How a stopover at Tokyo airport changed my life: Pico Iyer

A flash of orange and scarlet from the picture windows above tatami mats, looking out on trees in a late October sky. The last thing I wanted was an overnight layover in an airport hotel next to a facility that had been the subject of furious debates for years: how dare modern Tokyo, in its rush to modernity, displace farmers andtheir rice paddies in order to construct a huge terminal with three projected runways miles from the city? But there I was, in the Hotel Nikko Narita, pondering how airport towns – I’dspentfar too long near Hounslow and Queens already – are seldom centres of cultural fascination. I whiled away a bright afternoon watching unfathomable Japanese TV, and then enjoyed dinner downstairs and a fitful, jetlagged sleep. I’d never seen Japan before – I was sure I’d never see it again – and the concrete buildings along thebusy roads lined with vending machines confirmed my sense that I’d never want to visit a second time. Suddenly, I was in a much more intimate quarter: a celebrated pilgrimage site, if only I’d known it, to which people would sometimes walk for 45 miles from central Tokyo to pay their respects. I’d never seen a Japanese Buddhist temple before, and after I came out of the meditation hall, I followed a row of gravestones to thetemple garden, where dozens of five-year-olds, in pink or blue caps, were scattering across a lawn collecting fallen leaves. Japan in the early autumn is a miracle of brilliant blueskiesand the first pang of coming cold and dark; the fact that nothing lasts, you’re told, is precisely the reason why everything matters, and has to be cherished before it’s gone. By the time I boarded my flight for JFK a few hours later, I’d decided to move to Japan on the basis of a morning in the airport town. Also, because in times ofstress – or enforced stillness such as the great layover we’re all experiencing now – we tend to return to such places in our heads, if only to sustain ourselves with images of theplacewhere we can become our truest selves. And as I grow older, I can taste more and more the exact mix of wistfulness and buoyancy that lit up that October sky, the hush that hung over those thin, unpeopled streets.