The Lady and the Monk

Praise for

“Brilliant and poetically charged … The chapters chronicle and color the Japanese seasons, summoning with great effects the sounds of temple gongs, the mellifluous notes of bamboo flutes, the mantra sound of rain on the roof”

Boston Globe

“Iyer gets as deep into the Japanese soul as a perceptive foreigner can. With his snatches of Japanese literature and religious thought, and his easy, intelligent comparisons to the brilliance and foibles of our own heritage, [he] leads us into the cheerful land of the rising sun and finds there, instead, a strange and haunting island. A love story unique in the annals of travel writing … with Iyer as a guide, Japan becomes a place of moonlight and mist, beckoning us near while hiding its beautiful face in the shadow of an opened fan.”

Condé Nast Traveler

“Like Thoreau, Iyer combines an acute sense of place with a mordant irony. The revealing detail is his specialty … [a]
Madama Butterfly
for the ’90s.”


“Iyer’s book is about his own quest for a more ancient land of monks, rock gardens and paper lanterns. Even more challenging, it is his search for spiritual enlightenment in the land of economic miracle. Like a cultural archaeologist, Iyer digs into the dead metaphors of poets and beneath the antiseptic glitz of love hotels to unearth traces of his own misty nostalgia for a bygone Japan. In dreamlike, beautiful prose … all these rich themes—East and West, spirit and flesh, old and new—become entangled in the author’s relationship with a woman named Sachiko.”

Los Angeles Times Book Review


Pico Iyer was born in Oxford in 1957, and educated at Eton, Oxford, and Harvard. He is an essayist for
magazine and the author of
Video Night in Kathmandu
. Just before he completed
The Lady and the Monk
, his house burned dramatically to the ground, leaving him with nothing but the clothes he was wearing and the manuscript for this book.

Also by Pico Iyer

Video Night in Kathmandu

First Vintage Departures Edition, November 1992

Copyright © 1991 by Pico Iyer

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, in 1991.

Owing to limitations of space, all acknowledgments of permission to use previously published material may be found on
this page

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Iyer, Pico.
   The lady and the monk: four seasons in Kyoto / Pico Iyer.—1st Vintage departures ed.
      p. cm.—(Vintage departures)
   Originally published: New York: Knopf, 1991.
   eISBN: 978-0-307-76113-2
   1. Kyoto (Japan)—Description and travel.
   I. Title. II. Series.
DS897.K84I95 1992
952′.1864048—dc20      92-50071


Michael Hofmann,
and my friend


Like any foreigner in Japan, I suspect, I encountered more kindness and consideration than I had ever found elsewhere, and certainly much more than I deserved. The two to whom this book is dedicated exemplify that spirit in more ways than I can articulate.

I also, however, owe especial thanks to Mari Gotō, who not only taught me a great deal about her country, but endured my gaucheries — and my Japanese — with angelic patience. Somehow, in the midst of an inordinately busy schedule, she took time out to answer all my endless questions and to conduct tireless researches on my behalf. In the process, she taught me by example about much of the sweetness, attentiveness, and thoughtfulness that are so remarkable in Japan.

While I was in Kyoto two of my kindest guardian angels were Barbara Stein and Naohiko Ishida, who not only opened their home and hearts to me, but also provided me with tea and warmth and friendly conversation even as I was depriving them of their study and their peace. I consider myself very fortunate, too, to have been introduced to Yūko Yuasa, an exemplar of all that is most elegant in Japan and most civilized in any place. Many of the most beautiful parts of Kyoto, like many of the finer points of Japan, I would never have seen had it not been for her; she opened windows for me as well as doors.

I profited greatly from the conversations I enjoyed in Kyoto with Tyrrell O’Neil and Andrew Hartley, among many others, and hope they do not feel let down by what I have produced; Eric Gower was my smiling
on all things Japanese, a model of how to live in Japan without losing a sense of humor or proportion. Back home, I was, as ever, buoyed and uplifted beyond measure by Kristin McCloy and Mark Muro, who read what I was scribbling with extraordinary sympathy and care, at once cheering me on and holding me to the very highest standards; Steve Carlson, with his genius for conversation, got me to say things I didn’t know I knew; and the late Kilian Coster provided me, and many others, with a model of fairness and calm. I am very grateful too to Charles Elliott at Knopf, and Elizabeth Grossman, for all their help in actually seeing my words into print: in the former, I enjoyed the rare luxury of an editor who not only showed exceptional insight and understanding in training a searchlight on my prose, but was even able to correct my Japanese misspellings.

All the time I was living in Kyoto, nobody could quite understand how I was supporting myself while simply reading old poems, wandering around temples, and doing as I pleased. I would not have understood either had I not known
, whose editors continue to find ways of sustaining me even as I go off in stranger and stranger directions. Without them, and the forgiving cooperation of their Tokyo Bureau, I could not even have gone to Japan.

Finally, all the time I was at home, and away, I was kept upright by my long-suffering mother, who reconciled herself with typical patience to a son who always chose to live in the most inconvenient of places, and without a word of complaint, collected my mail, deposited my checks, and looked after my well-being — showing that grace, no more than kindness, is hardly peculiar to Japan.


All that a man has to say or do that can possibly concern mankind is in some shape or other to tell the story of his love — and to sing; and if he is fortunate and keeps alive, he will be forever in love




I ever set foot in Japan, I was on my way to Southeast Asia. Japan Air Lines was putting me up for the night, not far from Narita Airport, and after stumbling out into a silver late afternoon, I was taken to a high-rise hotel set in the midst of rice paddies. After a brief, disjointed sleep, I woke up early on an October morning, clear, with a faint touch of approaching winter. I still had a few hours to spare before my connecting flight, so I decided to take a bus into the local town. Narita could not be a very distinctive place, I thought, as the Japanese equivalent of Inglewood or Heathrow. Yet I was surprised to find a touch of Alpine charm in the quiet of the autumn morning. A high mountain clarity sharpened the October air, and the streets were brisk with a mountain tidiness.

As I began to walk along the narrow lanes, I felt, in fact, as if I were walking through a gallery of still lifes. Everything looked exactly the way it was supposed to look, polished to a sheen, and motionless. Shoes were lined up along the entrances to tiny houses. Low tables sat, just so, on impeccably brushed tatami mats. Coffee-shop windows gazed out upon vistas of rocks and running water. A clatter of kettles rattled outside a silent teahouse.

Then, turning through some wooden gates, I found myself inside Narita Temple. Everything, here too, was held in a state of windless calm. An old man sat on a wooden bench, alone. A swan flapped noisily, and then set graceful sail. A baby, pouched on her mother’s back, cast huge eyes up towards the sky. Black and gold swished past, the rustling robes of two young monks.

Other books

A Question of Class by Julia Tagan
Foresight by McBride, EJ
A New World: Dissension by John O'Brien
The Backwoods by Lee, Edward
Unexpected by Faith Sullivan