When I was 15 years old, my father went on a business trip to Japan.
My father was a Yorkshireman, and not at all given to gushing enthusiasm, except perhaps for a chip butty. Given his usual world-weary demeanour and workaholic tendencies, I was gobsmacked when he came back from his Japan trip all lit up like Akihabara electronic district on a Saturday night.
He had cool Japanese souvenirs too: some weird ‘coffee’ gum, a hand-carved wooden Hokkaido bear, and a lovely crane-printed summer yutaka (cotton gown) for me. It was very exciting.
He said: “Vanessa, if you ever get the chance to go to Japan – GO!”
I was like ‘yeah, ok dad…’ *rolls eyes*
Like many people who fall for Japan’s charms, my dad couldn’t even put his finger on what it was exactly that he loved about the place.
He liked the way the staff in McDonalds bowed when handing over his cheeseburger. He loved the gardens at Kyoto’s temples. He appreciated the craftsmanship of the Hokkaido bear. He wasn’t crazy about the food (not a seafood fan).
So I didn’t understand quite what it was that he found so wonderful about the place, and neither did he.
But I never forgot that spark that Japan had somehow managed to kindle in my cynical father.
And when I discovered the opportunity of teaching in Japan on the JET Programme in my last year of my English degree at Nottingham University, I positively leaped at the chance.
Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast
I came down to London for my interview at The Embassy of Japan and I remember spending ages squeezed into the Japan Centre shop, which was in a VERY cramped location right on Piccadilly back then.
I ogled the imported groceries, having no idea what they might be but loving the packaging, and then I wedged myself into a tight space to fully immerse myself in the glory of the stationery section.
I recall Japanese restaurant (it’s long gone I’m afraid) across from the youth hostel I stayed in had a splendid display of replica plastic food in the window – bowls of noodles and plates of salad – I’ve never seen that in London since actually.
I found it SO compelling. I was hooked already – on something – I didn’t know what.
Fast forward to arriving at my apartment in Tochigi on a sticky humid day in mid-August, I found watermelon ice lollies in the freezer, peach-scented shampoo in the shower, and a towelling summer blanket on my bed. How thoughtful! I was incredibly touched.
This was in the pre-smartphone era, and I spoke barely a word of Japanese. I didn’t even own a laptop. I was totally immersed in Japanese, well, everything.
And that everything was so different to what I’d previously experienced, and often so topsy-turvy opposite to what I’d thought was THE RIGHT WAY, that sometimes I felt like Alice in Wonderland trying to make sense of an experience seemed often quite surreal. You know, that part where she meets the Queen and says to her:
“There’s no use trying,” Alice said: “one CAN’T believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
I often had the chance to practise believing the impossible. It felt urgent to me to get my head around my mind-bending new circumstances and extract the key, the solution, the essence.
I was on a mission to find that spark for my dad. He had slipped into a very deep depression, and had become seriously ill. I wanted to ‘fix’ him. After all, he was the reason I’d been inspired to travel to Japan.
During rushed (expensive!) international phone calls, I told him what I’d seen and learned about Japanese ways of doing things. I told him phrases I’d learned, the incredible attention to detail I saw, and the small, simple rituals I saw elegantly embedded into everyday life.
But, although he was happy that I was happy in Japan, there was nothing I could say that could light him up.
I couldn’t ‘fix’ my dad – but I could ‘fix’ myself.
I Thought My Love Affair With Japan Was Over
I stayed in Japan for 3 years, immersed in the culture, and after tantalising glimpses of understanding, it was time for me to leave.
Craning my neck, I caught a last peek of my Japanese friends and colleagues, waving goodbye from the station platform. My eyes stung as the train pulled away. I was Narita bound. I thought my love-affair with Japan was over.
Back in the UK, I was madly keen to make sense of my Japan experience and keep a tight hold of it.
I got the Rosetta Stone language study programme, kanji cards and an intimidating pile of Japanese textbooks. I just couldn’t find the right Japanese language lessons in London, at the perfect level, at the ideal time & a convenient location.
Many group lessons were aimed at beginners, and others were all textbook based. Some focused exclusively on JLPT exam prep, or passing Japanese GCSEs or A levels. This wasn’t what I was looking for.
I worried about wasting time and money on group lessons that didn’t give me much chance to properly communicate with the only Japanese native speaker in the room – the teacher.
I felt lost. I wondered about just giving it up. After all, I still wasn’t anywhere near ‘fluent’ (even though my mum swears I am) and I didn’t even work for a Japanese company. What was the point?
It was then I realised something deceptively simple:
Language is culture. Culture is language.
You can’t separate the two.
I was no longer grasping at some kind of special secret wisdom to save my father’s mental health. I wasn’t living in Japan anymore and so I didn’t need to lunge desperately towards fluency in the language.
What I needed to do now to improve my understanding of Japan was: LIVE IT.
I loosened up! I focused on chatting with Japanese friends and colleagues in Japanese or English. Reading books on Japan. I went to see Japanese films in the BFI London Film Festival. I listened to Japanese music. I took Japanese cooking classes.
I found I could capture the essence of my time in Japan by slowing down and looking at the small details that made up my life. I brought Japanese designed objects into my home – a rice cooker, beautiful bowls, and we got stackable futon beds from the British ‘The Futon Company’.
To use, and appreciate, every single day.
Step-by-step, I work to consciously create a Japan-inspired style of living, in London. I practise calligraphy, celebrate the passing seasons, and fold like Marie Kondo (sometimes!). I LOVE it all!
Dig Deep: Your Japan Inventory
So how about you? If you listened to episode one of this series, you might remember that I talked about excavating your own unique Japan story; checking out your roots.
Can you remember your very first experience with Japanese culture or language? Was it a film, a video game, a book or a friend at school?
Look back into your past and list your experiences with anything and everything Japanese. Why did you like it? Or not like it? How did it make you feel?
And what about now? What gets you excited?
If you have been following the Omoshiroi method, you might have already done a Japan-related interests inventory.
Cooking, film, origami, manga, fashion, MUJI, bonsai… anything. Defining what you love and getting more of it into your daily life is such a fruitful way to yes, learn Japanese language and culture, but more crucially, enjoy your everyday existence.
Now, I know it’s easy to get a bit despondent here. Japan feels particularly far away this year, in 2020. It was more reassuring to think that we could just hop on a flight over there anytime (even if in fact it is an expensive, long-haul flight).
But life is what happens when we are making other plans, right? If you love Japan, there is so much you can access from London, from right here in the UK.
Japanese things have never been so popular or accessible all over the world. Here are five Japanese things that can be enjoyed every day.
5 Japanese Things to Enjoy Every Day
Although I have to admit I’ve been enjoying Japanese food a little too much in 2020, it has definitely been a pleasant diversion.
There was a bit of controversy in October when the Bake Off TV series had a ‘Japanese’ special but utilised Indian and Chinese ingredients! It was a bit of a poorly researched show! My article ‘Where Can I Get Japanese Sweets, Cakes & Bread in London?’ suddenly got a surge of traffic of people after the real thing.
There are hundreds of Japanese restaurants in the UK, and there’s never been a better time to support small businesses. We can’t eat delivery every day though, so I for one and certainly cooking more.
We are so lucky to have some wonderful Japanese chefs who reside in London and many have published cookery books in English. A few of my personal go-to favourites are Reiko Hashimoto’s ‘Cook Japan’, Yumi Gomi’s ‘Sushi at Home’ and Tim Andersen’s ‘Japaneasy’.
2. Japanese Design
I’ve been reading the classic book ‘The Beauty of Everyday Things’ by Soetsu Yanagi and thinking more about basic Japanese items.
My Japanese cup and Japan-inspired, German-made iron teapot from Rouge (fabulous Eastern-focused interiors & homeware shop in Stoke Newington) give me pleasure every day.
My dad passed down some Japanese knives to us, and I’m keen to invest in more Japanese knives and sharpening lessons from Kitchen Provisions, with branches in Stoke Newington (and Coal’s Drop Yard).
What is better than sitting down to escape the strangeness of 2020 with a film? I’ve been buying some DVDs and finally caught ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’.
If do if right, time spend watching film can be counted as time spent learning Japanese! If that sound good to you, check out my article ‘How to Learn Japanese by Watching Film’ for my top tips, including what genre to pick!
Japanese Awareness of Nature
There’s a cherry tree right outside the window of my home office, here in sunny Tottenham. I have never been so aware of it – in previous years the fruit crunched under my feet as I hurried off to the station. This year, we picked the cherries with the boys and made cherry pancakes. Currently, just a few yellow leaves cling to the branches.
So much of Japanese culture is centred around observing the seasons and generally being present in nature. Shinrin-yoku is an official Japanese government-sanctioned term for ‘forest-therapy’. What I love about this term is that it serves as a reminder to be fully present when you are outside – even literally the smell of the earth and trees have health benefits.
Japanese Style Decluttering
With spending so much time at home in 2020, my house has become messier and I am A LOT more aware of it. I’ve been working on a Marie Kondo approach to tidying for years, but it’s never been more relevant.
I love knowing where everything is, so that I use things more, and buy less.
Another book I am currently re-reading is ‘Goodbye, Things’ by Fumio Sasaki. It’s a very convincing essay on the philosophical and cultural history of minimalism.
I really hope you enjoyed this third episode in my Omoshiroi series. Learning Japanese is a journey, not a destination. Let’s enjoy our trip!
So, what’s your Japan Story? I’d love to know. Drop me an email!
If the Omoshiroi approach to learning Japanese resonates with you, I’d like to invite you again to head over to JapaneseLondon.com/playbook to get a planner to nail your Japanese learning plan.
The playbook is an e-book with an interactive element so you don’t need to print it out. Once you’ve got your plans down, do email them over to me and I will give you my feedback, including any recommendations for how to go forward with your Japanese learning.
Or, if you are after personal attention to guide you, I also connect learners of Japanese to private, 1-1 native-speaking Japanese tutors.