In a blog post in the NYT travel writer Pico Iyer describes life in a small apartment in Japan as his route to finding peace and happiness. Says Iyer:
So — as post-1960s cliché decreed — I left my comfortable job and life to live for a year in a temple on the backstreets of Kyoto. My high-minded year lasted all of a week, by which time I’d noticed that the depthless contemplation of the moon and composition of haiku I’d imagined from afar was really more a matter of cleaning, sweeping and then cleaning some more. But today, more than 21 years later, I still live in the vicinity of Kyoto, in a two-room apartment that makes my old monastic cell look almost luxurious by comparison. I have no bicycle, no car, no television I can understand, no media — and the days seem to stretch into eternities, and I can’t think of a single thing I lack.
I’m no Buddhist monk, and I can’t say I’m in love with renunciation in itself, or traveling an hour or more to print out an article I’ve written, or missing out on the N.B.A. Finals. But at some point, I decided that, for me at least, happiness arose out of all I didn’t want or need, not all I did. And it seemed quite useful to take a clear, hard look at what really led to peace of mind or absorption (the closest I’ve come to understanding happiness). Not having a car gives me volumes not to think or worry about, and makes walks around the neighborhood a daily adventure. Lacking a cell phone and high-speed Internet, I have time to play ping-pong every evening, to write long letters to old friends and to go shopping for my sweetheart (or to track down old baubles for two kids who are now out in the world).
I like Pico Iyer's writings. I do not share his views on happiness entirely but some observations struck a chord.
My life is very different from Iyer's. Unlike him, having left the work force long ago I have not felt the urgent need to run away from the stresses of a busy professional life. But one's personal fantasies about attaining that contented state of peace and happiness are not bound by what we do and where we are. Like Iyer, my day dreams too occasionally take me to Japan.
In my moderate travel experience through world cities, three left magical impressions, each for different reasons - San Francisco, Barcelona and Kyoto. Of these, the only one where I have imagined myself living is Kyoto. The existence I conjure up is very similar to what Iyer is currently living. But add to mine a view of the wavy, crenellated tiled roof of a Buddhist temple from an upstairs window and high speed internet.
I doubt that the Japanese are happier than the rest of the world. But for some reason, I can see myself feeling at peace in Japan, my lack of mastery over the local language notwithstanding. It is one place where I imagine that isolation from the outside chatter will not make me feel left out or lonely. It is of course all a fantasy with no real life experience of an extended stay to back up its veracity, arising solely out of some moments of exceptional calm that I have felt during my travels there even though my Japanese itineraries were always packed and hectic.
I am old enough to know that contentment and peace of mind are hardly ever wholly contingent upon our relationship with a person, possession or place. Like refreshing coastal showers they can come upon us suddenly at the least expected moment and in an unlikely setting. But it is still fun to dwell upon an imaginary escape hatch to serenity.
I have occasionally written about Japan on A.B. touching upon one experience or the other. My last post on Japan was a pot-pourri of a few such observations. See here. That trip in the autumn of 2006 is nearly three years in the past. It may be time to plan another trip.
(The link to Iyer's article is via Namit Arora. The content of my post here is a modified version of the comment I left on Namit's blog)