Dispatch From Darwin: Discovering Asia In The Outback


loop_oh, Flickr

I was sitting in the Speakers Corner Café in the stunning (and unexpected) Parliament House in Darwin, a rare marriage between a Southeast Asian bungalow and a po-mo shout in light and glass; all around-as everywhere in central Darwin-were plaques recalling the Japanese air raids on the place in February 1942, and markers announcing, “An enemy bomb fell here and killed 10 people.” The biographies of some of the employees of Darwin’s post office who were lost in the attack were on prominent display on every side. And Sachiko Hirayama, a sweet, elegant and determined young woman from Nagasaki was telling me about how she was hoping to bring Japanese tour groups here to visit the sites where they had lost loved ones and so put old fears to rest.

Hirayama had been appointed by the Northern Territory’s new Chief Minister, Terry Mills, to act as a liaison with Japan-and such is the strangeness of the small town set amidst a huge territory thirty times the size of the Netherlands (with 1/60th of the population) that, within less than 24 hours of my return to Darwin last August, I bumped into Mills at a little café. Just one day before, he had been named Chief Minister and brought the Country Liberal Party back into power in the Top End after 11 years. We exchanged pleasantries, and he asked me where I lived.

“Japan,” I said, and his eyes lit up. “The second call of congratulations I received was from the Consul-General of Japan. I am really interested in Japan. Seriously!” The fact that Japan is the Territory’s largest trading partner-and that the Japanese oil development company INPEX had already sunk $100 million into the exploration of gas fields nearby–was surely one reason; but it really did seem as if Darwin was suddenly realizing how well-placed it was to become a global player.

“Darwin is closer to Jakarta than to Canberra,” Mills went on, pointing out to a local journalist that he wasn’t “fluent” in Bahasa Indonesia, but had studied it at university in Jakarta. Then he began talking about his work with the “traditional owners” of the Territory.This couldn’t have flowed more naturally out of my very first taste of Darwin on this trip: as soon as I got off the plane from Melbourne, on a hot Sunday night, I took myself off to the Mindil Beach Sunset Market, and realized, as I looked at the crocodile-foot back-scratchers on sale, the crocodile skulls being sold for $75, the crocodile-tooth headbands and crocodile-skin earrings, that the Top End still boasts an improbable, fantastic mix of New Agers and old salts.

A guy I might have seen in Goa was playing the didgeridoo, while three Aboriginal kids twirled themselves around in front of him. A strapping local cowboy was flogging whips. The next stall down in the makeshift assembly of shacks on a patch of grass across a ridge from the ocean was selling propeller planes made of beer cans; these were deftly brought into the new multi-culti order by a Chinese boy at the end of the row who had fashioned Mickey Mouse out of balloons.

You don’t come to the Top End, of course, to be part of the mainstream; in a territory larger than Italy, Germany, Japan and Britain combined (with a population 1/80th that of Shanghai), you have to define yourself in bold colors against the thousands of miles of red emptiness. I was offered soy candles amidst the crocodile and mud-crab rolls at the market, and saw tie-dye dresses for 3-year-olds for sale next to “night-display, sound-activated” t-shirts. I could get Chinese-made tacos or Fijian-stirred milk shakes, goatmilk soap or “dragon fruit sorbet.” The only governing assumption-and maybe this spoke for something essentially Australian-was that the one thing I’d never find was anything that was available at Woolworth’s (though the local Woolies, not so far away, was a huge emporium, complete with its own large liquor shop).

Privileged urban refugees eager to go back to the land seemed to be bumping into indigenous people taking their first uncertain steps into city life. And kids who had just left Kuta or Ko Phi Phi were walking into Thais and Filipinos and Indonesians who had come here to experience the life the kids thought they were fleeing. As Terry Mills had pointed out, the tag-line here about Darwin being closer to Bali than to Sydney speaks to something deeper than geography; here was an ever more Southeast Asian town that just happened to be talking with an Aussie twang.

