The author of The Art of Stillness and, most recently, Autumn Light, shares his favourite way to discover a city (hint: no apps are involved) and how we can all still keep our sense of wonder and wander in these unprecedented times
“Sitting still is a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it,” reads a line in Pico Iyer’s book The Art of Stillness: Adventures of Going Nowhere. It’s a quote that feels especially timely today, as we come to terms with this change of pace, but it’s also one that might seem at odds for a globetrotting journalist and author whose writing has led him everywhere from the terrains of Tibet to North Korea. Much of Pico’s earlier work, after all, consisted of travel memoirs and portals to some incredible places, although his more recent books, like Autumn Light, touch on the value and virtue of slowness and the journey of discovery from within.
We spoke with Pico, who’s currently self-isolating in Japan with his wife, on all things travel, his take on the pandemic and how we can still keep our spirits and sense of wonder well and alive even if wandering as we knew it isn’t an option right now.
What does travel mean to you?
Pico: I’ve been lucky to see quite a bit of the world in person, from North Korea to Easter Island – earlier this year I was in Antarctica – but I don’t think you have to travel far to be moved, or astonished. It’s a wonderful thing to be jolted into a wide-awake state by suddenly travelling somewhere new, but I feel that you can meet wonder and beauty and surprise even in your own neighbourhood. Nowhere is uninteresting to those with interested eyes. Every time I go to the bakery down the street, there’s room for surprise or delight. Only three days ago, (my wife and I) came upon a huge bamboo forest, with lines of blossoming cherry trees in front of them, and nightingales everywhere, teaching their young to sing.
Do you have a favourite destination that comes to mind? What’s next in your travel plans?
My favourite travel destination is Lhasa, Tibet, which is the one place I’ve been where I felt not just on the rooftop of the world, but truly on the rooftop of my consciousness, in some state of mind or being that I’ve never known elsewhere, and that felt like the truest and best part of me. The place I’m dreaming of visiting next, given that I was lucky enough to be in Antarctica only weeks ago, is – of all unexotic-sounding places – Stockholm, where I’ve spent just one morning of my life so far.
The world for me is inexhaustible: I’ll never run out of places I want to see – or the eagerness to see them.
There’s always this sense of wonder in your writing, almost as though you’re an outsider looking in. How do you like to make sense of any new city you’re in?
The first thing I do whenever I arrive anywhere is to walk and walk and walk, for the first 48 hours, letting the place speak to me and introduce itself to me. For me, arriving in a new place is like meeting a fascinating stranger; all you want to do is learn everything about her for as long as she has the patience to explain herself.
Every two and a half hours or so, I’ll stop off for some tea and sit quietly, to try to process everything I’ve seen and heard through my notebook. Then I’ll head out again. Before I go to sleep that night, I make sure to go back to all my notes and write them up in a fully paragraphed essay form, while I can still feel and smell the streets. The other thing I do is to take myself to a baseball game, a play, because even the most everyday thing becomes different. The first time I went to Japan, I knew that the baseball stadium would allow me to see how the country took an all-American pastime and turned it into something entirely Japanese.
Out of curiosity, are you a “plan by the guidebook” type of guy or a “wing it” sort of traveller? I’m guessing definitely no travel apps…
You guess perfectly – I must be the only traveller (or human) who’s never even used a cell phone and never therefore entered the universe of apps. But yes, I’m one of those people who plans every detail in advance, safe in the knowledge that all my careful plans will fly out the window as soon as I arrive. I use one guidebook to choose where I’ll stay in a city and another to fashion a rough sense of what I may want to see… but I know that all I really crave is everything that can’t be found in any guidebook.
You’ve spent over 32 years living in Japan and have written a lot about your adopted home. Do you have a favourite place or memory that might surprise your readers?
The art island of Naoshima, which I write a little about in my recent book A Beginner’s Guide to Japan. It might be surprising to some because I originally left my comfortable job in Midtown Manhattan in order to live in a temple in Kyoto for a year; everything that pulled me to Japan had to do with its inner life, its most ancient rites. Naoshima is a super-contemporary cluster of state-of-the-art museums featuring often very modern Western artists. And yet, at its heart, beneath the surface, it seems to be all about purity and concentration and simplicity, which are just the qualities I was seeking out in a Buddhist temple.
How can we still keep our sense of wonder in this “new normal”?
Take a walk. Remind yourself that, only six months ago, you were saying that you wished you had more time to spend with your family and to contact your friend. Rather than concentrating on all the things you can’t do now – most of which you’ll surely get a chance to do again in time – think about all the things you can do now, as usually you can’t.
This moment reminds us that it’s up to us, to some degree, what we make of our days and therefore our lives. Will we see this only as loss, or will we see this as an opportunity to live a little differently?
The other thing I’d stress is not to spend more than five minutes a day on the news, which will only inflame a sense of panic, rage or uncertainty. Ground yourself in the physical world around you, which is more likely to open you up and expand you, rather than diminish you. Wonder, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, not the heart of the beheld, that’s why they say in Japan, “Take care of the mind, and you take care of the world.”
Pico (@PicoIyer on Twitter) is currently working on a new novel about the “humanity behind the headlines”, a curation of his experiences in places like Cuba, Kashmir, Sri Lanka and North Korea. He released three new books in 2019: A Beginner’s Guide to Japan, Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells and This Could Be Home.
Hero image by Brigitte Lacombe