(All photos by my husband. My hands were busy pushing a stroller.)
I returned recently from two weeks in Tokyo, Takayama, Kanazawa and Kyoto. The trip was sublime, even with a not-quite-three year old in tow. It is an experience that is remaining with me, impressions and images vivid in my mind even as I have been fully sucked back into the whirlwind and mundane aspects of regular life. And I can tell these will stay with me for a long time, with my self as an observer of the world, as a student of an art form, as a parent and as a writer.
Three things resonated with me the most, the first of which was the attention to detail, the thought put into the smallest of things. Everywhere were umbrellas available for borrowing, and bins for drippy ones post use. All restaurants we frequented, no matter how un-childish, immediately set out plastic utensils and bowls for the little one. All toilet seats were pre-warmed. (Well, that’s a whole other topic–the intricacies of the toilets or “washlets” and the many functions they can perform.) Every room we stayed in was equipped with a Zojirushi hot water maker, ready on demand with water for tea (with different settings for green and black). There is a focus on service, even outside the service industry. People came up to us to offer help, to give up their subway seats for the children. And I could wax rapturous about the ekiben, the bento box lunches made and sold specifically for train trips.
All this spoke to me of a people aware of their surroundings. A week after our return, I sat at the Muse & the Marketplace writing conference in Boston listening to acclaimed literary critic James Wood give a keynote talk in which he focused on the notion of the writer’s ability and mandate to “seriously notice” the world around her, and I thought about how much more the Japanese seem to seriously notice their surroundings, and care about them, than Americans overall. (Pardon the generalization, but I trust you understand what I mean.)
Which leads me to the second strongest impression I had in Japan: aesthetics reign. The emphasis on presentation–of spaces, of food, of nature, of objects, of oneself–and the importance of doing things right and getting to their essence was a delight. And I realized how much I value this. I may never have articulated as much to myself, but I understand now that a focus on aesthetics is something I have always appreciated, for better or for worse. From the way I used to set the table in my childhood home, folding the napkins into fans and arranging the tomatoes and cucumbers into designs on the lettuce, to the way I fear sharing some of my writing, even before writing it, because it won’t be sufficiently well-crafted. Sometimes I wonder in frustration why one should bother to make an extra effort, but now, having been to Japan, I see how such an effort, on a larger scale, can be transformative. The small, ten foot square gardens in front of the most modest of homes, with their thoughtfully arranged stones and moss and maple tree, are delightful enough, but then look at the Kenroku-en garden in Kanazawa, and how everywhere the eye turns it is met with magnificent compositions, and one is almost overwhelmed by the magical aesthetics of it all.
The timing of this trip, along with these realizations, has segued most serendipitously into an exercise: crafting a writer’s mission statement. With a juggle of responsibilities and minimal time to write–the plight of most writers–I want to ensure that I deploy my resources on those activities that will get me closer to what I truly want to achieve as a writer, and that necessitates, unfortunately, that I figure it out and articulate that goal to myself. (Admittedly, this provides a good opportunity to put off actual work on one’s manuscript, under the guise of an otherwise productive and useful endeavor.) As soon as I was over the incapacitating jet lag of our trip, I sat down to think about what really drives me to write fiction, and adhering to a strong sense of aesthetics figures strongly there. The Kenroku-en garden is like an ideal to strive for, a magical place that engages the senses, where the sum of individual and carefully crafted parts adds up to a wholly immersive experience.
With current writing projects focused on India, people in unique societal positions, history and art, this third aspect of Japan grabbed at me and won’t let go: the very aliveness of and respect for history and tradition without any compromise to the advances of modernity. In the midst of high rises and neon (arguably not really advances) will be nestled a gorgeous shrine, set about with lovingly shaped trees, swinging lanterns, and incense sticks whose spirals of blue smoke are a testament to the attentions of living souls. In the bustling streets, in front of a convenience store, will be a trio of kimono-clad women going about their business of simply living. In the traditional townhouse, or machiya, that we rented in Kyoto, stunning in its simplicity, was a wooden soaking tub, a mainstay of Japanese cleansing rituals.
Last night, as I was singing to the little one before bed and after her own bath, I overheard a conversation between eight year old K and her father. After the usual prodding, K was going through the routine of cleaning up her belongings in the common areas–sweater flung across the armchair, sneakers tossed in the general direction of the closet, Scotch tape and paper scraps from her craft project involving a stuffed baby kangaroo on the counter–before retiring to her lair, I mean, bedroom.
K: Why do I always have to go around cleaning up every single little thing?
Father: Remember when we were in Japan, and things were so neat and simple and organized, and how much we all enjoyed that?
K: Yeah. (Her intonation rises, implying the unsaid: What’s your point?)
Father: Well, wouldn’t it be nice to bring a little bit of that into our own home?
K: But we’re in America!
I wonder if she meant that as in “We’re not in Japan” or whether it was more of an observation about America itself. Regardless, isn’t that why we travel? To experience and assimilate new ideas, new aesthetics, new perspectives? What experiences in other locales have had a long-lasting impact on your life or work?