I’d been to Darwin before, in 1988, the year of the Bicentennial. At the time, the sudden explosion of tropical green after hours of nothingness below, the Jurassic Park landscape of Kakadu National Park nearby, the scrappy little settlement of ferns and larger-than-life eccentrics trying to market their reptiles (a multi-national chain had recently constructed a whole hotel nearby shaped like a crocodile) had all made me feel I was on a different continent from Adelaide or Cairns. Now, with the prospect of oil nearby, and with Darwin offering the last word in freedom from hustle-bustle with relaxing ocean views, the local glossy lifestyle magazine was shouting “Uber Luxe” on its cover and advertising $3.5 million penthouse apartments overlooking the one-story narrow main streets. I might have been in a piece of Miami Beach airlifted to rural Utah.

Yet for all the gestures towards urbanism, the question the Top End still seems to ask remains: what do you do in an area with a population density lower than that of Pitcairn (an island that boasts all of 66 people)? One answer was afforded by the pungent local newspaper, the NT News, which informed me, on arrival, that one Territory man had racked up nearly 70 criminal charges in 7 months, and which also gave an account of a local hero who had saved a mate the previous day by disabling a croc with a screwdriver. Much of Darwin seemed to have the outlandish air of an Outback chapter of the Hells Angels. A car parked downtown had “X-Men” all over its sides, and a huge portrait of a superhero (or his enemy) on the back, declaring, “An Agnostic, Dyslexic, Insomniac Stayed Up All Night Wondering if there was a Dog”; a “Toyota Rescue Vehicle” nearby had placed a sign on its back window advising, “Patience, My Little Grasshopper.”

When faced with a tabula rasa, people can make of themselves anything they choose, perhaps. So the native strangeness of faraway towns like Darwin seemed interestingly deepened by all the people who flocked there in order to rewrite their destinies. Signs in Hangul script pointed me to one of the town’s ubiquitous churches and three Chinese characters-nothing else-adorned a banner atop a high-rise. The man who took my breakfast order at the Holiday Inn on the Esplanade-and rather amazingly, they were serving up “English Bacon,” fleshy and pink, as well as “American Bacon,” crispy and streaked (I’d never known there was a difference)-was Indian. So was the man who collected the dishes. Even in 1891, I recalled, seven in every ten people here, thanks to the booming gold mining industry, was Chinese.

Australia, for me, is a land that overturns all foreign ideas of what is central and marginal, what the exception, what the rule: at the War Memorial Church, in the center of Darwin, I found signs on every side advising, “Please do not leave Bags or Other Valuables in the Pews Unattended,” perhaps the first time I’d ever been warned against robberies in a church. But the longer I stayed in the country, the more I could see that the real fascination of the lonely continent lay not in the brawny exterior, nor only in the old, deep interior, but in the constantly evolving interplay between them.

One evening I found myself at a chic Italian restaurant, at the bottom of the tallest building in Darwin, across from a quiet man who told me how he had fought in Vietnam as a teenager with the Australian army. He had so lost his heart to the region, he said, almost shyly, that he had stayed on in Laos after his service finished and lived in Bali for some years. He still kept a place in Saigon. “To be honest,” he said-now he was a lawyer offering his expertise to indigenous causes–“the reason I came up here to Darwin was that I didn’t want to live in Australia. I felt more at home in Asia. Just the smell, as soon as you arrive at the airport, the night sounds, the climate; the whole thing is Asia.”

The man next to me-his air of warm confidence and ruddy complexion might have made him at home in a London club-turned out to be another lawyer working with the “traditional owners” in the Tiwi Islands, a 30-minute plane ride away from the town, who had spent years as a patrol officer in Papua New Guinea; hearing that, the woman across from us started reminiscing about growing up as part of a missionary family in so rural a part of New Guinea that she was “educated under the house by my mum.” It seemed an everyday assembly, and yet there was an easy, lightly worn cosmopolitanism here that seemed both the rising feature of Australia and one of the things it could teach the larger world.

I had thought, when I arrived, and shuffled around the Sunset Park, that I was seeing the hyperdeveloped world meet the wilderness, the underdeveloped universe meet possibility, so that each side could check the other out. Perhaps I was. But every time I heard a story of what had brought someone here, I heard the sound of a fresh Australia, which is defining itself by everything that’s around and beyond it. Darwin seemed in large part a mild-mannered Chinese young man-I met them all over town-in specs, politely asking, “How’s yer day goin’?”

