Photograph by Andy Heather

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Lanterns in Kyoto illuminate a graveyard during Obon season, a time dead ancestors are said to visit their families on Earth.

Photograph by Andy Heather

Spirited Away in Kyoto

From the November 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

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From the November 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

I first arrived in Kyoto Station, with my mother, in 1984: just a three-day layover en route to the countries that had enchanted me the year before, Thailand and Burma. We looked around—a buzzing, labyrinthine swirl of shops, private railway lines, snack bars, ticket machines, escalators; no signs in English in 1984, no obvious information booths—and felt like weeping. Slowly finding our way to the south exit, we got into a cab, the first in a long line, and asked its driver to take us to the New Miyako Hotel. Not to the man’s delight, our nondescript destination turned out to be right across the street.

But it was mid-August, season of the Obon festival in Kyoto, when nearly everyone takes time off work to visit his home and say hello to departed ancestors. The eastern hills of Kyoto were lit up with lanterns leading to sprawling graveyards, their huge wooden gates suddenly thrown open and lit to lead ghosts home on the few days each year when, so it is traditionally believed, they can return to Earth to look in on their loved ones.

Jet-lagged, we walked through the lighted fields in a dream. Kyoto’s young girls were in their yukatas, or silk kimonos; a festival air seemed to erase all the modern city’s high-rises and taxis; the straight white-gravel paths between the trees might have been painted by Utagawa Hiroshige. For two long nights we lost ourselves in the illuminated throngs, and then five great bonfires, one after the other, blazed across the tops of the ancient capital’s hills, to lead spirits back to their celestial places.

I’d always felt that Japan was my secret home. But going there during the festival of returning ghosts, at the age of 27, made me see that this was true. The realization was so piercing and powerful that, two years on, I left my glamorous-seeming job writing about world affairs for Time magazine in New York City and moved to Kyoto. A quarter of a century later, I’m still quite close to its eastern hills, in the suburbs of nearby Nara, looking forward to the next Obon and reminded daily that I recognize this foreign place—know it at the core—in a way I do not know the street on which I was born or the California house that’s been my official home since boyhood.

The place that changed my life was the one that had been awaiting me since birth.

Novelist Pico Iyer’s most recent book is The Man Within My Head.