With studios in Paris and Tokyo, maverick designer Yohji Yamamoto has always had to blend two worlds. Here he embarks on a singular journey into Japan, both past and present

'People characterize my work as very Japanese,' says fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto. 'That always surprises me. My generation has no sense of nationality. It's hard to appreciate that, unless you were born in Tokyo in 1943 and grew up in a country destroyed both objectively and mentally by the Second World War. But I believe that my clothes don't belong to any country, any religion, or any culture. They are outsiders."

We are at the Yamamoto press offices, a low-slung building in the Shinagawa district on Tokyo's waterfront. The "outsiders" are all around us, hanging from serried racks or resting on pristine surfaces. Black-clad minions float back and forth, tending to our needs and theirs and the unlikely journey Yamamoto and I are planning into the very heart of the country that his designs lay claim to disowning. International in reputation and habit, Yamamoto makes few forays into the world beyond Paris and Tokyo. In Tokyo, he leads a fiercely private life, centered on his atelier, his home, and his dogs. Rarely does he stray from his routines except to transfer his intense concentration from his work to karate and gambling—he is a black belt in one and an equally formidable opponent in the other. It's all the more surprising, then, that the trip we're embarking on is a very personal odyssey into places he has not visited in nearly 30 years.

Yamamoto's legendary equivocation toward things Japanese seems strange, coming as it does from the man whose radical clothes, when first shown in Paris in 1981, were considered so at odds with received Western taste that they were greeted by critics with horrified cries of "Hiroshima sans amour." Yamamoto, along with Rei Kawakubo (of Comme des Garçons) and Issey Miyake, spearheaded the so-called Japanese invasion of the eighties. His somber clothes defied not just convention but the very shape of the human body: some garments had missing sleeves; others, exposed seams; still others were worn as if back to front. Such scarecrow silhouettes were unlike anything ever seen before. The wearing of clothes as foreign as these seemed to require some kind of instruction—if not, as Yamamoto once joked, changes in lifestyle and partner. But for all their raggedy deconstructed appearance, the garments were beautifully made. Yamamoto's black, punky, uncompromising minimalism came to symbolize not existential malaise but glamour and sobriety and success. It was a revolution that appeared to come from nowhere, from a man who insisted, "I want to be no one."

Recently, Yamamoto's virtual refusal of a national identity has softened. In 1995, in what could be read as a move toward Japanese tradition, the kimono provided the basis for his spring collection. This spring, the presentation of his collection evoked the rituals of Kabuki, as models changed outfits on the runway, peeling away layer after layer in a series of dazzling transformations assisted by stagehands dressed in black.

So after a lull of some years, Yamamoto is back in the full glare of the fashion spotlight. Favored by the late Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, among others, his designs can be said to embody many of the paradoxes of modern Japan. At a time when traditions are more often preserved than practiced, and the promises of modernity seem exhausted, Yamamoto offers a fresh and enlightening perspective—something akin to an insider's view of a culture turned inside out.

Waiting on the platform of Tokyo station for the shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagaoka, a city in Niigata prefecture north of Tokyo, my first preconception—that Japanese schoolgirls are a perversion invented by cult photographer Nobuyoshi Araki—is disproved beyond doubt. Leaving behind questions about the semiotics of ankle socks in subtropical summer heat, our journey into Yamamoto's past begins. "I have very strong memories of Nagaoka. When I was a couturier in my mother's dressmaking shop in Tokyo, I traveled there once a month to work in the custom-tailoring division of a department store," he tells me as we glide at an ever more dizzying speed across endless suburban sprawl. "I picture it as the dark side of Japan. Where Kyoto is perfect in a way that disturbs me, Nagaoka brings together tradition and tackiness. For me it represents the two sides of Japan. There is the Pacific side, the front cover of the book—full of sunshine and brightness—and the side that faces the Sea of Japan, which is wild and visual. The scenery there is so lovely and lonesome…" I am left hanging in a long pause, wondering what dark ruminations such a landscape might elicit, when Yamamoto adds: "So we need drinks!"

Like that of many of the larger cities in Japan, Nagaoka's recent history is one of ongoing cycles of obliteration and reconstruction. Twice destroyed, once by the Boshin Civil War that deposed the shogunate government in 1868 and again by the Allied forces in 1945, it has little that recalls its past as the center of a wealthy prefecture of rice farmers, and few of the darker corners remembered by Yamamoto. The department store where he once sewed is now a pachinko (pinball-cum-slot machine) parlor catering to other coordinations of hand and eye. An evening excursion in the shopping area close to Nagaoka station produces a chance encounter with the parlor's current owner. Yamamoto, who enjoys rock star-like celebrity all over Japan, is recognized immediately, and a small gathering forms around him. Amid much deferential if somewhat inebriated bowing, the proprietor of the pachinko parlor asks Yamamoto to sign his T-shirt. It's gray and emblazoned with the distinctive logo of British designer Paul Smith. After some hesitation Yamamoto obliges with a laugh. It's a gesture that captures much of the character of our trip into semi-rural Japan: even in these backwaters it seems that modernity is written on every article of clothing and every wall.