The next day, when I woke up, the cover of the N.T. News shouted, “MAN BITES CROC ON SNOUT.” I’d already read about a “community garden activist” who had run for office even though he had been convicted of killing a man. But by now I was able to see that such headlines were partly bluster and mostly about trying to satisfy expectations. I met loud voices and startling attitudes everywhere I went in the Top End; but it was in the silences, in everything people didn’t say, that something much more haunting and unique kept coming through.

Pico Iyer: The surprising charms of Little Rock, AR

Who’d have thought that Little Rock, Arkansas, would prove so diverting?

Paris, Rio, Kyoto: We know pretty well what we’re going to encounter (or at least to savor) as soon as we set foot in any of those cities; part of their gift, polished over centuries, is for knowing how to play themselves to perfection and how to give every visitor just what she wants and expects. Such places are the equivalent of the traveling world’s celebrities, used to projecting themselves compellingly even off-screen. But there’s a different kind of charm in those lesser-known towns that will never be regarded as stars, but that can take on almost any role you ask of them: the character actors among sites, you could say. They offer you unexpectedness.

Take — of all places — Little Rock, Arkansas (yes, take it, please, as a New York comedian might say). If I knew anything about the capital of the “Natural State” before I went there recently, it was that it was small, forgettable, and, as one distinguished travel-writer had written to me, “intriguingly forlorn and melancholy.” Bill Clinton started his political life there, I knew, but that seemed the exception that proved the rule; like many people, I had driven through it on the huge freeway I-40, going across the U.S., and like most people I had taken pains not to stay there.

In short, Little Rock was perfectly positioned to disarm and entertain me as well-worn Paris, Rio, and Kyoto perhaps never could. The first two people I met after I left my hotel turned out to be serious students of Buddhism, one of whom knew and had studied under the one Zen master I happen to know in Kyoto. A brawny guy from Memphis stopped me on the street, outside the Arkansas Literary Festival, and asked me which of Graham Greene’s novels I thought his best. Most wonderfully of all, the town I saw turned out to be an unlikely center of irony, and even self-mockery; at the stately Old State House, the proud and distinguished building from 1842 where Clinton had held his victory celebrations, one whole room was devoted to the history of “Bubbas and hillbillies.”

* * * * *

One beauty of a city of surprise is that at first it offers you little at all, or only what you might have feared. I disembarked in Little Rock on a sultry afternoon in early spring, to find that its baggage carousels delivered luggage at a Samoan pace. The person who was meant to meet me was nowhere in sight. I went over to a public phone booth, to see that it had been stripped of its instrument. The same was true of almost every other public phone booth. Finally I did find a phone, but it gave me no dial tone. I found another, and it was equally mute. People were sitting in their molded plastic chairs as if on their stoops along the Mississippi, watching the world not go by.

“Things move slow round here,” said the sweet woman who did at last arrive to take me into town. “Town” seemed at first blush a euphemism: downtown was over almost before we got there. A convention center, a couple of tall buildings and then a wasteland of empty lots and deserted streets, lean black boys in hoodies drifting across the vacancy, past boarded-up stores that suggested that all life was long gone. I remembered coming into Louisville on just such an afternoon two years before; there was the same, aromatic sense of having come upon some broken capital long after the nation’s leaders had absconded with all the cash.

Then, however, I stepped into the Capital Hotel — a gleaming white historical building with an elevator so large that it had once transported Ulysses S. Grant’s horse, it was said (and once the whole state legislature) — and a smooth man in a suit with perfectly waved brown hair approached me. He made me think, somehow, of a saxophonist doubling as a used-car dealer. “I’m Billy,” he said, “and if there’s anything you want…” The next thing I knew, he was showing me around my room as charmingly as if it were his bachelor pad. A walk-in closet. Some Arkansas toffee, free of charge. The menu to the haute restaurant, Ashley’s, downstairs.

