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A Beginner's Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations

A Beginner's Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations

by Pico Iyer

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“Arguably the greatest living travel writer” (Outside magazine), Pico Iyer has called Japan home for more than three decades. But, as he is the first to admit, the country remains an enigma even to its long-term residents. In A Beginner’s Guide to Japan, Iyer draws on his years of experience—his travels, conversations, readings, and reflections—to craft a playful and profound book of surprising, brief, incisive glimpses into Japanese culture. He recounts his adventures and observations as he travels from a meditation hall to a love hotel, from West Point to Kyoto Station, and from dinner with Meryl Streep to an ill-fated call to the Apple service center in a series of provocations guaranteed to
pique the interest and curiosity of those who don’t know Japan—and to remind those who do of its myriad fascinations.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451493965
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/03/2019
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 519,279
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Pico Iyer is the author of fifteen books, translated into twenty-three languages, and has been a constant contributor for more than thirty years to Time, The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and more than 250 other periodicals worldwide. His four recent talks for TED have received more than ten million views.



Place of Birth:

Oxford, England, UK

Read an Excerpt

The Enigmas of Arrival

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.

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 twenty-­two hotels in the immediate vicinity, just one of which offers fifteen banquet halls, five hundred and sixteen 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 five-­story post office and thirteen-­floor department store—­but nobody’s given you the password.

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 a hundred and one people speaking a thousand and two 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.

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

I board the train on Saturday, and face a gaggle of schoolkids in uniform, lines of businessmen with badges on their lapels and 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 almost unknown). Everyone’s taken on a part, but in the off-hours, even close friends may be acting in different plays.

Hence couples on honeymoon in Japan traditionally wear matching outfits 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.

After a rabbit appeared in Japan in 1873, the craze for the creatures grew so intense that a single animal fetched the equivalent of twenty thousand dollars. After a woman threw herself off the roof of a Tokyo apartment complex in 1970, roughly one hundred and fifty others threw themselves off the same roof.

For a foreigner, this means that 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.

That mild-­mannered matron with her hands in her lap, dressed as for church, is, my wife explains to me, a wild thing, ready to do anything with anyone. And that rail-­thin twenty-­three-­year-­old model in fishnet stockings, perfectly made up, turns out, her startled Californian boyfriend tells me, never to have had a boyfriend before.

Whenever we’re abroad, I have to spend hours persuading my wife to dress down, since dressing up will make everybody around us feel underdressed. For her, putting on a designer outfit to go to the ATM is as much a sign of courtesy as wearing black to a funeral or speaking in complete sentences.

Two out of every five Japanese men pluck their eyebrows—­and the first geisha, in the thirteenth century, were men. “It is best that you carry powdered rouge in your sleeve pocket,” an eighteenth-­century manual for samurai advises. “We sometimes are of bad color when sobering up, lying down or rising.”

My wife said she’d never seen a real man in Japan, an American friend who grew up in Tokyo tells me—until she met a Kabuki actor who specialized in taking the part of women.

Table of Contents

Several Grains of Salt 3

On the Streets

The Enigmas of Arrival 7

Dressing the Part 9

Empire of Smiles 13

The Perfect Actress 19

Making Oneself Up 23

Parts and the Whole 27

Out of Time 31

At the Counter

No Bed for the Night 39

In Your Dreams 43

The Advanced Guide to Japan 47

The 2.5-Dimensional Character 51

Between the Torii Gates 57

At Your Disposal 59

East Point 65

Looking for a "Yes" 69

The Apple in the Garden 73

In the Temple

The Empty Room 83

On the Mat 87

Words 91

No Words 95

What Will You Miss? 101

Crowds 103

In the Garden 107

Freedom from Choice 111

Being Responsible 115

The Bridge of Hesitation 121

Topsy-Turvy 125

Behind Closed Doors

What Lies Within 131

The Fairer Sex 135

The Family Writ Large 141

The Other Side of Sorrow 147

Out the Window

The Faraway Island 153

A Walk in the Park 159

Learning to Be Foreign 163

Just Like Us 167

Playing Ball 171

On the Horizon

Spirits from the Past 179

Plus Ça Change? 183

The End, a New Beginning 189

A Letter from a Friend 193

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