Friday, March 20, 2015

The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto by Pico Iyer

First off, I find this author's name so fun to say. Say it with me: Pico Iyer! My name is Pico Iyer! Who is that over there? Oh, why, it's Pico Iyer!

Just like for The Wind Up Girl, I chose The Lady and The Monk based off the cover art and the title. Kyoto? Why, that's in Japan! I LOVE JAPAN. Well you know, as much as you can love a place without ever actually going to it.

My first impression with this book was this: "Oh wow, it is daaa-ted." (Yes, I stretched out the word and everything). I think the copyright was in the early 1990s? No cell phones, and not even a computer. Wow, how much the world changed in 20 years. Iyer goes to Japan in, I guess the way people traveled back then, without a god damn clue! He legit found a place to stay, without a clue of who they were. He walked around and talked to people until he found another place to stay!

That's so crazy (and dangerous). Mostly crazy (and slightly dangerous).

Oh! Another crazy thing! He met the other main character of his travel adventures, Sachiko, I think at a bus stop, or waiting for the train. She invites the Iyer, a strange man to her to her house for her son's birthday! Say, whhaaaa?! 

That seems to be a pattern in the novel. People are anxious to speak English and they would invite random strangers into their lives to speak English. Apparently Japanese do not think that anything bad will happen to them? Is this a thing? Was this a thing before the internet and smart phones, to invite strange people into your home without a second thought? Or is Pico Iyer just stereotyping Japanese people? Maybe meet in a public place first? Sachiko, whadda doing, girl? 

With all of that aside, this book makes me want to go to Japan much more. Before he met his Japanese "friend" (I strongly suspect they fooled around while they were together but I think he didn't want to put it in the book), he went to Japan to discover a whole different culture from his own. He wanted to discover Zen Buddhism and intermixing idea of new Japan and old Japan. 

The way he described the night life, the changing seasons, the perceptions of Japan when it comes to their own and when it comes to foreigners is fascinating. The way he and Sachiko, her relationship with her children and her husband and even to her Japan, is heartbreaking. What I also found fascinating was the way she integrated into his life by using gifts as favors so he wouldn't forget about her and leave her behind. 

Iyer writes about the escapist fantasy, which is a prevalent theme (Oh, look at that! I'm using theme) in many travel adventures. Many white men come to Japan looking to escape their own cultural expectations. Unable to find happiness in their life back in (insert country here), they go to Japan to find a woman who will be the complete opposite of back home. Iyer's friends that he encounters throughout the book does this, to varying degrees of success. Many Japanese women are also utilizing their escapist fantasies as well, finding white men who are dangerous and loud, to take them away from their duties to the mother country. They contradict each other: Men want to remain in Japan and be with a woman who is the embodiment of Japan (subservient, patient, kind, quiet), whereas women want to be free of these expectations and move to America, the home of the free. 

At the end of the book, Sachiko found her freedom against all odds as a travel guide, forsaking her mother's wishes. She stands strong, despite the confusion of her husband (who left her) and her friends, who are in the same boat she is. Iyer leaves Kyoto at the end of the year, learning new things about Japan. 

That's all well and good, but I am super jealous he got to go to Japan and live there for a year. What job did he have or who did he have to marry to get this gig? Can I go to Japan for a year, find a lonely housewife and discover things about Japan so I can stay in a love hotel after the trains stop running for the night? Come on, there will be hilarious misunderstandings and everything! 

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