Our guide for the next few days is Masako Nishimura, a close friend of Yamamoto's who owns a kimono shop in Kyoto. We waste no time heading out of the city for Oziya-shi, the site of the Konni dyeing and weaving studio. The traditional techniques employed here are similar to those of the Kyoto-based workshop that produced the fabric for Yamamoto's kimono-inspired collection.

A family business established in 1751, it is presently run by the charmingly self-described "manager the eleventh." Like many of the area's traditional industries, fabric dyeing flourished because of the availability and purity of the water. On top of a natural spring, latticed steel towers over shallow dye pits. All around are hues of indigo blue, from the concentrations in the dye vats to the washed-out navies of distant people working the rice fields.

At pains to explain the process, the manager tells us how a leaf crucial to the dyeing is imported from the southern island of Shikoku, whose temperate climate favors its growth. The leaves are then transformed into a liquid mash and left for six months or so while the bacteria that naturally inhabit the plant, fortified by sake, free the dye from its cellulose prison. He explains this as we watch narrow sheets of fabric disappear into deep-blue voids under the wooden floor, to emerge a light green that on contact with the air becomes one of a familiar range of blues. As this happens, the fabric, either smooth or knotted, is whisked into the rafters and thrown over waiting bamboo poles. It then unfurls into a spectacular tied-and-dyed fretwork. Shaken out of the hanging fabric, hundreds of hand-tied knots flower like white blossoms against indigo skies.

Historically, traditional economies have been propelled by water, and the countryside around Nagaoka is no exception. From the banks of the Shinano spread vast alluvial plains hedged on either side by mountains—the Higashiyama Range to the distant east, the lower Nishiyama hills to the near west. This is the sort of geography that favors rice cultivation, and with it the complex of social relations that gave rise to the feudal system Marx called "Oriental despotism."

To get an impression of the way the overlords lived, we drive a couple of miles to the Hasegawa House, one of only a few large thatched structures in Japan to have survived from the mid 19th century. Once you enter and become accustomed to the darkness, the marriage between simplicity and elegance is immediately apparent. The lower part of the house is constructed of squared and polished wood, with pillars lined up at regular intervals. About 10 feet from the ground, the structure suddenly changes. Planar wall faces—with their strict relationships and modular, tatami-mat proportions—give way to the rustic organic forms of rough-hewn rafters bearing dark, soot-blackened thatch. Such abrupt transitions are a striking feature, not just of the architecture of the past, but of a sensibility encountered all over contemporary Japan. Life seems to be lived much as soba is devoured: the intricacy of patterns noisily and pleasurably consumed.

We return to Nagaoka and delicate teas, endless shoe changes, and the boundless hospitality of the Kawakami household, where Yamamoto is staying. Adjacent to the family's sake brewery, established in the mid 16th century, theirs is a traditional house. The sliding fusuma, the dappled darkness of the sudare blinds, and the scent of cedar extend the space toward the moss-softened silhouettes of the garden beyond. The aesthetic has little to do with what we term minimalism. The house resists all Western conventions of containment; rather, it brings the outside in. "It's a very precious sort of architecture," Yamamoto later remarks over sake. "Wooden houses such as these are built on the idea of wind and air, and I like that very much." A breeze moves through the house, carrying with it the smell of nightfall, and mosquitoes eager to introduce themselves to new flesh. Like many of my best moments in foreign countries, this one is at once sublimely tranquil and itchy. A moment passes before he continues: "But for people who have been born in such a house there is no privacy." Then he adds that to be a private person does not necessitate the building of walls—it helps to have space, and in this country to have space you have to be rich.

As we leave the tranquillity of the Kawakami household and wind back to the hotel on side streets illuminated by neon signs, bright vending machines, and paper lanterns, I find myself thinking of Junichiro Tanizaki's modern classic In Praise of Shadows. Tanizaki makes the point that much of Japan's traditional art arose from the darkness in which people lived—the glossy lacquers and gilt screens that look garish in modern spaces were designed to pick up the last rays of light struggling through penumbral gloom. It was the pressure of the darkness of interior life that drove the Japanese to create cities of neon and fluorescent light.

