The River
Words by Pico Iyer



Every autumn I try to spend three months at my desk in Japan, sitting still — a curious choice for a travel-writer —simply to follow the dance of change and changelessness around me. By mid-November, the leaves are already turning, and the days are shrinking. Everyone is in motion in this furiously energetic country, and fashions spin around with a revolving-door impatience I’ve never found elsewhere. But everything I value in Japan — the air of concentration, the polite attentiveness, the shockingly sharp blue November skies, the very sense of energy and movement – never really changes. So each autumn I’m a year closer to extinction, but I’m steadied and buoyed by the fact that it feels so much like last autumn: the trees in the park across from us are the same, the same neigbourhood grandmothers are clucking in appreciation of the same colours, the same images of Santa on the cross come out as winter approaches.

I was born in England and moved at a young age to California, the capital of the future tense. In the Far West, the assumption is always that tomorrow is wiser than yesterday, that we’re all moving forward in a straight line, that youth has much more going for it than does old age. A youthful assumption, perhaps.

And as Silicon Valley keeps upgrading and accelerating and giving us dazzling new toys to divert us, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the people using these tools may not necessarily be changing at all. As Hollywood gives us therapy tales about people who were lost and now are saved, it’s hard to forget that many of us are at a terrible loss right now, as things slip away from us in ways we never could have seen yesterday.

I remember, as a kid, hearing how my hero, the patron saint of restless wanderers, Leonard Cohen, had scrawled up on a wall, “Change is the only aphrodisiac.” I couldn’t have agreed more: who could need any stronger drug or turn-on when novelty,
a fresh adventure was on the way? But the first time I met Cohen, in 1995, he was living full-time as an ordained monk in the Mount Baldy Zen Center in California and — the week I visited — spending sixteen hours a day sitting still. He’d always keep changing, as we all do, as regularly as the weather does, but he’d clearly found that his only constant love could lie in changelessness: an aging Zen teacher and a discipline that never swayed, whatever he did or brought to them, and simply presented a stern blank face in response.

That face I sometimes associate with the entire world, which does not seem hugely impressed by what we do. And certainly has its own plans and designs, happily impervious to our own. Sometimes I think Japan is constantly changing on the surface precisely so that it doesn’t have to change deep down. And though this has severe consequences in the geopolitical realm — its failure to give opportunities to women and minorities, its inability to speak English, its refusal to get with the global program all leave Japan falling further and further behind — in some wider accounting, it makes for a certain kind of sense.

The waters always keep moving, they say near where I live in Nara, but the river stays the same.


Pico, best known for his travel writing, publishes regularly in Time, Harper’s, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, and many other publications. picoiyerjourneys.com

Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.

This feature was first published in Issue Two of SATORI. To explore issue one further click here.

Created by Duncan Woods & Seb Camilleri