I walked out into the night, three hours later, to find the River Market district down the street abuzz. The sound of blues was pouring out of several raucous bars on a single block. Bouncers as wide as they were tall sat on stools on the sidewalk, giving prospective customers the once-over. Good old boys were revving up their Harleys in a nearby parking lot, while teams of young ladies with cheerleader-perfect hair were fingering shrimp in Flying Fish and other of the restaurants with their windows open to the night. The entertainment district stretched across all of five blocks, but it packed into that small area enough tattoos and blasts of metal and versions of Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” to keep a stadium entertained for a good long while.

* * * * *

Another beauty of a place like Little Rock is that all the sights mentioned in the tourist brochures are within a few blocks of your hotel, and may give you what you never thought to ask for. Next to the great glass structure that is the Clinton Presidential Library is a Clinton School of Public Service and, not far from that, a huge place called the Heifer International Center, dedicated to social justice from Rwanda to Peru. A quaint house near the huge Public Library was selling used books and coffee and knick-knacks. A sleek Ikea-worthy café serving up specialty foods was run by an urbane gent from Delhi (“There can’t be many Indians in Little Rock,” I tried. “Oh,” came the answer, “there are so many of us here!”). In a hippie coffeehouse I sampled, the fliers were advertising “Extreme Midget Wrestling,” coming to town very soon.

Perhaps what I least expected to find in Arkansas was a sense of openness and even mischief. I picked up the local paper to read a piece by someone who presented himself as a “born and raised Southern Baptist,” yet delighted in an appearance by Christopher Hitchens, here to argue that God is not great. A stranger who identified himself to me as “born and raised on the front row of the Southern Baptist Church” asked me if I thought, from my travels, that faith was collapsing around the world. When I said no, he looked decidedly disappointed. A young woman in advertising told me she was reading aloud the latest novel by J.M. Coetzee to her husband. He, in turn, was writing a book on Tolkien.

Some places — Britain, Canada, and Australia are obvious examples — win one over, whatever their deficiencies, by their refusal to take themselves too seriously. Others (dare I mention Atlanta, Houston, or Los Angeles?) seem to be lacking all sense of perspective regarding themselves and their limitations. But I never expected to find Little Rock proudly, and impenitently, in the former category. “The corruption of law and justice has often proved a challenge to Arkansas society,” said a sign in the Old State House exhibition, apparently with delight. The state it was celebrating, it went on, with almost audible glee, has historically been “a magnet for the unlawful.” In a nearby room were a pair of Florsheim shoes worn by the current governor and a cardboard cutout of Bill Clinton, in shades and leather jacket, playing his sax on national television. Downstairs, his running shoes from 1982 were in another display case.

Arkansas politics in the 20th century, I read in yet another room in the building, was “a circus hitched to a tornado” (and I remembered that Mike Huckabee, the guitar-playing Christian who had briefly won the nation’s attention as a presidential candidate three years ago and once issued a pardon to Keith Richards, was also from here). Sure enough, not far away, I found Huckabee’s Guitar Pick and his Duck Call in a case.

On a bright, warm Saturday afternoon, two boys with art-college glasses, who looked as if they should have been at an open-mic event in a grunge café, stood at the center of the entertainment district, wearing placards that said, “There is only one Church in the Bible” and decrying every other Christian denomination. Some frat boys scribbled out a sign — “This guy is a moron” — and placed it next to one of the boy-evangelists, and posed for a cell-phone photo. On the other side of the street, two older men sipping Free Trade espresso and munching on no-fat muffins chuckled with delight. Getting into the spirit of theological debate, one cool-looking character in a two-tone shirt and shades stepped forward to engage the placard-wearers in conversation.

“You not talkin’ ’bout the Kingdom! You believe in Jesus?”

“Yes I do, sir.”

“Then why you think those who believe in Jesus are goin’ to Hell?”

“If you read Romans 8, sir…”

“You sayin’ we believe in Jesus, but we goin’ to Hell?”

The challenger’s three friends laughed approvingly. The Buddhists I met took me to a pan-Asian restaurant in a mini-mall serving Thai curries and sushi under beautifully framed pictures of faces from Mongolia and Laos and Tibet. Nearby, a bridge was lit up like the one across the Bosporus in Istanbul.

