For example, I was struck by the way that travelling in a new country puts you in the position of a child, for better and for worse. I've been studying Japanese for a couple of years, so I was able to hold some basic conversations, but I was also aware that my linguistic skills (so notoriously formidable in English) had been instantly knocked back to three-year-old level, and that I would have to find ways to make myself understood using very limited vocabulary and grammar. Every sentence, every thought, had to be worked out in advance; words were stripped of nuance, reduced to crude, blunt tools. That was challenging, but fascinating too for a children's writer. Roald Dahl once wrote, "If you want to remember what it's like to live in a child's world, you've got to get down on your hands and knees and live like that for a week." I suppose that's what I just did, linguistically if not physically.
In addition, I was suddenly in a world where many sights were new and unfamiliar. I had to work out what they meant, what behaviour was appropriate in what situation, and so on – all work that children engage in far more regularly than adults. As Diana Wynne Jones once put it to me in an interview, explaining why she made allowances for the slower brains of her adult readers:
[there is] a marked tendency for adults not to notice things as quickly as children. Children are used to not knowing, and therefore they make sure that they do know and remember, whereas adults are used to knowing. Besides which they’ve usually done a day’s work and want to put their feet up. So there is that much difference, that perhaps in sheer sympathy for adults you ought to make it just a bit looser, so that they can understand what’s going on.
In some ways I was worse off than a child, because I had a lifetime's habits and assumptions to unlearn. I found myself watching other people for guidance on a hundred everyday matters, from crossing the road to eating to visiting a shrine. It made me a better people watcher, which is a fundamental skill for any writer – but will I be able to keep that good habit back in the UK?
As a writer too, I'm fascinated by sameness and differences between cultures. It's always seemed to me that Japan and England have many things in common: both are island nations off the coast of continents that have had a profound effect on them, not least in terms of language and religion. Both have strong interests in tea, politeness, the weather, gardens, queuing, and so on. Both even drive on the left, for goodness' sake! Yet there are many obvious differences, too. Seeing what is "strange" in another culture – from heated toilet seats to wasabi-flavoured Kit-Kats – is also a way of seeing what is strange in one's own, of stripping "the fascination of habit" from the familiar. It reveals what has seemed natural and inevitable as anything but. This is an excellent frame of mind for an imaginative writer.