Autumn is the season for persimmons in Japan. You may find them on your plate as a sweet finish to a meal. Or hanging from the eaves of a roof to dry in the last low autumn rays. It’s the time when maple leaves explode in color all across this country. The perfect time to read Autumn Light by Pico Iyer.

Iyer first visited Japan in 1987. It happened to be autumn. He was 26 years old. An overnight layover and a random visit to Narita’s temple garden sealed Iyer’s fate. He moved to Kyoto thinking to reinvent himself.

Years later, autumn remains Iyer’s favorite season.

Cherry blossoms, pretty and frothy as schoolchildren’s giggles, are the face the country likes to present to the world, all pink and white eroticism; but it’s the reddening of the maple leaves under a blaze of ceramic-blue skies that is the place’s secret heart.

Pico Iyer, Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells (Knopf 2019)

The Outsider

Despite the many years Iyer has lived in Japan, he still calls himself a tourist. Like Persephone, Iyer cannot stay in one place. He lives half of the year on the road as a roving journalist or in the hills above Santa Barbara, California tending to his elderly mother. The rest of the year he lives in Nara with his Japanese wife, Hiroko.

His Japanese is less than fluent. Iyer uses this fact to dodge certain inconvenient conversations. He knows that his neighborhood nickname is The Parasite as Iyer is the only male in Deer’s Slope who doesn’t put on a suit every morning and take the bus into town. Instead, he strolls the streets of Nara, lost in thought.

Autumn Light proceeds in much the same way. Iyer presents seemingly random thoughts about his father-in-law’s recent death, his mother-in-law’s dementia, the precarious existence his mother leads alone in California, his friend the Dalai Lama.

Iyer once wrote that not much happens in a Japanese novel. So, too, in Autumn Lights.

Season of Fire and Farewells

This is, after all, a work of nonfiction with clear philosophical ambitions. Yet Iyer can get a little too gnomic for me. For example, Autumn is the season when everything falls away. The correlation between leaves fluttering to the ground, soon to be covered by snow, and the death of his father-in-law seems all too obvious.

More interesting are his observations about the spirit world that inhabits Japan.

What makes the air feel thronged is the presence of household deities and ghosts, the spirits that for my neighbors inhabit every last desk or box of chocolates. Nothing essential ever seems to die in Japan, so the land is saturated with dead ancestors, river gods, the heavenly bodies to whom Hiroko gives honorifics, as if they were her country’s CEOs.

The Japanese perform rites for the dead, no matter how long ago the dead might have passed. After a visit to the cemetery, Hiroko must shower, change clothes, and scatter purifying salt. She tells Iyer that, for the Festival of the Dead, villagers carve cucumbers in the shape of horses to speed their ancestors’ return to earth. She calls a cemetery the city of tomorrow.

Pingpong Club

In an ancient yellowing gym, octogenarians meet to play pingpong. Only doubles games are allowed. Yarrow sticks are used to pick the teams. Rock Paper Scissors decides which team gets to serve first. The older men deploy the penholder grip to whip the ball across the net. Iyer, being a Westerner, uses the shake hands grip. The Deer’s Slope Pingpong Club is where Iyer goes to meet his friends.

It’s also a school for how things work in Japan. The pingpong club has a de facto leader, a couple Iyer dubs the Emperor and Empress. They ensure that the teams are evenly matched. One of them will sit out a game to allow others to play. They pair Iyer with the unsavory yakuza member or the former lady of the night, understanding that he won’t know any better. Playing pingpong teaches Iyer how to survive in Japan.

How to be invisible, and how to read the unwritten rules that guide us; how to compete not to win but to make sure that as many people as possible can feel that they are winners […] to be a voice within a choral symphony, and not a soloist tootling off on his own.

The Real Japan

Iyer shows us the real Japan that no tourist will ever visit. His version isn’t the atomized world of convenience stores nor the twee Old Japan you’ll find in a guide book. He shows us the tediousness of trying to buy a postage stamp when your Japanese is less than perfect.

I little time is the way his wife Hiroko announces the start of a tale about her childhood. His pals at the pingpong club like to show off their few worn phrases of broken English. Not being a fan of pidgin, I assume Iyer isn’t mocking these people. He inhabits a no-man’s land between English and Japanese.

In a few more days, I’ll be in Kyoto. Autumn will soon be over. In the markets, persimmons have given way to tangerines. On the streets, women parade in sheepskin coats. The thermometer says it’s winter in Japan. I still hope for the kind of autumn light Iyer loves so much.

The light is knife-sharp on this crystal day; passing under the forbidding wooden gate of Nanzenji, one of the city’s give great “mountains of Zen,” we’d found ourselves in an intricate latticework of light and shadow, the sun making shifting shapes on the white walls, across the raked-sand garden, on the greening moss. The light so fresh and clarifying in the quiet morning — sharpness and dryness define the season — that we might be stepping into a brand-new world.

1 December 2019 | Karen Kao