During my sophomore year of college, in the mid-seventies, I took a stroll after class one day with my Japanese teacher, an accomplished and, as I'd learned, complex woman in her mid-forties who'd come to Boston from Tokyo the year before. I was in the first blush of a love affair, not with her but with her country, and I genuinely felt that in everything from eating habits to interpersonal relations we Americans were in need of training from the enlightened Japanese. As we walked, I remarked that in Japan people seemed to understand harmony in a way we Westerners probably never would.
A long silence followed, and I began to consider what I'd said. My teacher was not only childless— unusual for a Japanese woman of her age— but also divorced. She had quit a university appointment in sociology to come to the United States because she could no longer bear living in Japan. In a moment she turned to me, wearing a knowing smile, and asked, "Do you really think so?" But by then I already understood the problem. She'd said a great many things critical of her country, and yet, blinded by my fantasies, I'd heard only what I wanted to hear.
In the years since, I've come to enjoy the challenge of understanding Japan, and explaining it— as I tried to do in certain ways in Memoirs of a Geisha. So you can imagine how I felt 18 months ago when I was invited to come along as a cultural guide on a Butterfield & Robinson bicycle trip in Japan. Eleven days, from Tokyo to Kyoto, with mountains, hot springs, and famous gardens in between.
In case you've never heard of Butterfield & Robinson, they're the ones who invented the luxury bike trip, where the bike isn't so much for exercise, but to lend the proper pace to a tour through the countryside. We began in Toyko not on bicycles, however, but on subways and in taxis. Tokyo may well be the ugliest prosperous city in the world, and the rewards of pedaling around it are too few. The problem isn't just the traffic, or the dreary overhead wires and concrete façades, but the monotony of the landscape. I first visited as a college student and found that Tokyo had so few hills and landmarks that I couldn't form a mental map of it. Even the rivers and streams weren't much help; they offered too little frontage and often slipped between buildings, almost the way a rat might.
But I was smitten with Tokyo's intensity. Even now I'm awed when I see the crowds pour from the city's office buildings in the early evening, a river of dark-haired, well-dressed men and young women spilling down into subway stations, pooling at intersections where— particularly in the rain— the diamonds of headlights and the rubies of taillights give the scene an astonishing and unforgettable urban beauty. How you react to Tokyo is perhaps the true test of whether you love cities or merely the amenities they offer. For my part, I feel a thrill even on the bus from Narita Airport, as the bumper-to-bumper traffic on three levels of highways squeezes into an architectural corridor of concrete and glass.
I'll confess I worried that the two dozen or so travelers wouldn't share my enthusiasm, but three other guides were there to smooth the way. In the group's first meeting, over brunch on the top floor of the spectacular Park Hyatt Tokyo, we looked out through the pyramid of glass around us onto a gray haze lying across Tokyo, whose expanse reached all the way to the horizon. To make matters worse, the rain timed itself to begin just as we did, and it stayed with us until we left the city. But during those two days, we walked under umbrellas through the Shibuya district, crowded with teenagers and pachinko parlors; rode the elevated trains of the Yamanote Line; ate lunch at noodle bars; learned about pearls and woodblock prints; and visited the Tsukiji fish market at dawn, where the mist rising from the flash-frozen tuna hovers so beautifully over the floor that it seems almost a staged effect.
In Takayama ("high mountain")— a half day's train ride from Tokyo— the group had its first experience of the Japanese countryside. I'm sure everyone expected to be struck by the natural beauty, and there was certainly plenty of that. I doubt they were prepared for the same sort of reckless modernization that gives Tokyo its peculiar look, and yet you see it wherever you go in Japan. Westerners often suppose that the Japanese, with their love of nature, have kept their landscape unspoiled. In truth, any quiet spot in Japan is virtually doomed the moment it becomes famous: first the concrete resorts spring up, with parking lots for the tour buses, and soon the paths through the woods have metal handrails and overflowing garbage cans. Our hotel stood with other developments in a giant scar across the mountainside, and the first leg of our afternoon walk took us along an unappealing roadway until we finally reached our hillside trail.
But Takayama's allures aren't hard to find. I still remember the magnificent smoky aroma of a house in the Hida Farm Village Museum (Hida Minzoku-mura), a collection of centuries-old dwellings arranged around a large pond. Nails were rarely used in traditional construction, and the ropes holding roof beams together were kept dry and taut with the help of smoke from the kitchen hearth. I have a particular fondness for glimpses of the past so vivid I'm made to feel out of place in tennis shoes. Along with Versailles, the U.S.S. Constitution in Boston, and the imperial Forbidden City in Beijing, Takayama's village museum ranks among my favorites.
In the town we shopped for leaf-shaped dishes and bamboo-shaped vases, all of lacquerware, toured a sake microbrewery, and ate soba noodles before our first bike ride. We also paused for the second in a series of impromptu lectures that came to be known as "Arthur Talks" even though the other guides often pitched in. I've been a teacher for the past decade, but my subject has always been fiction writing; I taught about Japan only once, years ago. So here was my chance to indulge myself. During the trip, we ran through a quick history of Japan's modernization, talked about how Westerners often bow poorly because they try to maintain eye contact as though they were shaking hands, and discussed the way Japanese vocabulary draws on Chinese, much as English draws on Latin. Some of the subjects probably sound a little dry, chief among them Karl August Wittfogel's hydraulic theory of Oriental despotism— not as turgid as you might think. It goes like this: