– Now Is the Season for Japan (New York Times, March 22, 2012):
ONE bright early spring morning this month, I took myself to Ryoanji, the Kyoto temple that is home to the world’s most celebrated rock garden. There was not a single other foreigner in the place. Not even many Japanese were visible across the 120-acre compound (I’d scheduled my trip for spring break, when clamorous school tours are less in evidence).
So as I sat above the enigmatic presentation of 15 rocks, arranged with seeming randomness across a wide bed of raked sand, I could hear nothing but bird song from the cherry trees around me. A trickle of water from a thin bamboo chute issued into a stone basin around the corner, deepening as it intensified the silence. The characters around the basin said, “What you have is all you need.”
Stillness, spaciousness and undistractedness are what I had just then. Though foreign tourism to Japan as a whole plunged by 50 percent in the three months following the earthquake last March, as of January 2012 it was only 4 percent lower, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.
Nevertheless, the quiet amplitude that is one of the special graces of Japan has a new resonance this year. On the surface, the country that greets someone arriving from San Francisco or New York tomorrow is startlingly similar to the place you would have seen two years ago, despite last year’s catastrophe. But deep down, Japan seems more vulnerable, and thus more wide open, than ever.
The 9.0 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown that hit the country on March 11, 2011, claimed almost 20,000 lives, overturned an economy that had already been foundering through 20 years of recession, and demoralized a citizenry dealing with one suicide every 17 minutes, a loss of direction, and what is now seven prime ministers in fewer than six years.
Yet it also highlighted the resilience, self-possession and community-mindedness that are so striking in Japan; suddenly, the country that had seemed to insist on its difference from the rest of the world could be seen in its more human, compassionate and brave dimensions. Japan has long been what the globally savvy magazine Monocle called, in a recent issue, “The World’s Most Charming Nation”; now it is also one of those most grateful for visitors.
To put it another way: On a typical day this month — the anniversary of the tsunami, as it happens — you could see huge illuminated flower arrangements in Kyoto’s central Maruyama Park, while candles were sent floating down a nearby stream; you could join kimonoed women in following a path of 2,500 lanterns along the eastern hills of the ancient capital, and watch maiko, or apprentice geisha, performing ceremonial dances, free, at Yasaka Shrine. You could take a train and bus out to the stunning I. M. Pei-designed Miho Museum, which sits alone in a huge deserted natural park 70 minutes from Kyoto Station, complete with its own space-age tunnel for an entrance; or you could join 15,000 others in running Kyoto’s first marathon.
Meanwhile, all around, the qualities that have long made Japan distinctive, and often humbling, are everywhere apparent. At the airport, cabbies jump out of their cars to help load the trunks of the taxis in front of them. In convenience stores, yellow-haired girls with ghostly eye shadow prove as disarmingly helpful and polite as recent finishing-school graduates. On March 3 this year, as every year, families nibbled on diamond-shaped rice cakes with pink and white and green layers and sent straw dolls floating down a stream in honor of Hina Matsuri, Girls’ Day.
Over the 25 years I’ve been living around Kyoto, I’ve seen the city of 1,600 temples grow ever more festive, international and colorful. True, shameless developers continue to tear down wooden buildings to make room for ugly concrete blocks, and the narrow traffic lanes are increasingly crowded with cars.
Yet in other ways, the heart of Japanese culture is ever younger and hipper; its student culture (there are 38 centers of higher learning around Kyoto) was evident this month in improvised dance performances and art shows around downtown; new design hotels are appearing with every season; and temples now throw open their gates after nightfall so you can walk through illuminated wonder worlds in the dark.
Kyoto is still the ancestral home of the tea ceremony and kimono and Zen meditation; but it’s also a uniquely stylish place housing Japan’s first manga museum, a 15-story futuristic cube of a train station and the headquarters of Nintendo.
Signs are now in English (they weren’t when I arrived), as are announcements on trains and buses. The strong yen makes prices 50 percent higher for those carrying dollars than they were five years ago, but Japan is still less expensive than Britain or much of Northern Europe, especially if you use a Japan Rail Pass and are careful about where you stay (a pizza at my local coffee shop costs less than $5 — no taxes or tips to worry about — and a can of high-end cappuccino from a vending machine, $1.50). Most of all, Japan remains less like anywhere else than anywhere else I know.
NONE of this is to deny the horror of last year’s catastrophes. When I visited Sendai, the northern city closest to the epicenter of the earthquake, four months ago, I found the downtown area as bustling and brightly lighted as ever. But only 40 minutes away by car were harrowing scenes: pieces of laundry hanging outside completely gutted houses; gravestones toppled over.
That same month I visited the nearby fishing village of Ishinomaki, laid waste by the tsunami, with the Dalai Lama, and even this generally imperturbable leader of the Tibetans could not hold back his tears. Around the Fukushima nuclear plant, when I went there in October, stores were shuttered and streets bare save for workers from the plant killing time in pinball arcades or deserted three-table tearooms where the Beach Boys were singing “I Get Around,” again and again.
Yet even there, at a resort hotel barely an hour from the nuclear plant, the breakfast room was packed with eager golfers from Tokyo waiting to hit the first nine at dawn, in the pelting rain.
It’s hard for outsiders to appreciate how much, after more than a thousand years of fires and earthquakes and wars, Japan is primed for adversity. Its people are notably cautious and prudent, but they’re not given to wasted emotion. My Japanese wife, Hiroko, whose family comes from Hiroshima, saw her first grandchild born in Yokohama last year only to face a nuclear meltdown barely 150 miles away when the baby was all of 2 weeks old. Take sensible precautions, Hiroko told her son, but remember that nowhere will be entirely safe.
The boy who grew up next to us sent his own infant daughter — and wife — to live in Osaka, 250 miles from his Tokyo flat, but he continues to work in the capital, 130 miles from the nuclear plant.
Visitors today can therefore enjoy all of Japan’s beauties, undiminished, while also offering moral and even practical support. A Discover Tohoku Tour is offering four- or six-day excursions to the places of beauty near the center of last year’s tragedy, among them the classic island-dotted bay around Matsushima and the World Heritage site temples of Hiraizumi.
This month one of the many new low-cost airlines coming to Japan, Peach Aviation, takes to the skies with trips from Osaka to faraway Sapporo for less than $60, a sixth of what a train might cost.
In Mitsuyo Kakuta’s “Pieces,” perhaps the subtlest and most beautiful story in “March Was Made of Yarn,” an anthology of short fiction just published in memory of last year’s disasters, a woman in middle age looks back on her life after she learns that her husband had been with a young mistress at the time of the Great Tokyo Blackout.
“To acquire was not to be happy,” she had learned during Japan’s boom years, and now she sees that “loss was not the root of unhappiness.” As lights come back to her city, she reflects that the happy moments in her life cannot erase the losses she’s known; nor can those losses ever keep her from knowing happiness.
To hold those two ideas in your head as many in Japan do — to see that life means a joyful participation in a world of sorrows, and that suffering is not the same as unhappiness — is one of the singular blessings this seasoned country still has to offer.
Paper cherry blossoms are fluttering above the stalls leading to the great Kannon Temple in the Asakusa district of Tokyo right now, and in the eighth-century capital of Nara, girls are carrying parasols under the plum blossoms to shield their faces from the bright spring sun.
PICO IYER is the author, most recently, of “The Man Within My Head.”