Opening my eyes to Japanese culture
It’s been a great pleasure living in Japan the last three months. I have worked as a backcountry snowboard guide on the north island of Hokkaido (population 5.4 million). The Japanese culture is really captivating and it got me thinking about the elements other cultures, especially fast-paced, money hungry, western societies could embrace from Japanese culture. At times the way they do things here frustrates me. More often then not however, the people and their unique approach to living forces me to slow down and be more present. Here in Japan, they pay a lot of attention to the small, subtle details that are often overlooked elsewhere.
#1 Jobs have not been replaced with robots
Unemployment in Japan is at 3% (it’s 5% in the USA and UK and 6% in Australia). Everyone appears to have a job no matter how small. Here on the north island of Hokkaido, the Japanese always appear to be working on the roads. You can’t go anywhere without encountering a Japanese gentleman waving you through some road works. Just last week I saw three men sweeping snow-covered rubble with a straw broom. It appears that Japan still cherishes all jobs that are needed to keep the country clean and in good standing. They have not replaced their own people with machines. There is someone to fill the petrol in your car, to help you carry groceries to your car, to wave you through the roadworks even in the middle of the night and to help you onto the trains safely. Keeping the community employed is a priority over profit.
#2 They treasure natures most simple gifts
Japan sees visits from all over the world to travel to Japan to wonder at their stunning cherry blossom trees. On a recent 2 day trip to Tokyo to see the band Guns N’ Roses (YESS!), I too was lucky enough to see the picturesque flower at the start of its season. “Oh but it’s so early, it couldn’t possibly be out yet” exclaimed many Japanese friends. The fact that the whole nation knows when a tree blossoms is quite remarkable. Japanese culture celebrates and co-exists beautifully with the natural world around it. Volcanoes are sacred. As are the 33 national parks. Time spent in nature is of great importance to many Japanese. So to are keeping their natural spaces clean and tidy. Even in the cities, man and infrastructure coinside, harmoniously with nature.
#3 Food waste is used as organic matter for farming
Recycling is a big deal. Up here in Hokkaido we split up organic food waste from all other recyclable items. No one collects garbage here, we have to drive it on specific days a week to the processing unit where it is weighed. They check it and we pay a fee for them to take it. The organic matter is fed to the pigs as well as used for other farming needs. Farmers in the US could learn a lot from Japan. Only a few weeks ago US farmers were busted feeding cows red Skittles to reduce feed costs (while of course reducing the nutritional value of the beef for you, the end user). Disgraceful.
#4 Not wanting more than you need
There are several very popular restaurants here in Niseko and the Kutchan area. So popular, that they book out months in advance over winter. Why do they not expand their capacity or serve food to hungry customers after 8pm?. The owners simply have little desire work more, harder, longer, or take more money from customers. They are content with what they have , allowing them more time to enjoy the company of their friends, family and no doubt their own delicious cooking. There is a lot to be said for that. Growth can not be constant.
#5 The Japanese go the extra mile (& a half)
Spend any time in Japan and you will hear stories of unexpected help offered by complete strangers. Ask directions and do not be surprised if they immediately stop what they are doing and accompany you to your destination. On my first trip to a busy Tokyo train carrying my large snowboard bag, I asked a local which platform I needed to get on. He not only showed me to the platform, but carried my heavy bag! He was at least double my age. Can you imagine that happening on the tube in London or the subway in New York? Hell no. As well as showing you the up-most respect, the Japanese really do go that extra mile and a half to help you. I know my experience is not unique. You constantly hear stories like this from all across Japan.
#6 Keeping the community clean and beautiful
There is little to no garbage on Japanese streets, even in the metropolis of Tokyo. It can also be very challenging to find a rubbish bin. You are responsible for your waste and keeping areas clean, tidy and beautiful. Only recently we were asked by our neighbor to not park our van close to by his entrance. It made his walkway ‘less beautiful’ he said. The Japanese pay attention to even the smallest details of appearance. Just take a look at the beautiful manicured trees they shape from early stages of growth if anticipation of future visual pleasures. Japanese culture holds great respect for order, tranquility and maintaining the beauty of public space so to get more enjoyment from each day.
#7 Taking shoes off before entering the home
Traditionally homes in Japan were built about 2 feet above the ground for ventilation and protection from the damp earth. This meant you stepped up into the home, taking your shoes off so no dirt would move up into the sacred space. The act of stepping up into a home symbolizes entering into someone’s private space. In traditional homes, the floor is made up of tatami or woven straw mats. Many activities in the home take place just off the floor, like eating, sleeping or a tea ceremony. Keeping your space clean from dirty and showing respect to other’s homes be taking your shoes off is something that I took back with me after my first visit to Japan.
#8 Making small actions towards the future
Still on the subject of taking your shoes off, the Japanese turn their shoes around so that they face towards the door. It is a subtle presence of mind towards the future that is symbolic of so many other things in Japanese culture. Keeping things organised, neat, tidy and ‘beautiful’ so life will be easier for you and others is just one of the things I notice they do repeatedly.
#9 A deep respect is shown at all times to others
Bowing is a big part of Japanese culture. It shows a level of respect to everyone you meet. Eye contact and bow. When apologising as I have done on many occasions here in Japan, my bow becomes more prolific. Showing respect to everyone you meet is a beautiful thing and something that has been lost in more modern, busy lifestyles. In London where I grew up, it is almost impossible to even make eye contact and offer a smile to people. A smile is the very least amount of respect you can show those around you.
#10 Cherish time to yourself to bathe and sit in silence
The Japanese are famous for their bath houses known as Onsens. There are over 3,000 onsen resorts in Japan as well as thousands of other smaller bathhouses. Onsens come in all shapes and sizes but often consist of an outdoor rocky pool, filled with natural volcanic water, full of minerals. You go into the bathhouses naked, men in one and women in the other. There is a beautiful sense of silence and tranquility as you sit their submerged in hot water looking out at nature. You take time to wash your body before and after the bath and as such, there is a beautiful connection to the simplicity of being naked, feeling the elements and becoming clean again. It is a slow ritual that I wish I could take home with me. Nothing beats an onsen after a hard day skiing.
There are probably so many more lessons I have been taught that I haven’t yet had time to ponder. If you do get the chance, you must visit Japan. No matter what season, it truly is a stunning place full of a rich and patient culture.
All photos taken by me (Alexa Hohenberg) unless otherwise stated. Some photos taken on assignment for Niseko Photography & Guiding. Thanks to my amazing colleagues Amy Stevens & Charlotte Workman for lending me some shots too!