The City and the Writer: In Kyoto with Brian Turner

By Nathalie Handal

Image of The City and the Writer: In Kyoto with Brian Turner

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall
never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Kyoto as you feel/see it?

I was surprised to learn, in such a major city, that the pace of life in Kyoto moves much like the Kamagawa (the Kama River)—slow and steady, languid in the summer heat, with an occasional rush or hard current when the rains roll through. There is a kind of stoic reserve, something I originally mistook for resignation, or a kind of emotional endurance. If I were to boil it down to one word, it might be contemplative. The people, the buildings, the flow of traffic, the landscape itself—all seem to participate in a kind of silent meditation, one day following the next.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

My best friend since childhood, more brother than friend, underwent chemotherapy while I was in Kyoto, and he died nearly half a year after my wife (the poet Ilyse Kusnetz) and I returned from Japan. I was able to be there with him when he died, but much of what I experienced in Kyoto was tempered by, or in conversation with, the gradual and inexorable loss of my brother. And so, the pace of life in Kyoto matched my desire to slow the arms of the clocks in this world, to give my friend more time, to help him fight the disease, woodblocks with my prayers burned into smoke, smoke I hoped might drift over the curvature of the Earth, over the wide Pacific, to find my brother in Fresno and, somehow, help him.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed, about the city?

In the heart of the city, grey herons and white egrets silently instruct us all on stillness, patience, reflection. They have a kind of grace that would make me pause to consider them. I’ve always found them to be elusive creatures, but in Kyoto they are a daily part of the urban ecosystem.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Matsuo Basho; Murakami Haruki; Gary Snyder (who spent time at the Rinko-in Temple); Pico Iyer (who lives in nearby Nara and has written of the city) . . .

Is there a place here that you return to often?

The grounds surrounding Ginkaku-ji (known as ‘The Silver Pavilion’) set into the mountains that frame one part of Kyoto. I love the dry/zen gardens there, replete with Mt. Fuji sculpted from sand the color of the moon. I used to walk home by taking the Philosopher’s Path back into the Kyoto neighborhood I called home. That path created a gradual transition from one state of mind to another.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Konpuku-ji is a temple where Basho is said to have written—Even in Kyoto/ hearing the cuckoo’s cry/ I long for Kyoto . . . Basho’s grave is only a short pilgrimage away along the shores of Lake Biwa.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

(I will leave silence here, so that those who haven’t been to Kyoto might discover their own answer to this question.)

Where does passion live here?

For all of Kyoto’s great reserve, passion fills the streets (and some of the rooftop terraces) at night, mostly along the Kamogawa. Ilyse and I would often walk along the river under the stars, passing by couples who walked hand in hand, or sat kissing on the edge of the riverbank. A fire-rope juggler often entertained crowds of people under one of the main bridges and I once listened to one of the world’s worst trombone players as he sat on the bank and lifted notes out over the water. You can let your hair down in Kyoto. You can play broken notes from an old trombone and the world will recognize the beauty in it still. 

What is the title of one of your works about Kyoto and what inspired it exactly?

There are short passages in my memoir My Life as a Foreign Country, that were written while in Kyoto—though not directly referencing the city itself. Kyoto served as a home base while I explored much of Japan; I would return to the city and try to make sense of what I’d experienced and learned. (My grandfather fought against the Japanese in the Pacific during WWII, while my father often worked out of a base on the southern outskirts of Tokyo.)

We had a small machiya in the Higashiyama district, only a couple of blocks from the river. Our place was on a tiny, dead-end alley, and the Organic Junction coffee shop sat within two large strides from the entrance to our alley. We could down an espresso and wheel our way into the city on our bicycles, or we could grab a table in the back and read The Sea and Poison, The Sound of the Waves, The Master of Go, or The Woman in the Dunes. Sometimes the owner of the café, Masanori Takagishi, would tell us stories about his life, his time as a merchant, his time as a monk. And then, if we felt like it, we’d go bowling. Kyoto is a city in which the present and the past live side by side.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Kyoto does an outside exist?”

In Kyoto, I was never inside—I was part of the outside allowed to come in. I swam in a sea of language I did not understand, a music filled with rhythms and intonations and modulations and pitch combinations that piqued my curiosity and helped me to hear my own mother tongue with a refreshed ear.

Brian Turner is a poet and memoirist who served seven years in the US Army. He is the author of two poetry collections Phantom Noise and Here, Bullet, which won the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award, the New York Times “Editor’s Choice”selection, the 2006 Pen Center USA “Best in the West” award, the 2007 Poets Prize, and others. Turner’s work has been published in National Geographic, the New York Times, Poetry Daily, Harper’s Magazine, and other fine journals. Turner has been awarded a United States Artists Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, a Lannan Foundation Fellowship, and more. He directs the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College. His recent memoir, My Life as a Foreign Country (W.W. Norton & Company), has been called, “achingly, disturbingly, shockingly beautiful.”


Brian Turner’s memoir tore me into pieces and by end, gave me a new sense of wholeness. It’s a must read. Metro (UK) writes: “In the great tradition of the warrior-poets, he meditates, with the stoic limpidity of Marcus Aurelius and the weary violence of Vonnegut, on the brutal and euphemistic language of war, the fever and terror of battle, and the banality and absurdity of preparations for action…The war on the ground and the conflict in the head are combined in a work of art.”

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