, Iyer has thoughtfully examined everything from the effects of jetlag and shopping malls to Buddism in Kyoto and Castro-era Cuba. The Oxford, England–born former professor calls Japan home, having fallen in love and moving to the country in the early 1990’s. Indagare spoke with Iyer about his ongoing travels and his relationship with Japan—along with its captivating, beguiling and ever-changing spirit.

Related: Tokyo and Kyoto Destination Reports.

How do you experience “the art of stillness” in your inner life? Is this practice more difficult while traveling versus when you are at home (as much as you ever feel at home)? I’ll confess that I’m the rare, impossible soul who has never practiced meditation or yoga or tai chi. But I do find that I can only make sense of all the experiences I have on the road (or at home) by sitting still. It’s very hard to be truly moved, I find, unless you’re sitting still.

One of the graces of a writer’s job is that you’re paid—or at least encouraged—to sit still for hours every day, just to process all you’ve been through, to put it within a frame and to try to see beyond all your projections and illusions.

So writing is an enchanted chamber of stillness I enter every morning. I also try to turn off the TV when I’m on the treadmill, turn off the radio (which I love) now and again when I’m driving, turn off the lights when I’m waiting for my wife to come home from her job: all simple, everyday ways in which I can bring some peace and clarity to my life even when I’m running around.

And when I travel, I will sometimes seek out places, from Iceland to Tibet, that are sure to offer me silence, contemplative quiet and the sound of the wind whistling in my ears (other times, of course, I will seek out Beirut or Bangkok or Havana, places that couldn’t be less contemplative).

I don’t find it hard to find stillness on the road; indeed, it’s often easier, I think, to come upon concentration and undivided attention when one’s away from the distractions of home. Few places these days are as liberating as an airline, even when you’re squeezed into row 26. Food and entertainment are brought to you in the comfort of your seat, there’s nowhere else you can be for four (or fourteen) hours than row 26 and it’s not hard to pretend that Wi-FI is not available.

Suddenly you have time to read. To close your eyes. To let your mind wander like a dog off the leash on a beach. Or just to look out on a scene that no human had witnessed when I was born.

Travel is a great way to do what is so hard to do the rest of the time, which is nothing at all. The bus is five hours late. The train trip last 37 hours. It’s dark in the airplane cabin and everyone else is asleep.

How often can we enjoy such luxuries when we’re caught up in the clamor of the everyday, rushing from conference-call to Face Time to text message to e-mail?

Related: Kyoto Recommended Reading

Your world has been described as “one where the foreign and the familiar always coexist in unexpected ways.” How do you find this to be true in your time in Japan?

Part of the beauty of Japan is that it’s often the most apparently familiar things that are most strange there: they have 2-and-3 counts at the baseball stadium and are serving cherry blossom frappuccinos at Starbucks. Go to my local McDonald’s and you’ll see Moon-Viewing Burgers on the menu in late September, in honor of the classic East Asian festival of the harvest moon.

So, on the surface, Japan is a wonderworld of curiosities, whether they’re ostensibly made in America or are distinctly Japanese. Yet deeper than all that, in its light, in its silences, in the way it uses space, it couldn’t feel more familiar to me. Even on my first visit, I felt I knew the place as I have never known the city where I grew up or the house where I have been keeping my things for almost half a century.

Travel for me is mostly about waking up, and looking at the things one otherwise takes for granted. And it’s about deepening and sometimes overturning the too simple ideas of “self” and “other,” of “foreign and familiar,” that we sometimes maintain when we’re at home. It reminds us of how much we don’t know and will never know.

Japan is an ideal home for me, in that sense, because I’ll never get to the bottom of it, and I can’t begin to bring my linear ideas and preconceptions to its merry, promiscuous sprawl. My local 7-Eleven is the safe sanctuary one runs into in the event of an assault—so different from the Californian 7-Eleven, which may more likely be the site of that assault. My favorite Indian restaurant in Kyoto serves food of a delicacy, lightness and understatement it might be hard to find in India. And so much in Japan reminds me of the England where I grew up—but rendered gloriously, and permanently, indecipherable. And therefore exotic, unreadable and foreign.

This special blend of familiarity and foreignness is what we all seek out, I think, in a partner, a lifestyle and a destination.

What do you miss about Japan when you are traveling or living elsewhere? I miss the turning of the seasons, so acutely observed there—almost as if it were the national religion—that even someone like me, who can barely tell an orchid from a rose, grows attentive to it, and begins to recognize late September from the smell of a citrusy flower close to daphne, and learns to tell the time just by the angle at which the golden light slices through the frosted-glass window into our room in November.

I miss the sense of quiet energy there—everyone going somewhere, doing something, at every moment, but generally silently, and taking great care not to intrude on everyone else.

I miss the zaniness of the surfaces, the kindness and humbling thoughtfulness I meet at every turn, the convenience-stores, the baseball games, the way private passion lives in direct proportion to public impassiveness in Japan.

I find I miss even the sweet tinkle of Japanese conversation so much that, if I hear two Japanese tourists in the California street, I’ll follow them for blocks to try to catch the sound of home.

Where haven’t you been that you’d like to explore? The world in my experience is inexhaustible, and as soon as one wonderful country becomes hard to visit (as Syria has done in recent years), another one (Iran, say) becomes much easier to see. So I never run out of places I’d love to visit—even in my parents’ India I’ve never been to Goa or Kerala or Pondicherry or many of the places that most tourists know well—and I’ll never get to the end of the list of cities I’ve never seen (from Dublin to Glasgow to Moscow to Prague).

At the same time, I’ve reached the age at which I often prefer to meet old friends rather than to cast around for new ones, because we instantly pick up a conversation at a much deeper, more intimate level. I keep rereading D.H. Lawrence and Proust and Emily Dickinson instead of trying to follow the latest Pulitzer Prize-winner. And, in the same spirit, I long to keep returning to some of my favorite countries—Iran and Cuba and Vietnam and Burma, say—rather than just checking new names off a list.

What would you consider your most transformative travel moment? Late in October 1983 I was heading back to New York City after my first trip to Southeast Asia. I’d just enjoyed the most radiant four weeks traveling through Thailand and Burma and Hong Kong and Macao, and each stop, each day had blown my sense of the world and its possibilities wide open.

Flying back to JFK, I had to spend a night at Narita Airport, near Tokyo, before catching my final flight home to New York the next afternoon. When I woke up after my sleep in an airport hotel, I had not a clue how I would kill the four hours before check-in.

So I decided to take a free shuttle bus into the town of Narita, to look around, even though I knew (from spending so much of my life in Queens and Inglewood and Hounslow) that airport towns are generally the opposite of transporting.

I couldn’t exactly tell you why, but just a single morning walking around the small wooden houses of what turns out to be a great pilgrimage town, catching the first change of colors through the windows of tatami-mat restaurants, wandering up to the giant Buddhist temple at the center of Narita, watching kindergarteners collect acorns under a mild late-October sun, with the first pinch and sting of autumn in the air, went through me with such a sense of recognition that I felt I had come home at last.

By the time I boarded my flight in early afternoon, I’d decided to move to Japan—on the basis of that single morning—and, though it took me three years to execute the move, I’ve now been there more than 28 years.

An airport town—and an unwanted layover—changed my life!

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