“It really wasn’t what I expected at all,” said one of my hosts, a stylish woman in her early sixties with frosted-blonde hair (who was working hard to try to eliminate capital punishment in the state). “There are a lot of people from other places who have found that this is a good place to live.” I recalled the friendly young woman, who volunteered her free time to teach adults to read, pointing out to me the condos in one tall building at the center of town, and saying that they were the priciest places in town (the $250,000 price tag she cited for them would have made them cheaper than the cheapest places in my hometown in California).

On arriving in Little Rock, I had wondered how someone as charming, quick, smooth, and intelligent as the 42nd president of the United States could have emerged from here as if from the forehead of Athena. By the time I left, I was thinking that much of the city along the sluggish Arkansas River was no less supple and surprising. Imagine — though this may not be for everyone — Bill Clinton expanded to the size of a metropolis. You can’t find that in Paris, Rio, or Kyoto. Or even in Washington, D.C.


Pico Iyer is the author of numerous books, including Video Night in Kathmandu, The Lady and the Monk, and The Global Soul. His most recent book is The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

[Photos: Flickr | cliff1066; cliff1066; eschipul; Afroswede; StuSeeger]

Pico Iyer: The trip that changed my life

Bangkok these days seems about as alien and exotic as its sister City of Angels across the ocean. Hollywood cop films are shot there, New York bars open their second branches on its back-streets and for many a kid just out of college in Seattle, the Khao San Road is as natural a first stop as once the Left Bank was, or North Beach. But in 1983, Thailand still seemed the far side of the universe. And to a boy of 26 who was spending his life in a little room in Rockefeller Center in New York, writing about places he’d never seen, it was an instant initiation into mystery and night-time and the limits of all the things he was so sure he knew.

Men came up to me outside the airport — and it was a dumpy airport then, worthy of an almost forgotten country — brandishing pictures of women in bikinis and rooms whose beds seemed to move like the heavens (now those pictures would be much more graphic — and available to a certain kind of visitor before he’d left home, on the Net). There was a smell of jasmine — of spices and gasoline and all of them mixed together — as I headed off in the dusk and clambered into a minivan for the long, long ride into the city. I’d never really set foot in a five-star hotel before when I deposited my luggage with a towering Sikh doorman at the Oriental Hotel and set off into the dark.

The neon was flashing evilly, and irresistibly then. A young woman was stringing her thin arms around me and cooing things in the universal language of desire (for what I represented, if not for me). A Filipino man in the basement of a four-star hotel was singing Grateful Dead ditties on request. No one had heard of Patpong then, or told me that the most alluring women in the street were men.The sound all night — I couldn’t sleep — of slamming doors and soft feet pattering down the (no-star) corridors. Calls at 1 a.m. from strangers with their coos again, sure that I was the only man for them. The tang of mint in every dish, and tall, cool glasses of watermelon juice that I couldn’t have described the day (the life) before in midtown Manhattan.

A Canadian took me under his wing, a wise old hand at 23, and already well on his way to becoming a part of the nether world that was the real world in the Bangkok night, ready to claim every unmoored newcomer. A train was about to set off for the cool spaces of the north. At night, when the tuk-tuk drivers revved up along the jampacked lanes, the smell of diesel and perfume intermingled, I found myself in alleyways where old-style neon blinked and relayed the promises of Suzy Wong.

It wasn’t Thailand, of course, that was beckoning me, but all the force of the things I couldn’t make out. Night was day and late September was summer and men were women who became men again at dawn. The characters around me on the signs (the streets) were strange, and the language so tonal I couldn’t tell a player from a prayer. There were mirrors everywhere, in bars, hotels and what they gave me back to me was a figure I couldn’t recognize. I hadn’t realized ’til that day that you travel to stumble into the unvisited corners of yourself.

I hadn’t realized ’til that day that you travel to stumble into the unvisited corners of yourself.

