Experience Timeless Japan

Respect for the country’s oldest traditions keeps the past front and center in Japan.

Words by Pico Iyer
Photographs by Kaori Nishida

Selfies at the Yasaka Koshindo temple in Kyoto

THE FIRST TIME I set foot in Japan was on an unwanted 20-hour layover at Narita airport, near Tokyo. I was returning from Hong Kong to my office in midtown Manhattan, and the last thing I wanted was an overnight stay in an airport town. But — to pass the time while I waited — I took a free shuttle bus into the town of Narita and soon found myself in a deserted pilgrims’ area of wooden houses under bright blue skies, with the first pinch of autumn in the air. Following a riddle of tiny streets, I came to a thousand-plus-year-old temple, swathed in incense, with a parklike garden at one side. By the time I boarded my plane after my single night in the country, I’d felt such a haunting sense of ­familiarity — I knew this place, somehow, better than I knew my hometown — that I’d started to plan my exit from my glamorous-seeming job.

Pre-dinner prep in the Higashiyama area

Less than a year later, I found myself in Kyoto for three days, on my way to India. I stepped out of the bullet train and began walking along narrow, lanterned lanes in the summer heat. I could hear feet shuffling across tatami mats, catch the outline of figures behind paper screens. Drawing closer to the geisha quarter, I saw teams of young women, in white socks and seasonal kimono, flowing up a wide white-gravel pathway to what turned out to be a “city of tomorrow,” as cemeteries are called in Japan. Up above, 20,000 candles were flickering, one next to every gravestone, overlooking the streaking cars and dizzying lights of the city’s main drag. I’d entered a planet I’d never even dreamed of before.

Mitsurugisha, the site of a former shrine on the holy mountain of Inari

I didn’t realize then that I’d arrived during the three-day mid-August festival when everyone returns to her ancestral home, because her departed parents and grandparents are said to do so, too. The candles were there to guide the spirits back to houses they’d once inhabited. People were carving horses out of cucumbers, to help their ancestors return faster, and oxen out of eggplant, so they’d go back to their home in the heavens more slowly. On the last day of the Obon festival, I watched five great bonfires lit along the northern and eastern hills of the eighth-century capital, one representing a boat to carry the ghosts back, one a gateway to a shrine. By now, I’ve lived around Kyoto for 31 years and cannot imagine returning to the world I knew.

In those days, it was the spare architecture of Japan, the spotlessness of the streets, the cheerful cries of “Welcome!” from every worker as I stepped into a KFC that pierced me. The hush in even the most crowded railway carriages, the care a young woman took in wrapping my 80-cent éclair in a bag and then a box, with a bow, and ice attached so it wouldn’t melt before I got home. I’d never seen a place where gardens had few flowers, but restaurants had many, and where shrines had no visible gods, but Buddhist priests had highly visible wives (temples are a family business in Japan, more akin to country vicarages than to monasteries). Here were the only Starbucks outlets I’d found where a bowl accompanied every order of tea, for used tea bags.

Left: A local in his traditional house. Right: Neighbors greeting each other in the Higashiyama area of Kyoto.

For those coming to Japan on business, or with an agenda, the distance it maintains from the rest of Planet Earth can be an aggravation, I know. The first European ever to write a ­serious book about Japan, a Portuguese missionary called Luis Frois, noted how “everything is reversed” in this looking-glass world. He listed 611 ways in which Japan is the mirror opposite of Europe, and his book was translated with the title Topsy-Turvy. To this day I have to dial 119 for emergencies, and until recently, there were two-and-three counts at the baseball stadium, because balls and strikes were reversed. The seats on planes are marked as K-J-H or C-B-A, and elevators ascend from the B1 floor to the B2 floor. Restaurants advertise their prices as ¥7000–3000 and their hours as 17:00–25:00 (or what we would call 1 a.m.); at Kyoto Station, for no reason I can fathom, there’s a Platform 0 next to Platforms 31 and 32.

For centuries, Japan has chosen to define itself as different from everywhere else. But for one who lives there, this makes it a constant fascination, and there’s a comfort to knowing that the deep and the ancient are always at my door, whether in the roasted soybeans my wife and I throw out every February 3, joining our neighbors in shouting “Devils, stay out! Happiness, stay in!” to welcome in the spring, or in the pot of purifying salt that we keep outside our front door to protect us.

Outside Fushimi Inari Taisha, a shrine that dates back to A.D. 711

Down the road, in Kyoto, locals conduct religious ceremonies to thank used sewing needles for their selfless service, and if you step into McDonald’s in mid-September, you’ll find Moon-Viewing Burgers (with a round fried egg atop the patties of beef) to honor the ancestral festival of the harvest full moon. When a train is taken out of service, citizens pour into the station to wave to the departing vehicle and present it with flowers.

Sometimes, on dazzling early-­autumn days at the beginning of November, I’ll take a train to a cable-car and ascend to the top of Koyasan, a mountain that has at its summit nothing but 117 temples and more than 200,000 graves. Like every visitor, I sleep on the tatami floor, watch a fire ceremony at dawn, enjoy a sumptuous monk’s vegetarian breakfast, and then walk through a grove of 800-year-old cedars to where food is ceremonially carried, twice a day, to the monk who founded the temple complex, Kobo ­Daishi, who “passed into deepest meditation” in the year 835.

Left: Dining at yatai (street stalls) in Kyoto. Right: Kids playing in a park near the Gojo Ohashi Bridge.

Such millennia-old traditions still lie at the heart of Japan, inches below its famous shopping arcades, robots, and beloved vending machines. I often remember how Rudyard Kipling, disembarking in Nagasaki more than a century ago, was greeted by a customs officer “with a plated chrysanthemum in his forage cap and badly fitting German uniform on his limbs” and was tempted to weep. The man (like his country) seemed “a hybrid — partly French, partly German and partly American.” Yet as he stayed longer, Kipling could not help surrendering to the enchantment of the land and “admiring the bloom on the people’s cheeks, the three-cornered smiles of the fat babes and the surpassing ‘otherness’ of everything.” It’s only the surfaces in Japan, he came to see, that are hybrid.

Often, near Kyoto, I’ll look at the ­Japanese wife I’ve known for more than 30 years and recall that her sweetness, her passions, her longings are universal. But the way she slips salt into my pocket when I’m going somewhere dangerous, sets fresh food out every day for her long-dead father (before going off to sell punk clothes), and finds a different kind of flower for every friend who visits?

That I’ve found only in Japan.

About the author: Pico Iyer is the author of a dozen books, including The Lady and the Monk, about his first year in Kyoto. Next year, he’ll release two more books on his adopted home, Autumn Light and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan