You Don’t Need a Bed – 3 Lessons I Learned Traveling in Japan

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.

As you can tell ma is pretty loaded and there are so many ways to interpret it, but for me I like to put it this way, when I moved into my apartment I had only enough kitchen supplies to fill about half of my kitchen cabinets. I live by myself, I have 4 plates, 4 bowls, 3 pots, a set of silverware, a casserole dish, a wooden spoon, etc. – I can make most recipes, so I would say my kitchen is complete. But over time my cabinets have begun to slowly fill. I still have empty drawers, but it takes a conscious effort on my part not to fill them just because I have the space (and want a blender). Instead of looking at the white walls or empty drawers in my apartment as voids that I need to fill, maybe I should look at them as ma instead, an “interval which gives shape to the whole.”


Here’s another example that has nothing to do with stuff (just in case spring cleaning isn’t consuming your brainwaves the way it does mine these days). What do you do with the pauses or intervals in your day? I’m guessing you fill them. We fill our ma with social media. And just because you have 30 seconds to spare while you wait for the elevator (or wait for the light to turn green) do you really need to be filling it with Instagram?


So I may be home from my vacation, and Texas may be 6,000 miles away from Tokyo, and no I never got past day 3 in my travel diary, and I only lasted a week before I stopped using the chopsticks I got and reverted to a fork. But the lessons I learned on my trip to Japan still find their way into my daily life, and there’s really nothing more I could ask of a short trip to a new place.


My words can only do so much, so I made a short video of my brief but mind altering adventure, so that my friends and I can relive our trip over and over and over again.

And a few of my favorite moments.

For $2 you can ride a walking robot panda down the sidewalk !! #Japan

A photo posted by Cristina Cleveland (@fujifiles) on

Do you look for lessons to take home with you when you travel? I’d love to hear one!


 Image source: Photo by The Selby of Dick Page & James Gibbs’ Japanese kimonos, hanging at home in New York

Cristina V. Cleveland

Cristina V. Cleveland is a senior beauty editor based in Austin, TX. She has been exploring personal style and decor on Fuji Files since 2009. Her work as a writer and editor has appeared in publications like Refinery29, Birchbox, TradHome Magazine, To&From Magazine, Coco+Kelley, CamilleStyles and ads in Glamour, InStyle and Lucky.

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Rather than pushing up-to-the-minute trends and products, Fuji Files is about discovering a lasting, personal aesthetic and the journey to feeling your personal best. 

Fuji Files was started by Cristina Cleveland, the Managing Editor of NaturallyCurly, the largest hair and beauty content platform. Her work as a writer and editor has appeared in publications like Refinery29, Teen Vogue, CamilleStyles, Blavity, Birchbox, TradHome Magazine, Coco+Kelley, and ads in Glamour, InStyle and Lucky.