Japan was absolutely beautiful. I can’t say it enough. It was jaw-droppingly gorgeous and unequivocally awe-inspiring. It wasn’t just the raw nature of ginko trees and ocean views that drew me in, but the culture itself; the grace of so many experiences – tea ceremonies, local cuisine, coffee, temples and shrines. I experienced all of this alongside several unique lectures, each describing a specific area of Japanese culture.
I’ve thought a lot about the two extreme elements of Kabuki theatre. All at the same time, it is both, incredibly strict and precise, having very specific and concrete rules and ways that are absolute, but it is also an extreme form of Sakari Ba, The Business of Having Fun. This term is described in Japan’s Cultural Code Words by Boye Lafayette De Mente. This type of duality is common in Japanese culture from what I’ve seen and learned so far, it’s polarized into the homogenous, serious side that is commonplace and the lively, eccentric side that is saved for moments of release, where entertainment is necessary and the extreme is admired. I’ve even seen already the difference in the local Japanese students that I’ve met, who are serious and studious but also enjoy having fun with a drink to ‘blow off steam’ from stressful student lives that later become stressful careers. It seems that many Japanese flocks to entertainment such as Kabuki to do this same thing, escape from the precise nature of their daily lives for a more eccentric expression of Japanese culture.
One of the aspects that I found to be very interesting to me was the way of the Samurai, who killed themselves in public displays to die with honour. This idea stands out to me as related to the cultural code word, Akiramenai, meaning ‘Do or Die’. The book describes this as “incidents in which the persons involved chose to die—often by their own hand—although their predicaments were not life-threatening, or even desperate from the Western viewpoint”. Samurai were described as being like bodyguards, serving the emperor and in turn, the Japanese way, so it makes sense that they would willingly sacrifice themselves if it was in some way for the well-being of the country. While this was common in Feudal Japan, this has been decreasing significantly, making way for a less obvious display of honour. “Instead of dashing straight up a mountain they want to climb, the Japanese way is to circle it slowly, gradually working their way to the top. That way, nobody pays much attention to what they are doing.”
Despite all the incredible traditions and elements that we learned, I think my biggest take away came when we were told to not just experience the food, but also the entire environment of the restaurant that is curated for patrons. The term Itadakemasu/gochisoh same meaning ‘Thanks for the Hospitality’, describes the atmosphere of Japanese restaurants in comparison to that of other cultures. Specifically, the book paints a picture; “There is a precise etiquette for sitting, serving and being served, and eating,… as restrained and stylized as the food served… The essence of Japanese food is small portions, artistically shaped, and served on china and lacquerware that is conspicuous for its beauty.”
I thought this idea was beautifully captured in the way that the instructor discussed the culture of eating in Japan. It’s not enough just to have Japanese food; You have to take a break from your life to experience the entire food culture and really understand all that Japan’s local cuisine has to offer.
Something that I noticed very quickly in the karate lesson was the strict, precise nature of the art. You must always move your body in the order of 右 then左 in practice and the craft itself is a combination of subtle strength and discipline. This idea is expressed through the term The Three Doors to Success, which are described as “receiving the right teaching, dedicating oneself to the teaching, and applying one’s own ingenuity to what is learned from the teachings.” This is something that I was immediately drawn to when watching my classmates repeat specific instructions for a variety of ‘takedown’ techniques that are a combination of self-defence and precision attacks. Listening to the sensei is not the only important thing, and doing so will not guarantee any amount of success, it is up to the student to listen to the sensei and absorb his teachings, dedicating time and effort while bringing your own self fully into each movement. Karate isn’t just about moving your body appropriately, it is also about foresight and focus so that you can see your opponent clearly and use that to gain the upper hand.
I found this lecture to be one that resonated very strongly with me. I found that a good portion of this lesson focused on the process and complexity of sake as well as the variety of available sake. I was so surprised that every single prefecture had sake breweries and that each area brewed unique sakes that complimented the tastes of the local food. For me, this really made sense as a way to gather people when Sakiko-sama told us the story about how she spent quality time with her father over sake. I realized at that moment that sake isn’t just a way to bring people together, but it’s a beverage that can be enjoyed by all people regardless of taste because there are so many varieties. It truly is a way to bring every single person together. The term Sakura Zensen, Cherry Blossom Culture relates to a similar idea, that much in the way sake is used to bring people together and connect them, cherry blossoms have a similar appeal. “Millions of people gathered in cherry tree groves and along the banks of streams and rivers flanked by the trees to view the blossoms, drink sake, eat picnic foods, sing, compose poetry, and otherwise enjoy themselves.” Just like sake, cherry blossoms are a way to gather and connect people who may seem very different. Both have a long history with Japan.
NGU, Nagoya, Japan