Photo: Timo Volz

Never the Same River Twice

IT’S A BRILLIANT MORNING IN LATE NOVEMBER, the radiant season in Japan, when the skies are cloudless, knife-sharp, even as we feel the coming dark. A perfect day for a temple garden, with explosions of reddening maple leaves outlined against the blue. But I’m walking through a suburb of the eighth-century capital of Nara built to resemble a residential quarter near Los Angeles. Nearly all the houses are Western style, arranged in a grid, with silver Priuses and late-model Benzes beside them, in trim garages. The streets are all straight—and spotless—and so little movement is ever expected that there are no sidewalks, and I can stroll along the middle of the road as if on a film set.

Every last detail in Shikanodai (or “Deer’s Slope,” as it would be in English) could not look less like the Japan I dreamed of when I left my comfortable job in Manhattan at twenty-nine to explore the quiet intensities of a Buddhist temple on the backstreets of Kyoto. There is not a single shrine or meditation hall in the area, and nothing much older than my Japanese stepson or stepdaughter. There are no lantern-lit alleyways, no women in kimonos, no blond-wood sushi bars, or high-tech emporia. The two main drags are actually called “School Dori” and “Park Dori,” using the English words, as if to convince my mostly elderly, affluent neighbors that they’ve retired in Disney America.

But I cherish my morning walk—not least because we have no car or bicycle or media here—and after more than a quarter century of taking the same walk every day, I can do it in my sleep. I amble past the single line of shops—bakery, photo salon, four beauty parlors—and across the park, where the ginkgoes and maples dazzle in scarlet and gold. Past the house whose plum blossoms, pink or white, show above its wall in February, and along the silent street where I’ll smell the citrusy perfume of gold Osmanthus in early October. Past the home with the basketball net outside its entrance, the cartoon board in the minipark reminding us to pick up after our mutts, past the house where the dog used to bare his teeth and growl at me every morning, unsettled by my butter-reeking foreigner scent.

 

The destination is never the thing.

 

Before I arrived in Japan, I was intoxicated by its tradition of wandering poets. They weren’t roaming around lakes and hills like Wordsworth, but proceeding along a rough, pointed path, in the way of Matsuo Basho. His most famous work—Narrow Road to the Interior—could suggest both the remote areas of northern Japan through which he was walking, and the inner terrain that the act of walking would awaken. Monks in the Zen tradition are called unsui—“drifting like clouds, flowing like water”—to enforce the sense that they follow Buddha on his daily path, sometimes quite literally as they walk around each morning with begging bowls, collecting food.

The destination is never the thing; some temples in Kyoto, twenty miles away, greet me at the entrance with Japanese characters on the ground that mean, “Look beneath your feet.” Everything you need is here, in other words, if only you’re wide-awake enough to see it. A few hours away by car, groups of aged Japanese dressed in white are walking among the eighty-eight temples of the Shikoku pilgrimage, and then up to the climax at the great temple-filled mountain of Koyasan, pledging to complete the circuit before they die. I still often see men swathed in animal skins—yamabushi, or mountain ascetics—carrying conch-shell trumpets and muttering chants before a temple in central Nara, on a walk that will continue until their final step.

But when I read Basho as a boy, I imagined a narrow path between mountain sanctuaries; heavy snow slowing the pace to a trudge; perhaps a boat moored on a lake, and plovers flying overhead as the skies darkened.

What I didn’t see in my romantic dreams was a network of look-alike modern houses arranged in a grid with BMWs parked outside them, and front doors only a few feet from the street. I never imagined I’d be living in a two-room closet in a yellow apartment block that had been named “Memphis,” in honor of the birthplace of the local god Elvis. Pilgrimage, when I was a boy, suggested something ancient, sacred, bucolic; never a wander past a line of concrete suburban homes where the only houses that are traditionally Japanese—with gray-tiled roofs and wooden gates and bonsai plants behind thick walls—are the ones belonging to professional gangsters, which everyone takes pains to walk past swiftly.

 

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After around eleven minutes I pass the little building where men are stacking newspapers, next to yet another set of vending machines, and the house whose dog—now confined to his kennel—can barely manage a rumble of alarm as he smells me walking past. In front of me is a flight of steps between thick trees, almost hidden, leading down into another world.

For years I used to take this walk as a break after five hours at my desk, a small reward, perhaps, for forcing myself to stay sitting through sunshine and mist. But then I began to notice something: walking shook things loose in me. The very act of ambulation sent my thoughts down different tracks. Movement in some ways—because I had no destination and didn’t have to notice where I was going—allowed my mind to run off the leash like a dog on a beach. If I was stuck at my desk, walking could unstick me.

So, I started to bring walking into the heart of my writing schedule, and wasn’t surprised to learn how many writers place it at the center of their practice, even if in more urban and less nature-haunted ways than Henry David Thoreau. Philip Roth used to say that he walked half a mile for every page he wrote; even in his seventies, P. G. Wodehouse was maintaining his discipline of five or six miles a day, which did not keep him from producing more than seventy novels, and in fact may well have made that possible. John le Carré, in my mind’s eye, is always walking, head down, along some narrow coastal path above a cliff, on a blustery day, working through the divided loyalties in his head.

