Nicolas Bouvier in Kyoto

‘Scent of pine tree. Soaring foliage, stiff and alive with cicadas. In a cemetery a priest in a raspberry robe recites the sutras on a tomb, and it is like the sound of a distant fountain.’*

Almost like an iconographic momentum, these words, from The Japanese Chronicles, accurately reveal the writer’s intimate appeal to different forms of art, including words and pictures. A poet at heart, and with the spirit of the eternal scholar who has seen and learned a lot about the art of life, Nicolas Bouvier is best known as a travel writer ante litteram through his widely acclaimed masterpiece ‘L’usage du monde’ (translated into English as The Way of the World).

In the book Bouvier narrates the voyage of self-discovery which he undertook in the early 1950s with his artist friend Thierry Vernet, starting from his native Geneva passing across the Balkans to Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, then India and Ceylon, where, self-isolated, he got stuck in a physical and emotional void, an episode brilliantly reported in ‘Le poisson-scorpion’.  

Kyoto summer evening
(Yumi Nakano)

Redemption for Bouvier came in the form of a boat ticket to Yokohama, the gateway to Japan, where he would stay for over a year during 1955-1956. It is at this occasion that he encounters Kyoto for the first time, after a journey by foot from Tokyo on the Tokaido, which involved six to seven weeks of walking through country fields, following the vision depicted by Hiroshige:

‘…Nights spent beneath the roofs of little temples in the countryside, hamlets and lonely rice fields of the Ki peninsula: I arrived at the outskirts of the old capital an amazed vagabond, which is how you should approach a city of six hundred temples and thirteen centuries of history.’*

The old capital fascinated him, although he felt it difficult to enter into, at times surreal: ‘This city – one out of ten worldwide that are worth living in – has for me, despite its gentleness, something maleficent. Austere, elegant, but spectral. One would not be too much surprised to wake up and not find it anymore.’’**

In a letter to his friend Thierry Vernet on the July 12, 1956, he writes: ‘I believe that the country can’t give me more without asking me to lose all the rest. There are doors here that I could open only by closing others. I will therefore extract myself and leave, abandoning much fruit on the trees, but the orchard is still to be planted at home, in a fortress of quietness.’***

Nonetheless, Kyoto definitely became a central locus in his inner geography, and it was just a matter of time, in fact a decade later, before Bouvier would return to the city as a short-term resident, this time with his pregnant wife Eliane and his son Thomas: ‘In the interval between these two journeys, I feel I have somehow been absent from my life. I am curious to see which is more changed – this country or me.’*

The family stayed first in a house on Yoshida hill, and later in a building belonging to a subtemple of Daitoku-ji, the address of which translated as ‘Pavilion of the Auspicious Cloud, Temple of Great Virtue, Quarter of the Purple Prairie, North Sector, Kyoto’. Nicolas earned money with journalist articles, and in parallel worked on a book and photography project. His work as an iconographer, researching images in archives, was complementary to his writing work: both served the goal of illuminating the void with ‘the magic lantern’ of poetry, and thereby decoding the universe, a major theme in his work and life.

During his second residence in Kyoto, his fascination for the city remained unaltered, nourished by its elusiveness; Bouvier considered himself an observer at a distance, a role he was perfectly comfortable with:

‘Grey, pearly sky. The giant trees of Yoshida, swelled by the rain, gesticulate with nonchalance. There are really beautiful trees in Kyoto, but most of the time they leave you alone. From time to time, a warm wind chases the dust northwards. Took a taxi and drove along the river Kamo by swarms of school kids with heavy tresses, black uniforms […]. On the river banks, indefinite silhouettes walk dogs…I was struck by a doubt: after all, what if this country didn’t really exist?**

Bouvier was deeply impressed by the artistic and cultural density of the city, although he was aware that the abundance of academic specialists and critics also induced a lack of freshness and innovation: ‘Throw a stone, and you will hit a professor’.* On the other hand, in his everyday life he preferred the company of people he met while wandering around; the hard-working soup-shop tenant, the toothless peasant, the old landlady, the descendant of a ruined samurai family.

Not surprisingly, as a resident of the Daitoku-ji temple complex, Bouvier showed an interest in Zen and he coined his very own definition of it: ‘ Zen: a Buddhist vaccine derived from the Tao of fighting evil – or a secondary effect born from Buddhism’**.

Zen garden at Ryogen-in, Daitoku-ji (Robert Weis)

However, Bouvier was not eager to commit to the path of enlightenment: he remained in the position of an observer. For him, Zen was a house where he happened to be a concierge for a couple of months, watching his son grow up and catch butterflies in the garden: ‘ […] he was the most Zen of all; he lived, the others were searching how to live.’*

The final goal of writing and travelling, just as of life itself, is to accomplish the act of fading away. It’s in the absence of self that things come up. This attitude, including a fine sense of humour, inadvertently brought Bouvier to the essence of Zen:

‘I console myself by remembering that in old Chinese Zen it was traditional to choose the gardener, who knew nothing, to succeed the master, rather than one who knew too much. So I still have a chance.’*

Soon after the birth of his second son, and after finishing his book project, Nicolas Bouvier left Kyoto and went back to his native Switzerland. Later, he visited Japan on other occasions, for instance in 1970 during the World Expo in Osaka. The writings from these various journeys are condensed in the volume ‘Chroniques Japonaises’ (an enhanced version of the earlier ‘Japon’, and translated as The Japanese Chronicles). Here he reports historical facts about Japan, alternating them with sometimes melancholic, sometimes witty observations from his daily life. A more comprehensive excerpt from his personal diaries was later published in French under the title ‘Le vide et le plein’. Another volume, ‘Le dehors et le dedans’, contained poems written during his time in Japan, particularly with reference to excursions made to Miyama and Tango-hanto in the north of Kyoto Prefecture.

Asked what he admired most about Japan, he gave an answer that was as brief as it was categorical: women and graveyards. Symbols of life and death, the two extremes allow the unfolding of a miraculous in-between space of inner liberty, on a journey that Nicolas Bouvier embraced in his very own way, preferring to ‘rather be ashes than dust’ in the words of Jack London, one of the influences on his youth.

Like water, the world ripples across you and for a while you take on its colours. Then it recedes, and leaves you face to face with the void you carry inside yourself, confronting that central inadequacy of soul which you must learn to rub shoulders with and to combat, and which, paradoxically, may be our surest impetus.’ (from The Way of the World)

*excerpt taken from The Japanese Chronicles (English edition)

**original quotes from ‘Le vide et le plein’, translation from French by R. Weis

***original quote taken from ‘S’arracher, s’attacher’, translation from French by R. Weis

Published by Robert Weis

I work as a natural scientist at the Luxembourg Natural History Museum. Naturally curious and open to new life experiences, I’m irremediably drawn back to Japan, and my ideal city, Kyoto. Excerpts of my travel writing and wanderings can be found at my blog

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