Born in Oxford, England, Pico Iyer became known for his accounts of his life living outside of set categories. In 1991, Iyer’s travels took him to Japan to live outside of the bustling culture, in the old Japan of poetry. The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto catalogues Iyer’s year spent in search of Buddhism in Japan. Though religion was his original focus in going to Japan, Iyer’s chance meeting with a young Japanese woman turns his story of traveling into the unknown into hers. Together they share the experience of breaking from the enjoyable to leave only the bittersweet.
Iyer’s year begins in autumn, at the beginning of his dream of living alone in a foreign country where he knows a bare minimum of the language. In the red light district of Kyoto he finds home is tacky yet traditional, the mixture of old and new placing Zen temples next to convenience stores and bars. The mixture of old and new reflects the traditional sense of the old, timeless Japan he seeks, and the more prominent, modernized Japan, presenting a two-sided city. Iyer keeps his opinions of the area moderate, not giving into stereotypes or being critical, and he tries to find the poetic qualities of his new surroundings. Despite the solitude he seeks, Iyer meets up with many Westerners who help close the language gap keeping him from Japan. From artists to those seeking Buddhism, Iyer is able to obtain many different perspectives on Japan, while withholding his own from the reader. “Every statement I made about Japan applied just as surely in the opposite direction,” Iyer states, remaining cautious about his own opinions of Japan. “I might think it odd that Japanese girls cover their mouths whenever they laugh – until I remembered that we were trained to cover our mouths when we yawn” (329).
The true focus of the novel is unclear at first, hidden behind Zen poetry and chance encounters at gaijin bars, or those catering to foreigners. Iyer’s true tale begins to shine when he meets a young woman, Sachiko, at a temple. The comical misunderstandings of their relationship begin at this point, with messages lost in translation between elementary Japanese and broken English. Yet Iyer soon realizes that this relationship is more than casual meetings to discuss music and movies. A love is born, one similar to Madame Butterfly, due to the “pairing of Western men and Eastern women [being] as natural as the partnership of sun and moon” (79) This love is simply because “everyone falls in love with what he cannot begin to understand” (79).
The Lady and the Monk is as much Sachiko’s story as it is Iyer’s. The focus of the novel is not on the mysterious land, or even on travels throughout the country, but on Sachiko’s growth from hesitant housewife with an often-absent husband to an independent woman. Sachiko, for Iyer, reveals the two-sidedness of Japan, the difference between the surface and emotion. On the surface is a highly efficient new-age Japanese mother. She dedicates herself to her children, her husband, and her family, being punctual and proper, and fulfilling every role expected of her. Underneath the shining surface, a whirlpool of emotion bubbles up, manifesting itself only in a teenager’s clothing and obsessions with foreign musicians, like Sting. A woman who was forced to grow up so fast, who was too busy fulfilling duty to truly discover what she wanted for herself, welcomes a friendship with Iyer, the nearest gaijin, as a way of escape.
“Encouraging people to realize their potential was an especially dangerous occupation in a country that taught them to fulfill their duty instead,” Iyer states, realizing the role he begins to play in Sachiko’s life (97). From his perspective as her foreign “savior,” he knows that his role is to stand by her for as long as he can, for the four seasons he will be in Japan. So Iyer teaches her about America, and she teaches him about Japan in turn, mostly causing her to realize the constraints placed upon her own life. Similar to girls whom he saw on one of his first trips to a gaijin bar, Japanese women are meant to play their role, to dance perfectly in unison, to fulfill expectations. Still, the story of the lady, Sachiko, and Iyer, the monk, moves across the four seasons, while their love for one another grows. He helps her break from the constraints of Japanese society and stand on her own while he experiences Japan with a woman at his side, his Madame Butterfly. However, Sachiko is the one who holds control over Iyer. The role of Madame Butterfly is truly played by Iyer, the foreign mystery there to liberate and then be done with.
“I little sad feeling,” Sachiko repeatedly states throughout the book, whether the situation is happy or sad, which Iyer comes to understand. The fleeting moment, the beauty of what once was, is something to be treasured in Japanese culture. Iyer and Sachiko’s journey is truly about breaking from what is enjoyable, such as love, leaving only a bittersweet feeling behind. Iyer flawlessly depicts Japan as well as his journey, providing an enjoyable read and glimpse into a foreign land. I believe Iyer’s is a wonderful story of love, one that can be used to understand the people, though not necessarily Japan.