In Chiang Mai, two days later, I was walking — puffing, really — up a hill, through a landscape from the Vietnam I’d seen only on telecasts, and sitting in a circle in a village, opium in the air. The villagers were dancing, by the light of a candle, and I couldn’t tell if it was the dog they had just eaten or the drugs. Displacement in time had become displacement in space: nights in a hut, a German’s pupils all red, and then dawn with the sound of a rooster, and the preparations of a village anywhere nearby.

The next thing I knew I was in Burma — the rickety grandfather of the England I’d grown up in (a colonial son, of course, becomes master of the house as soon as his father moves on), sailing on Inle Lake, among opium warlords and guerrillas, wandering, dazed, among the 3000 temples of Pagan. A few days later I was in Hong Kong, on expenses (I hadn’t known the meaning of the word in grad school the year before), being entertained at a banquet by the Chinese billionaire who’d built Macao. The next day I was in Narita Airport near Tokyo, waiting for a plane back, and, stumbling into a temple in the little town near the terminal, coming upon an October scene — bright blue skies and a chill of autumn in the air — that told me that I should return to Japan, as I did, for life, it seems.

I’d traveled around India as a teenager, witnessing with a foreigner’s bewilderment a country that was meant to be, and clearly was not, my own. I’d spent two summers traipsing around Europe writing Let’s Go guidebooks, convinced that I was a doctoral student in foreignness and movement. I liked to think myself a man of the world in those days, the prerogative of innocence being that it cannot see to the limits of its knowledge. When young, we know we know it all, and never imagine that the stock of knowledge will only diminish, trickle out, as the years go on.

But Thailand, and all that followed, silenced me. I sat in a colleague’s house in an October downpour, the torrential rains turning the little soi into a running river (people rolling their trousers up to their knees to get across), and tapped out an article on, of all things, Vita Sackville-West, the sometime lover of Virginia Woolf. I’d taken the artifacts of Bloomsbury into the hills with me, and read them among the animists and the opium. Perhaps I was trying to hang onto the life I knew, measuring out the fluent cadences of Sissinghurst here in the wilderness off Sukhumvit.

A bowing secretary came into the room with a pot of tea (my colleague was in Vietnam). The garden in front of me was turning into a misty, tumultuous scene worthy of Maugham. The house my colleague lived in, the life he’d made for himself (a veteran of the war) was more spacious and extravagant than anything his or my bosses could contemplate in Westchester.

What you don’t know, will never know, will always be more involving than what you can explain: it is the fundamental principle of love and of religion.

I came back, after a fashion, from that trip, but it derailed me for good, and showed me the lure of the dark that lay outside the boxed room in which I wrote. What you don’t know, will never know, will always be more involving than what you can explain: it is the fundamental principle of love and of religion. And love and religion were some of what I thought about as I sat in the Time-Life library, paging through any report I could find of Burma, of Thailand, of Laos even, and Cambodia, where I’d never been. In the midst of the traffic outside my eleventh-floor apartment came the sound of something else, more haunting and fragile: a pipe across the fields, a new day in a very ancient place.

Romantic it sounds now, in the recollection. But it wasn’t a romance, because I went back to check on it six months later, and then returned again five months after that, and then took a six-month leave of absence to get thoroughly lost in Asia. I should have known, as I disappeared into Eighth Street, in search of Thai food, the pictures of the pagodas and jungles I’d seen enlarged and set on my office wall, that this was not mere flirtation. I hadn’t come back at all, and never would. The trips that change our lives are the ones where nothing specific happens, and one can remember, 27 years later, every day from September 23rd to October 23rd, 1983.

Pico Iyer has visited Thailand more than 40 times since his initial trip, but something of the mystery is still there for him. His most recent book is The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

[Photos: Flickr | Elisa*; Travlinman43; Irene2005]

Letter from Japan: Learning the language of silence

In most countries of the world it helps to know the language a little before you arrive; in Japan, it can only be an impediment. Words tend to get in the way, and the ideal conversation for most of the Japanese I’ve lived among for 22 years is one in which as few words as possible are exchanged. The country fashions itself more as a family than a free-for-all, and as in any close setting, if you really know someone, you listen less to her words than to her pauses, her hesitations, her tone of voice, everything she leaves out. The main language to learn when you come to Japan is silence.

