I visited Japan in the spring of 2012 for six weeks, then returned in the fall of 2014 for another month. I’ve wanted to go since I was a little kid, soaking up the animation, games, food and anything else I could get my geeky little hands on.
When I finally went however, I was closing in on thirty and had shed my consumer disposition, and no longer aspired to loose myself in the bustling neon lights and rattling video-game arcades.
My trip instead was guided by a desire to experience a more deliberate culture. One of craft, systematic design, attention to detail, self regulation, order and delicacy. I had just finished reading “Just Enough“, an awesome book that explores Edo period japan and it’s civil engineering, examining how it might be the only truly sustainable zero waste society the planet has ever known. And was excited to study the long standing architectural joinery, scrupulously maintained gardens, hike in the mountains, explore the temples, and bum around with some locals slurping ramen. A part of me didn’t want to let down childhood Ali, and in the back of my mind I always kept an eye out for what he might like to do.
I traveled Japan with my Japanese friend Kazz, and my friend and travel companion Ingmar. The three of us hadn’t hung out since we all met in college, and it was great to re-unite in Japan.
I spent the six weeks ping-ponging all over the country. Staying with friends and in hostiles. That first trip can roughly be split up between Kyoto, Tokyo, small-towns/rural settings.
By far my favorite place in Japan, and quite possibly the world. Tradition and and meditative classicism have been kept alive in this former capital. The city is heavily sprinkled with temples and surrounded by beautiful mountains and cut up with rivers and streams.
I established a routine of biking along the river, ducking into little smokey restaurants for ramen, and passing the hours drawing old growth cherry treas, gardens, and cluttered neighborhood alleys. one memorable experience was when I sat in the imperial gardens to draw a small stream.
The drawing took me a few hours, and while I drew the scenery before me kept changing as children played tag, mothers wade into the stream to catch children that shirked from their grasp, old couples lay on blankets, businessmen chatting, and various animals darting around the foliage. A wonderful pastiche of Japanese culture that played back in my mind like a time lapse film. If I had just sat there with the thought of “I want to observe a cross section of Japanese life in this park, so I’ll sit here and watch people for the next three hours” I probably would have made people feel ill at ease and been hopelessly bored. But because I was drawing, the people didn’t mind and I could keep busy and productive while at the same time soaking in the wonderful rhythm of the playful, serene, achingly beautiful atmosphere that is Kyoto.
Tokyo delivered in many of the ways I had long fantasized about as a teenager. The fevered pace, dizzying buildings, sounds, lights and bustle of the well ordered chaos of bars, restaurants, arcades, dance clubs and the like. I sampled it all, and had a great time. Shuttling up and down the many floors of the giant arcades, where I was re introduced to the world of competitive arcade gaming that had evaporated in America twenty years earlier. It was like looking at an alternate timeline of my life where I never left that world, and spent all day playing video games instead of making them.
I visited the ghibli Museum in Mitaka. And had a poignant moment of self reflection. I had just seen the giant statue of the obsolete robot groundskeeper from Castle in the Sky, and thought how I felt similarly out of step with the world, optimized for a bygone era, ready to rust and moulder.
Ten minutes later I’m watching a throng of children climbing all over a big, fuzzy, recreation of the cat bus character from Totaro, and was reminded of how open and spirited I was at that age, and how I should re-double my efforts to create imaginative art and stories for the next generation. I resolved to make an animated short that represented my potential as an artist and story teller, and conceived of a animated short on the spot that I’m currently working on. It stars my character Nema, running through the forest.
On my first trip to japan, it had been a year since the tsunami and earthquake hit. Ingmar and I rented a car and drove through the Sendai region and explored the wreckage.
It was amazing to see entire cities still completely leveled and abandoned a year later. The most intense thing I saw was when we walked through an abandoned elementary school. The roof was littered with shells and ocean run off from the flood, the class lessons and children’s backpacks left undisturbed and mouldering in the classrooms. The auditorium was gutted and the giant red curtains fluttered and twisted around chords and exposed wiring.
I stayed with Kazz in his family home and ate ramen with his high school friends, played hacky sac in the temple near his home, and traveled to the popular monkey springs where we stayed in an amazing ryokan at the top of the mountain, where we ate deliciously prepared local, seasonal meals, which included wild mountain vegetables and insects. The highlight of the trip may have been chillin with my good friend in a natural hot spring, overlooking a mountain landscape, steam billowing, while snow monkeys played around us.
Two things impressed me most about Japan and it’s people. One is their “hyper competence”, and the other is their “optimized collectivism”.
Hyper competence is my name for the Japanese work ethic I observed, which I latter found the Japanese call “kaizen”, the principle of continues improvement. A prevailing temperament, where Japanese people learn to value long term performance improvement and mastery of any givin activity. My first experience of this was when I was buying a bottle of water from the concession stand on a train platform, and the cashier did this amazing ninja change counting move with her hands, where she counted the bills to herself, then flipped them over to count to me, in this precise, well practiced way, I couldn’t imagine myself being able to do. It must have taken her years to achieve the precision and economy in that complicated yet subtle motion. It taught me that nothing in your life is too small or inconsequential, to not deserve that kind of care and attention and perseverance to make into something beautiful and masterful.
The optimized collectivism is the idea that the best way to act from a selfish utilitarian point of view, is to be considerate of others, and to think of the group before yourself. This became apparent to me when Kazz and I were lost on the subway and were in danger of missing our train that would have left us stranded in the wrong city until the next day. I immediately went to this typically American Rambo mode of “Screw everyone else, we need to make it”, which would in my mind justify jumping the turnstile, cutting ahead in line, getting on a train without a ticket etc. Not that I think any of these things are morally justified, it’s just desperate times call for desperate measures. Kazz being Japanese wouldn’t hear of it, and I watched with anxious panic as he talked with various station attendants, getting directions, permissions, and even going as far as hailing a taxi to take him to a nearby ATM so he could get cash for the train tickets.
In the end we made the train on time, didn’t break any rules, and I got the first of many more examples of how there is no need to break the rules in Japan, because the rules really are set up to everyone’s advantage, and have all been carefully thought through. Every time I was annoyed of some quirk of Japan, I came in time to realize how much smarter it was than what I was used to, at least in the context of a society of optimized collectivism. Examples that spring to mind is their lack of public trash cans, lack of paper towels in bathrooms, capsule hotels, paying for your meal at a ticket vending machine before sitting down at a restaurant, and many others.
Speaking of restaurants. I love ramen. I love it so hard. I made tracking down the best ramen I could get my stupid little slurpy mouth on, a top priority for both trips to Japan. In the ten weeks I spent in Japan I estimate I had at least a hundred bowls of ramen. Sometimes having three bowls a day. There is nothing like a steaming bowl of ramen after a morning full of biking, hiking, and plein air painting. I can’t count how many times I stumbled into a little ramen shop after 4 hours of painting, my stiff fingers aching with the cold of holding a brush in the cold morning air. My stomach groaning with hunger until I slurped the bowl down like my life depended on it. I miss Japan every day, but the hunger pangs I get for some fat, salty, umami saturated ramen is at times unbearable.