Walking past the flashing lights of the pachinko parlor and back into the uniformly lit hotel lobby, it's easy to see how brightness has become a fundamental desire in Japan. Yamamoto's designs shun this tendency. "I felt that in a city like Tokyo, which is full of neon and advertising, at least clothing shouldn't be shouting at you as well," he once said. "It should express nothing more than just 'Leave us alone.' " But behind Yamamoto's fiercely contemporary silhouettes lies something almost nostalgic—perhaps a lament he shares with Tanizaki, that the beauty of shadow is no longer understood in modern Japan.

Our travels around Nagaoka continually lead us to the paradoxes of normality. Here we encounter little of the aesthetic perfection that Yamamoto finds so disturbing about Kyoto. As we drive past old wooden houses shored up by patchworks of aluminum siding, carved wooden gables that sprout TV antennas, laboriously tended paddies dotted with stooped figures in sampans, Yamamoto rails against what French philosopher Jean Baudrillard once aptly termed tourism's "glass ethnology." "When I look at traditional Japanese houses that have been remade very carefully, I feel only their artificiality. To me it looks like a lie. It's the way modern people care for the past." Next to these deceptive structures is the cheap housing that stretches across the countryside, "contagious, like a sickness." Somewhere between these extremes is a country omitted from the usual itinerary, a place that approximates the actual texture of Japan.

To gain a better look, we climb up Yamamoto Yama, a hilltop with commanding views. Below us the Shinano River snakes its way through the blinding yellow-green of the rice paddies. On either side, pylons and the ubiquitous antennas litter the countryside. "In a way," muses Yamamoto, "the Japanese like design—in the sense of architecture and lifestyle—too much. They dream about modernity, and it's often charming, but it looks like a total mistake." The Modernist edict of "better living by design" seems here to have been translated into "better living by whatever means possible"—means that are now a highly visible part of the landscape. The great director Akira Kurosawa bemoaned the fact that Japan's once-great wildernesses had been so despoiled that period movies would soon be a thing of the not-so-distant past.

For Yamamoto, to revisit Nagaoka is also to revisit the work of many great Japanese writers—Ango Sakaguchi, Osamu Dazai, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, and Kenji Miyazawa, to name but a few. Third or fourth sons of wealthy rice farmers, they were born here and fled the provinces only to return in literary recollection. In the dense humidity of the summer light it's hard to imagine the oppressive winter gloom that so colors their prose. Theirs was a romanticism born of climate, and as we follow the Shinano River to where it eventually disgorges into the Sea of Japan, I sense the disappointment felt by Yamamoto at finding the heart of this culture of darkness bathed in rapturous sunshine. "But as long as the words of climate live within us, our reason will never be able to deny this nostalgia for the homeland," writes Sakaguchi, and it's not hard to imagine how this ragged coastline might have inspired the mordant and soulful abrasions of Yamamoto's recently recorded album, Dog of Terror.

The dilapidated railway stations that punctuate the route from the trading port of Niigata to Nagaoka, the swirling barber poles in the small towns, the serving of buttered toast and tea, and the croquet games taking place beside the rice paddies—all are legacies of the period after World War I, when Japan turned to England for its model of industrialization. For the present generation they have acquired a sentimental import all their own. Taking us away from carefully preserved touristic Japan, Yamamoto opens our eyes to the funk filling the cracks between old and new. For him, traditional Japan no longer inhabits the architecture of the past. Rather, it survives in more ineffable form: in the ceremonies that still structure social protocols, in the graciousness of Japanese hospitality, in the literature of the small town with its self-conscious reflectiveness. "We grew up reading these writers and now we take their writing for our memories. But we can't go back to these places. They have become very far away."

It was filmmaker Wim Wenders who most aptly described Yamamoto's relationship to tradition, likening his sensibility to that of an archaeologist who uncovers the past to expose it to the light of the present day. As we hurtle back to Tokyo, I can't help thinking of Ridley Scott's postmodern parable Blade Runner, in which the struggle to establish identity is played out against conflicting styles and uncertain memories. It's an image of the city made real by the frenetic spectacle of the Shibuya Crossing—Tokyo's Times Square—where rivers of people flow beneath high-tech advertisments for a better life. But the Tokyo that enchants Yamamoto is a far cry from the neon-flavored petri dishes that are Shibuya or Roppongi.

Away from it all, in the old Tokyo district of Shitamachi, we find incongruously quiet streets beneath the looming skyline. Strolling along a shopping thoroughfare in Tsukishima, we peer into traditional fabric shops where business is conducted on the floor; watch miniature chows being hand-groomed; and sample oddly shaped crackers. A small alley leads under paper lanterns to a traditional Shinto shrine, 1,000 origami cranes guarded by a pair of budgies. All around, the smell of damp earth issues from thousands of potted plants—basil, ficus, roses, hydrangeas, wisteria—framing doorways and perching on rickety wooden stairs to climb, through veils of laundry, into other worlds.

