Right in the middle of my mission to rid my home and life of clutter, I had a serendipitous opportunity to travel to the birthplace of minimalism and Zen Philosophy – Japan.
The trip was incredible. But travel and adventure can be so fleeting. One day you’re at a tranquil buddhist temple on top of a hill. The next you’re surrounded by Americans in the customs line at a Detroit airport. How quickly the magic wears off. In the blink of an eye a month has passed, your friends’ eyes glaze over at the phrase “when I was in Japan,” and your gas light is on E as you hurry to work on a Tuesday morning.
So when I set off on my trip I was determined to find ways to make the afterglow last long past its expiration date.
Of course it is impossible to absorb thousands of years of Japanese tradition in a short stay, but I did try to approach even the everyday medial tasks like a student would. Here’s what I learned.
1. You don’t need that
In the last 4 years I have moved 5 times. Quite predictably, this has made the tenets of minimalism very appealing to me. In the blog world it’s easy to fall for a sleek white apartment or a 5-Piece French Wardrobe and call it minimalism. But in Japan “simplicity is not only aesthetic value, it has a moral perception that looks into the nature of truth and reveals the inner qualities of materials and objects for the essence” (The Moral Dimension of Japanese Aesthetics).
I know what you’re thinking, you think you really, really need that new Vitamix blender because America’s Test Kitchen says it’s the best blender and it’ll last years and it will help you consume the fruits and vegetables you need to be healthy and you’ll basically make your money back and sure there’s room in your kitchen for another appliance. You need a new blender! But living in a tiny Japanese apartment made me seriously question what is really “necessary.” Even right down to a bed.
In Kyoto I slept in a traditional tatami room (above), which had straw mat floors and absolutely no furniture. At night I would roll out a thin foam pad on the floor and much to my surprise had perfectly comfortable and restful sleeps, sans bed. It made me want to come home and get rid of my bedroom furniture. Imagine the space it would clear up! A third of my apartment is taken up by my bedroom set up, one which I’ve discovered is totally unnecessary.
Will I actually get rid of my bed? In all likelihood, not just yet. But I feel empowered just knowing that if I can get by without something as “essential” as a bed, then just imagine what else I could feasibly lose and still be happy. It opens up new possibilities for where and how I can live. Today it’s a studio apartment in Austin, TX – tomorrow, a solar-powered ecocapsule off the grid? Not there yet, but if I can sleep on a floor, I can sleep anywhere. And I can probably survive without that Vitamix.
2. You think you know, but you have no idea
You plan your trip and you watch No Reservations and you read the blogs and Yelp reviews, and you think you know what to expect. But traveling is very humbling. Because every step of the way, you will find that you were wrong. Over and over and over again. You will realize that you made subconscious assumptions and judgements about people and places and life and you were wrong about all of them. Being wrong is uncomfortable, and a lot of the time traveling is uncomfortable. But we can save the leaning into discomfort chat for Sheryl and your yoga instructor.
Our daily lives can be so repetitive, we take for granted that we know how to drive to work, read the road signs, and even know 4 alternative routes depending on traffic conditions. We know our friends and we know our coworkers, we can probably predict what they’re going to say before they say it. And we think we know ourselves. But there’s nothing like traveling to knock you off your own pedestal and open your eyes to just how little you know, which is exciting. There’s so much left to discover. I assumed that Tokyo would be loud and overstimulating with flashing lights and suffocating crowds, that I would have a good time but be eager to come home. But our neighborhood in Tokyo, Shimokitazawa, was quaint and lovely, even quieter than where I live in Austin. I could easily see myself living there, riding my bike down the quiet streets with my kid in the handlebar child’s seat, dropping them off at pre-school before heading to work. At night, ducking into a bar with 4 seats for a snack near the train station before heading home. Who picked my kid up from pre-school? I don’t know I haven’t thought that through yet. My point is, I thought I knew what to expect, I thought I knew how I would react, and I was wrong on both counts.
For the record, Tokyo has the flashing lights and seas of people too. But as is so often the case, that’s only true for part of Tokyo, and doesn’t necessarily represent the whole.
3. Just because you have space, doesn’t mean you need to fill it
Japan is strapped for space – it’s an island, it’s famous for hotels that squeeze people into coffin-like cubby holes. But Japan is also home to the principle of Ma – empty or negative space. Yes, that can mean empty space in your apartment, and they’re great at making that look good. It can also be white space in a photo or painting, which if you use Instagram you are probably familiar with. But it can also mean a pause, an interval, and can get way more abstract than that. In Alan Fletcher’s book The Art of Looking Sideways he describes “space:”
Space is substance. Cézanne painted and modelled space. Giacometti sculpted by “taking the fat off space.” Mallarmé conceived poems with absences as well as words. Ralph Richardson asserted that acting lay in pauses… Isaac Stern described music as “that little bit between each note – silences which give the form“… The Japanese have a word (ma) for this interval which gives shape to the whole. In the West we have neither word nor term. A serious omission.
And a few of my favorite moments.
A photo posted by Cristina Cleveland (@fujifiles) on
Image source: Photo by The Selby of Dick Page & James Gibbs’ Japanese kimonos, hanging at home in New York