I got a crash-course in this elusive tongue, harder to translate than Hungarian, when I went with my Japanese sweetheart to the templed island of Miyajima not so long ago. I knew that the place would be packed with Japanese visitors — we were going on a holiday weekend in early November — eager to enjoy its celebrated maple trees, its strolling deer and “white raccoons,” the Itsukushima shrine set out on the sea, as shrines had been set here for fifteen hundred years. So I found a list of traditional Japanese inns on the island and made some calls several weeks in advance. At one of the numbers, remarkably, the phone was answered by the sweetest and most mellifluous voice I’d heard in years, switching within a syllable to perfect English.

I asked if she had a room available for the first weekend in November.

“Of course,” came the trilling answer. “Would you like a Western room or a Japanese?”

“Western,” I said, remembering too many nights sneezing on tatami mats.

“Okay. I’ll be waiting for you!”

Was that all, I wondered? Was something wrong? I queried her some more, and she said, in the most lilting and almost hypnotic English I’d heard in months, “Our rooms are very small, I’m afraid, but our food is good. I’ll be waiting for you.”I put down the phone with the strangest feelings. There was something so intimate and warming about the encounter that I’d felt as if I’d been admitted to a bedroom. Not in a seductive way, but in the form of an ideal reassurance. Japan styles itself publicly as a perfect mother — polite, attentive, consoling — and now, somehow, even I had been brought into the circle of her attention. I didn’t remember, for the moment, the classic wisdom here about how the greater the impression of intimacy, the deeper the probable distance (a lesson I could also have learned in my native England). I just rejoiced in the medicinal sweetness. Suggestion is only a half-note away from assertion in Japan, and it would take a Henry James to tell the velvet glove from the fist within it.

I was so confounded by the exchange — I must have missed something: did she need no deposit? Did she really accept credit cards? Had she truly got the dates correctly — that I asked Hiroko to call two days later, to make sure we had the reservation right.

“Very nice lady,” she said, not entirely characteristically, after her brief chat. “Very warm. Little home feeling.”

Six weeks later, we arrived on the tiny island and there, across from the ferry, was a fading sign above a grungy, six-seat coffee-shop that announced (in Japanese only, disconcertingly) the curious name of the inn we had chosen. We went in, and a gracious woman in her middle years, petite and attentive, came tiptoeing out in a blue kimono, and bowed deeply before each one of us.

“Hello,” she said, and I recognized the unhesitant English from before. “I was waiting for you.”

Then, before we could say another word, she bowed again, ceremonially. “I am so happy to see you. I’ve been waiting for you since this morning.”

Could this be true? We’d said we’d come at 3 p.m., and now it was 2:57. Something made me feel we were already putting her out.

“Your room is waiting for you. Japanese, yes?”

“Er, no, Western.”

“I remember that you wanted Japanese, but there was only a Western available, so when a Japanese became available, I put you in it.”

It sounded like one of those koans I’d come here to learn. She was doing us a favor by denying what we wanted. She was — perhaps — teaching us a little about the impermanence of desire and the folly of expectation. She was extending a gift-wrapped box to us, so delicately and so elegantly wrapped, that it seemed churlish to point out that it contained exactly what we hadn’t asked for.

It didn’t matter: the Japanese room was clean and elegant, with a lovely view. Its simplicity seemed to be instructing us in what the island was about, the need to speak little when the heart is full.

The room was named “Chrysanthemum,” she told us, after leading us up to it, immaculate in her sliding socks. I began to ask about how a few of its amenities worked, and she looked as if I’d asked her for a list of her favorite lovers.

“I will give you a soap later,” she said, and slipped away, never to return.

The next day we came back from a long day in a far-off temple. When we pulled back the front screen, our hostess — she was always there, it seemed — came out and bowed before us, once again, deeply.

“Did you have a good day?”

“Very, thank you.”

“You didn’t use my car! I could have given you a ride anywhere you wanted!”

“I’m sorry. We didn’t know.” We’d somehow done her a disservice by taking care of ourselves as we wished.

