WHAT: A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO JAPAN:
Observations and Provocations
WHEN: Published by Knopf September 5, 2019
WHERE: The author divides his time between Nara, Japan, and the United States.
WHY: “Candid and wholly absorbing.
“Although celebrated travel writer Pico Iyer has lived in Japan for over three decades, he admits, ‘I know far less about it than when I arrived.’ In hundreds of vignettes and several longer essays, Iyer pinpoints many ways his adopted home baffles Westerners, even as it both embraces Western culture and influences it with such phenomena as anime and Zen philosophy. He even ponders the similarities between Oscar Wilde’s wit and Japanese aphorisms.
“Stitching together observations, statistics, and personal encounters with meditative precision, Iyer depicts a paradoxical culture that finds communion in silence, passion in solitude, and animation in lifeless objects. People act out their fantasies in love-hotels; businesses endear themselves to the public with cartoon mascots, and deceased family members are spoken to as though they’re still alive. The longer narratives recount Iyer’s often humorous attempts to integrate into Japanese life. A call to his local Apple store turns into a days-long misadventure illustrating the painstaking nature of service in Japan. Elsewhere, he explores Naoshima, an island famous for its immersive art museums, and reflects on the blurred line between art and nature.
“Iyer’s inventive guidebook is more than a collection of cultural curiosities — it’s a tribute to a nation that prizes social consciousness and sees life in temporality.”
—Jonathan Fullmer, in a starred review for BOOKLIST
“Marvelously nuanced reflections on a nation ‘in constant motion.’”
“A lovely pocket compendium of oddities and insights of Japanese life.
Provocative and elegant, Iyer’s guide succeeds precisely because it doesn’t attempt to be authoritative.” —PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, a starred review
. . . . .
FROM THE BEGINNING OF THE BOOK:
I’ve been living in western Japan for more than thirty-two years, and, to my delight, I know far less than when I arrived. A land of streamlined surfaces gives
you very much what you expect — and so much you didn’t expect, under the surface, that you don’t know what to do with it. The home of collected inwardness has also shown me daily how much, as Proust observed, “a change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world, and ourselves.”
I’ve never studied Japan or worked here, and I stay in Nara on a tourist visa to remind myself how out-of-it I remain. I speak the language as a two-year-old girl might, since such Japanese as I know I’ve picked up from my wife, and in Japan even the word for “I” is different for a woman and a man. But I’ve been with my Kyoto-born wife — and our entirely Japanese kids — for more than thirty-two years now, most of them in an anonymous suburb where no other foreigners are to be seen. I seldom speak English in Japan, and in any case Japan has taught me how deeply the truest things lie beyond the reach of any language.