A short walk leads to Tsukudajiima, with its maze of alleys, wooden houses, and bamboo lean-tos. Here, around the waterways of the Sumida, among the unchained bicycles and pots of hibiscus, are troughs in which whetstones soak. Life here proceeds at the pace of an older, fast-disappearing generation that remembers a different country. This is a part of Tokyo favored as a backdrop by filmmaker Takeshi Kitano, known for his brutal but elegiac juxtapositions of an old world order and the violent corruption of the modern yakuza (gangsters). It's easy to see how the shared sensibilities of the director and the designer have led to rumors of a forthcoming collaboration. "Tokyo is becoming very clean and beautiful," says Yamamoto, "but in the older parts you can still find very many strange combinations of modern beauty and tradition."

Yamamoto's Japan is a place not only of complexity but of understatement. I was reminded of his acceptance speech for the International Designers Award in New York last spring. He told the audience that he had been planning to say simply "Thank you," before being cautioned by a friend that such brevity might be interpreted as lack of gratitude. With this in mind he changed his speech to "Thank you very much." It was a gesture typical of Yamamoto—a cool, wry, and self-effacing approach to a world where very little can easily mean very much.

Yohji Yamamoto's Japan Address Book

Where to Stay
Hotel Okura 2-10-4 Toranomon, Minato-ku; 81-3/3582-0111, fax 81-3/3582-3707; doubles from $300. Near both the youth-oriented Roppongi and the more upscale Ginza shopping districts, this hotel is favored by a varied crowd—everyone from President Clinton to traditional wedding parties to fashionistas.

Shunja "Hibiki" 4-7-10 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku; 81-3/5485-0020; dinner for two $105. Like many of the best restaurants in Tokyo, this one is small and hard to find. The specialty is tofu cooked at the table on gas burners, but you can get everything from boiled potatoes to fermented fish innards.

Yatoro 4-11-4 Roppongi, Minato-ku; 81-3/3405-5866; dinner for two $200. This small family-run establishment must be among Tokyo's best-kept secrets. At the bar—there are no tables—you're likely to find yourself rubbing shoulders with Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo, and other mavens of Japanese design. Watch as one delicious dish after another is prepared in a setting accented by black marble, copper, rare calligraphy, and two Chagalls.

Kimonos Kimono Arts Azabu-Juban, Minato-ku; 81-3/3457-0323. Ikeda Antique Kimono Shop 5-22-11 Shirogane-dai, Minato-ku; 81-3/3445-1269. Beautiful antique kimonos are sold and new ones made to order at these two stores. They will also show you how to wear one. Prices start at $90.

Where to Stay
Izumiya Hotel Yomogihira Onsen, Nagaoka; 81-25/823-2231, fax 81-25/823-1186; doubles from $135. Approximately a half-hour drive from Nagaoka station, this contemporary Japanese hotel has traditional rooms—futons on tatami mats—and modern amenities, as well as indoor and outdoor hot springs.

Konni Katakai-machi, Oziya-shi, Niigata-ken; 81-25/884-2016. At the front of the dyeing workshop is a small store where fabric and related goods can be bought. Cloth tends to come in traditional kimono widths (33 centimeters for women and slightly larger for men), and usually costs about $14 per meter.

Hasegawa House 773-1 Tsukanoyama, Koshijimachi, Santogun, Nagaoka; 81-25/894-2518; admission $3.50, open April 1-November 30.

Yoshinogawa 4-8-12 Settaya, Nagaoka; 81-25/835-3000, fax 81-25/836-1107. You can tour the factory of this sake brewery by appointment.

Junichiro Tanizaki's meditation on Japanese culture, In Praise of Shadows, offers unusual insights into the country's aesthetic traditions.

Haruki Murakami's novels (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) are set in modern-day Japan but cite everything from Philip K. Dick to World War II to New Age mysticism.

Takeshi Kitano, most famous stateside for highly stylized films of betrayal and revenge among warring yakuza, is also a television personality, a newspaper columnist, and a painter whose work was featured in his flick Fireworks, in which a down-on-his-luck officer takes his terminally ill wife on a second honeymoon to Mount Fuji.

Director Shohei Imamura's early work is reminiscent of the French New Wave. His most recent films include The Eel—which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1997—about a man who serves an eight-year sentence for murdering his wife, then goes to live in a coastal town with a collection of misfits and his pet eel.