We began to move up to our room, and she signaled, without opening her mouth, that she had something to say to us.

“I’m so sorry. I’m terribly sorry. But you’re now in another room, across the corridor. I remember that you had wanted a Western room, and yesterday I gave you a Japanese room. So I’ve found a Western room for you. I hope you will like it.”

Somebody else had canceled, I thought — or else some more presentable and monied guest had arrived, and demanded a Japanese room — and we had already distinguished ourselves as trouble-makers. Harmony can be preserved only if each person subordinates his individual wishes; she was teaching us to be Japanese. Besides, she knew there was no way we could find alternative accommodations on a holiday weekend.

“But our things?”

“I moved them,” she said sweetly. I thought of the hand puppets I’d taken out of my bag, of toothbrushes and make-up creams and coins and underwear that we’d tossed around that morning, making the space our own. Now, we found as we got up to a windowless, squat little room, a funeral chamber ideal for a Meiji-era grandfather, all our most intimate items meticulously set down among frayed chairs and moth-eaten curtains.

There was a knock on the door.

“What can I make for your breakfast tomorrow?” I opened up to find her inches away.

“Just some tea, orange juice, nothing special.”

“No eggs?” She looked crushed.

“Okay, some fried eggs.”

“I can’t make you any sausages?”

“Alright.”

Now we were trying to take care of her needs again, as if somehow our breakfast were her treat. I remembered how Hiroko had told me, when we’d met nineteen autumns before, that what you paid for in the water-trade, as the hospitality business here is called, was the chance to be beautifully manipulated. If the maneuvers were executed well enough, your smile would become more heartfelt than your hostess’s, and your comfort would become not just her pleasure, but her profit.

“And, for dinner tonight,” our hostess went on softly. “I’ve decided to give you something different.”

“That’s okay. We really liked what we had last night.” (How could I tell her that the tempura I’d ordered up the night before was the one Japanese item I could stomach?)

“Yes,” she said. Or “No!” as it would be in English.

We gathered a little later for our (not inexpensive, obligatory) dinner, to find out that it consisted entirely of arcane, non-tempura items — rejected, I could only assume, by the new, tempura-loving guests. Or items that our hostess loved, whether we were in the mood for them or not. She bowed with each small plate she delivered, and smiled as if to say, “You’re enjoying them — yes?”

The next day we were due to leave, and there were more bows, a chiming chorus of “Thank you”s and “Sorry”s and “Please come back.” Our hostess looked as if she were about to weep — tears come easily in Japan — so I complimented her on her English.

“I am fifty-six,” she answered, bowing, “and so it is many years since I studied English in school.”

“But you must have spoken it a lot since then. To be so good.”

She pretended to ignore me, as if it were I who should be complimented on my English. It was true: smiling sweetly and saying nothing, her “Yes”s accelerating as she thwarted our wishes, showed me how fluent she was in Japanese, even when she seemed to be speaking my tongue.

“And that receipt you promised us…?”

She foraged around her desk, as if I’d asked her for an elephant, on toast.

“Just an empty paper will do, if that’s easier.”

I’d put her out, apparently, by simply requesting a slip to show we’d paid. She handed over a scrap of paper from the trash.

“This is such a nice place,” I said in Japanese, to show that I could speak a little of her native tongue too.

“Thank you.” She bowed deeply. “Please tell your friends about us.”

At just that instant, another figure appeared, moving slowly towards the front door. “Oh, Sharon!” called our sweet and pretty hostess. “I’m so happy to see you. I’ve been waiting for you since seven o’clock.”

I looked at Sharon, so fresh to unarmed warfare, and thought: Where else can you learn about the power of the unsaid and the genius of saying nothing? She need never even go out to see the island’s temples; all their lessons were right here, in the bowing matron, if only she could see it as she was led up to precisely the room she hadn’t asked for.

[Photos courtesy Flickr users Racum; Jordan Emery; Geert Orye; Spiegel]

* * * * *

Pico Iyer is the author of many books of travel, among them Video Night in Kathmandu, Falling off the Map, The Lady and the Monk, and The Global Soul. His most recent book is The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.