Book set in Japan: The Lady and the Monk

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Initially, I was really excited to read Pico Iyer’s The Lady and the Monk.

For those in the know, Iyer is one of the world’s leading travel writers today (travel writer, not blogger) whose observations have made him quite famous. I was especially attracted to this book because it features Kyoto, my soul city in Japan. I decided to read it after I visited because I didn’t want to spoil my first impressions with someone else’s viewpoint and wasn’t I glad I did!

In essence, The Lady and the Monk recounts Iyer’s decision to spend a year in Kyoto living a Thoreau –inspired, monkish existence only to be distracted by a beguiling lady, Sachiko. In this way, his narrative follows the template of many of the Japanese lady and monk poems and stories he reads (life imitating art, perhaps?).

The book primarily focuses on the problems of preconceptions: those Iyer has about Japan/Japanese and those Sachiko has about the West/Westerners. Through their progressive interactions, we see both characters shed their initial romanticized notions and naiveté and slowly accept some ugly truths.

Iyer comes to Japan, thinking he already knows it, based on his reading. He seems obsessed with the feminine side of Japan and actively seeks it, especially in his relationship with Sachiko.

 “…but the private Japan, and the emotional Japan — the lunar Japan, in a sense, that I had found in the poems of women and monks — was increasingly hard to glimpse. If this imaginative Japan existed only in my mind, I wanted to know that soon, and so be free of the illusion forever; yet if there were truly moments in Japan that took me back to a home as distantly recalled as the house in which I was born, I wanted to know that too.”

In the beginning, he tends to over-idealize the Japanese based on his own superficial, fly-on-the-wall observations.

“I never saw any of the children shout, or squawk, or throw a tantrum, and I never saw any of the mothers lose her smiling equanimity: both parties formed a tableau of contentment. In New York, the near-absence of children had struck me as a denaturing almost, and in California, the sense of endless possibility that was the state’s greatest hope seemed all but a curse in the hands of its young. But here, wherever I looked, I found images of madonna-and-child, in a world that seemed so settled that it almost cast no shadow.”

He also captures the seasons and changing landscape of Kyoto beautifully.

“…I felt the brightness of the Japanese autumn was like nothing I had ever seen before: such hope and stillness in the air. Tingling mornings in shiny coffee shops, dazzled afternoons among the white-robed priests: singing Handel days of rapture and precision.”

He even becomes quasi-Japanese when he travels abroad to Taiwan after a couple of months in Kyoto.

“So sheltered had my life become in Kyoto — so sanitized of danger or alarm — that I had all but forgotten that another world existed; and now it was a shock to enter a stage where tempers were lost, things went wrong, the surface snapped.”

Unlike Iyer, Sachiko idealizes the West. She loves Stand by Me, Aha, Bruce Springsteen, and Bryan Adams and often compares Iyer’s freewheeling life to her rigid role of Japanese wife and mother.

“You are bird, you go everywhere in world, very easy. I all life living only Kyoto. So I dream I go together you. I have many, many dream in my heart. But I not have a strong heart. You very different.”

She, too, learns the hard way and changes her mind a bit about Western men after a particularly awkward moment with a foreigner who mistook her friendship as sexual.

As time passes, through his relationships with Sachiko, other Japanese people, and gaijin (foreigners) in Japan, Iyer also begins to see the darker underbelly of Japan and becomes more discerning.

“This was the social contract in Japan: forfeit your individuality and you would receive a life of perfect stability and comfort; give yourself over to Japan and it would never let you down. It was like a kind of emotional welfare system: give up your freedom and you would receive a life so convenient that you’d hardly notice the freedom you’d relinquished.”

“Mother Japan prepared its children only, and ideally, for Japan.”

However, after a year passes, he leaves Japan with his romanticized vision of the country nearly intact.

“It was only later, after I had left Japan, that I realized that everything had been there that night: the lanterned dark, the moon above the mountains, the dreamlike maiden in kimono. There was the Heian vision I had sought since childhood. And yet, by now, it was so much a part of my life that I had not even seen it till it was gone.”

Although parts of the book can appear heavily romanticized and dwell too much on Zen Buddhism and Japanese poetry, The Lady and the Monk presents a generally balanced picture of Japan and Japanese culture, both the traditional and modern aspects.

Verdict: I highly recommend it.

Have you ever read The Lady and the Monk? What did you think about it?

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24 thoughts on “Book set in Japan: The Lady and the Monk

  1. I’ve never read this book, but it definitely sounds beautiful from the descriptions. I still haven’t been to Japan, or Kyoto, but remember from your posts how wonderful the place is. Hopefully next year I get to travel there and see it for myself.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve not read this book but have been actively searching for my next read, and being a travel fanatic, think I may have found it! Japan is on my hotlist tocisit this year, and my opinion has always been of Japan as a very safe place of quiet polite inhabitants – perhaps a bit like the idealised opinions lyer holds as you describe. I’m interested to read the book and understand more about this dark side of individuality forfeited before then visiting Japan to see how my preformed options hold up or change. Perhaps though one needs to spend a year like lyer and even then as was the case for him – perhaps even thatnis not enough to have opinions truly changed! Can’t wait to find out!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I haven’t read this book, but I will definitely have to check it out! I need more writing like this to read in my spare time. I can tell that he shares the beauty of Kyoto so well based off of the snippets you shared! I am hoping to visit Japan soon, and although I am not much of a reader, I will definitely pick this book up before I do! Thanks for the awesome suggestion and inspiration.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m not much of a book reader! So, no, I haven’t heard of Pico Iyer! To begin with I thought its a fiction based on reality. Just googled the author. Being an Indian, I’m fascinated that his father was an Indian, he was British born American, now married to Japanese! Truly a world citizen I guess!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I havent heard of the book The lady and the monk before and I wish I knew about it before we went to Japan in 2014. I have a couple of good japanese friends married to Swiss guys and they have been telling me some funny stories about the culture differences in the mariage.

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  6. I’ve never read The Lady and The Monk but it sounds like a wonderful travel companion. Especially to accompany one traveling around Japan. It’s amazing the difference in cultures and the outcomes that can result from them. This would make a good Christmas gift too.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I am a huge fan of Pico Iyer. I have read some of his books. Japan is home to Pico, so it would be interesting to read his book on Japan. Maybe, this is the first book I will pick in 2018. Thanks for the recommendation.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Seems like a great book to take along when you travel. Adds the spirit of travel and helps you remember to break the myths that you typically associate with the place. I like your review that has all the right extracts to give you an idea of what you are in for with this read.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. What beautiful prose! Love when writing can evoke magic like that, and especially when it lights up a specific destination. I haven’t read the Lady and the Monk (or much based on Japan at all), but I’ll add it to the (very long) list of books I need to read!

    Liked by 1 person

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