And that’s the whole point: walking allows you to inhabit your imagination entirely. Quite often, on this walk, I’m not registering anything around me: only the seaside road in Havana, the Malecon, for a piece I’m writing, or some waist-thin alleyway in Old Damascus in which I’m setting the next scene in my novel. The Nobel Prize–winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman points out that we need to be sitting down for certain mental activities (calculating large sums, making outlines), but we can do others (thinking outside the envelope, or deciding to begin a story at its end) best while walking, released into wider horizons. Often, on my forty-minute walk, ideas and sentences build to such a climax that, once I’m back in our flat, whole essays tumble out.

As I descend to the lowest of the well-worn rustic steps, I see a rice paddy to the left of me, bristling and green. A wooden house stands above me on a hill, trees lit up with oranges on the slope leading up to it. All the buildings in this village are wooden, and there are so few that they might be family members gathered around a hearth. When a van noses through, making a delivery, I have to press myself against a wall so it can pass, at the maximum speed of twelve and a half miles an hour.

I walk through this unexpected outline of an older Japan and up a steep street to an old stone gate, not much taller than I am. Within is a Susanoo shrine, nicely sequestered quite a long way from my bright, new postwar suburb and first constructed in 1552. I climb up to throw some coins into a wooden box, bow, clap my hands twice, and pull at a worn rope to ring a bell to summon the gods. I’m faced with a walled interior, lion-dog guardians on both sides, and a chattering wilderness within. Exactly the kind of forested thicket that has been bulldozed down to create suburbs like my own.

I thank the Shinto spirits for protecting us all—Susanoo is the bad-boy god of storms—and then head back, past the wide-drivewayed house where police dogs are being trained, past the trees bright with yuzu, past my friend from the ping-pong club planting vegetables against the far-off outline of hills, past country music crackling out of a workplace barn.

Thoughts are beginning to gather now, as they didn’t when I was stationary; I take my worn white notebook out from my pocket and scribble them down. Thirty-eight years of a rambling writer’s life have taught me that few thoughts ever return intact.

Up the steps again, I find myself back in the late twentieth century. Japan as a whole strikes me, increasingly, as a very old, spirit-haunted place wearing the most up-to-the-minute global clothing; often only a morning walk jolts me out of the generic suburb and into something closer to the depths.

 

Even on those days when my thoughts don’t go anywhere at all, there’s always something fresh, surprising to see in this strikingly everyday neighborhood, a place I could not have imagined when far away and now can’t imagine living without.

 

Since my early twenties, I’ve been making a kind of living by transcribing foreign places, which in my case means walking around faraway cities. I get off the plane in Mashhad—in Rio or Sana’a—and walk and walk and walk. For as much of my first forty-eight hours in the place as I can, allowing this new and fascinating stranger to present herself to me. 

I don’t have a plan, as a rule, or specific places I need to see; I just want to take in every sight and sound, and let Beirut, La Paz, Lhasa introduce itself to me and tell me the story of its life. After maybe two days, explanations will start to form, and then I’ll see what comes to me only in the light of my ideas; but for two days I can walk, just gathering as many impressions as I can without trying to force them into a pattern.

For many years, when I was flying back and forth to Japan from my mother’s house in California, I’d stop on the way in an Asian city: Bangkok, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Saigon. Jet-lagged at home, I’d only be keeping my family up at 3:00 a.m. and trying to sleep while they’d be clattering around at 3:00 p.m. So, for seven days and nights, using jet lag as a searchlight, I’d walk the streets of a metropolis all night, seeing what comes out only after dark, measuring its subconscious, and, perhaps, my own.

A walk like this never grows boring: there’s always an Italian restaurant open on Soi 7 in the wee hours, or some unexpected boîte in the Foreign Concession, serving tea and sorbets. In an upright city like Singapore, it can be illuminating to see what happens in the unofficial hours.

Here in Nara, as I make my way back through Deer’s Slope, I don’t need that kind of instruction, even though this place will never be fully mine. I’ve been here twenty-nine years, and yet I choose to live in Japan on a tourist visa, in part to remind myself that it will always be foreign, excitingly strange to me, and I can never take very much for granted.

A small dog is taking its aged owner for a walk as I approach our flat, but the dog is sporting a red coat and the owner is not. A matron is briskly heading to the local pharmacy, past the vegetable stand a local farmer has set up beside the park. We’re surrounded on three sides by hills, and a wrong turn will bring me to a great bamboo forest or a line of ginkgoes. By now I’ve come to know the community so closely that I can tell the time of day, the time of year, by the play of light and even the occasional sounds (children going to school, the local bus grinding into action).

I take this walk every morning, at much the same time, and I would gladly take it every day until I expire. “For going out, I found,” in John Muir’s famous words, “was really going in.” Even on those days when my thoughts don’t go anywhere at all, there’s always something fresh, surprising to see in this strikingly everyday neighborhood, a place I could not have imagined when far away and now can’t imagine living without.

A wise friend from New York sent me his paraphrase from the American naturalist John Burroughs last year: To learn something new, take the same path you took yesterday.

I head up the two flights of stairs in our modest, six-flat apartment block, and go straight to my desk to take a deeper, less visible walk with my pen.

 

This essay, originally titled “Around Deer’s Slope,” was commissioned for Where My Feet Fall: Going for a Walk in Twenty Stories (William Collins UK), published in March 2022.

 

 

Read Pico Iyer’s “Between the Flames,” a contribution to Orions Earth Day at 50.

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