Once upon a time in Japan, one year ago

The following is an old blog post from last year that I’ve posted on a different blog that I’ve now closed. In restrospective not much has changed since then in my views. I have to admit, however, that some thoughts are fairly pathetic – I guess I was still overwhelmed by everything when I wrote it.

I’ve spent the first couple of days in Tokyo and went then to Kyoto. Tokyo is an incredibly large city packed with skyscrapers. If you go up one of the high buildings around the center to get a good view, it seems like the city is never ending, like the whole world is covered with skyscrapers. Like the Death Star (without being dramatic here). It’s almost surreal. Let there be no doubt, the skyline of New York is one of the most impressive sceneries, but compared to Tokyo, Manhattan is just a very small district in this gigantic city. It has multilayered streets all over the place. It is also the first city I’ve seen that has cars but no parking spots.

I’ve spent the rest of my time in Kyoto. It is the old royal city south of Tokyo, much smaller and greener than Tokyo. The best way to get around there is to get yourself a bike. My colleague was so friendly to give me one of his bikes which made it perfectly easy for me to visit all the places I was looking for. Japan in general and Kyoto in particular are beautiful. The people devote quite some attention to small little details. Every tree has been brought into perfect shape and each plant’s color is intense. Lime green. Crimson red. It’s just a form of art. It’s like stepping into a science fiction movie. Which sounds cliche and overgeneralizing but to me it was.

As you may know, one of the most important occasions for Japanese people is the so-called cherry blossom season, which is a two weeks long period in which the cherry blossom trees bloom. It usually takes place by the end of March, but this year the trees started to bloom a little later, so I was lucky enough to enjoy the trees at full peak. People are sitting under the trees and have picnics. It is a national celebration called “Hanami”, and most Japanese people get a warm tone in their voice when talking about their cherry blossom trees. You don’t really get it at first, but you start to understand after some time that the Hanami means a lot to them. It also shows you how much of a national tragedy Fukushima was, as they didn’t celebrate the Hanami last year.

When you go by the river in Kyoto, you see many people sitting around just looking at the river or the trees besides the river. They just enjoy the beauty of the moment. We have somehow forgotten how this works; we are always obsessed by using our time as efficiently as possible, even our free time.

For me, life has always been about choosing between hedonism and delayed gratification, and I think that is pretty typical for Western cultures. Hedonism, I always thought, might give you an instant gratification, a good fun, without giving your life any meaning. You’re missing the big picture and you might as well lose yourself in perpetuating meaningless stuff over and over again. Delayed gratification, on the other hand, seems to give you the big picture. It allows you to focus on doing something you might not enjoy too much, but you are promised to be rewarded later on for doing it.

I’ve always interpreted the carpe diems along these lines. Steve Job’s quote “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life” seems to support this interpretation. You should always have the big picture in mind.

But what I now begin to understand is that delayed gratification tends to build up endless chains of in-order-to-thinking, postponing the gratification possibly infinitely long. “I’ll be dead soon” also means that you might as well be dead without being ever gratified for whatever it is you’re doing. Your big picture might not even work out as you planed it, and then you’re screwed.

Looking at the Japanese culture, I now realize that it is neither necessary nor desirable to choose between hedonism and delayed gratification. You should focus on the big picture, but you should also try to enjoy life every day. There is so much beauty in this world. We just need to relearn how to see and enjoy it. Today might by your last day, so don’t waste it doing stuff that you hate. Don’t waste it following other people’s dreams. I might be completely off the point to identify this as being a Japenese thing. (Edit: I am now pretty sure I was off the point.) Maybe it was just me thinking along these lines when I was there.

Religion in Japan obviously is quite different from ours. The original Japanese religion is Shinto and now coexists with Buddhism. There are many temples for both religions and some of them are even mixed. The Shinto religion is a polytheistic nature religion, where you basically have gods for everything. But instead of going there to just praise a lord, you pray for health or fertility or good luck in an exam. Your relationship with the god is much more demanding from your site. What I found particularly sympathetic were trees that they’ve put in front of the temples on which everybody can attach small papers that you want the god to take care of. If you think of fortune cookies, you basically take the good wishes with you and let the restaurant deal with all the bad stuff. It’s an optimistic and non-fatalistic way to deal with the future.

I probably don’t have to tell you much about the food: it’s incredibly good and fresh, and the Japanese dishes that we get in the Western world are only just ten percent of the different kinds of dishes that you get here. Many of them were exotic but also very tasteful. Be careful when trying Japanese sea cucumber though, which tastes pretty terrible, at least from my point of view. And even some Japanese people admitted that only a small fraction of them actually likes sea cucumber, so I think you’ll be on the safe side if you don’t like it.

In comparison to Japanese dishes, our food looks like it’s prepared by some uncivilized barbaric tribe. Instead of using elegant chop sticks, we get a set of tools to work on the food in order to get the stuff into manageable pieces. Even when you consider Western food like steaks or whatever, it’s a good question to ask why it’s not already cut. It would be much nicer to eat.

Everything, every ritual is carried out with the uttermost perfection. If people hand you stuff, they always turn it around in front of you before giving it you so that you can see the item in the right order. And they always give it you with both hands. This gesture somehow turns a simple action like giving you some stuff into an almost transcendental celebration.

People seem to have a fundamentally different understanding of how people should behave in society. Let me give you two examples. The public places and streets in Kyoto have no trash bins, but there is also no trash lying around. Not a single thing. I first thought that you’re probably going to be punished quite badly when being caught throwing stuff on the ground, but that’s not the thing. People see public places like their own gardens. The public is themselves. So why should they throw garbage on the ground? That just doesn’t make sense. Of course, our society has a completely different take on this. Throwing garbage on the ground in public places? As long as no one sees me, who cares?

Also small-scale stealing seems to be out of the picture. People let their bikes just stand around, leaving bags of stuff that they just bought in the baskets, and go into a shop to buy some other items. They just leave their bags and bikes without attendance. That’s amazing and it seems to just work like that.

People also seem to be generally friendly and kind. Although many do not speak English, people always try to help you, even if it takes them quite some time to accompany you to your desired destination. As a practical advice, you should take any directions that people give you with caution, as people sometimes rather give you a wrong direction than telling you that they don’t know where you should go. From what I’ve understood it’s about not giving you negative feedback. It’s about not losing your face, and that goes for both parties.

So go with the flow and try to be polite and sensitive yourself. I’ll definitely come back soon.

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