Apples in Nagano

After returning to the States, I’ve been reflecting on my trip and what it has meant to me. I had such an incredible time that part of me didn’t want to get on that airplane. I met new people and reconnected with old friends. I was in stunning nature and snowboarded over 30 days. I ate delicious food. Something about Japan is still home for me.

I’ve been trying to think of a word that accurately describes and sums up my experience in Japan. In writing this blog, whether in Africa or Japan, I always attempt to communicate the ethos of a place, the fundamental feel that makes it what it is.

That’s why growing up, I hated simplistic questions like “tell me more about Japan, which place do you like better, or what are the differences between Japan and America?” I hated them because if they really wanted to know I would tell them everything (no matter how long it took). But if they just saw me as an exotic novelty, a white kid who spoke flawless Japanese, I had better things to do. I always had an elevator answer prepared, something to the tune of “I like Japan because people are loyal” or “I like America because my family is there” just to give them a satisfactory answer. While those things were true, they didn’t even come close to being complete. There are so many subtleties and nuances to any place: describing it completely takes seeing it in person. On top of that, there are so many subtleties and nuances to being human: finding out who a person is takes more than learning that they grew up in Japan for 16 years.

So the word I would choose to describe Japan’s ethos is あっさり (Assari). Although it doesn’t have an English equivalent, the word generally means subtle or nuanced, beneath-the-surface, not too strong, not overly flavorful. As my definition suggests, the word is often used to describe food. Cake in Japan is not sickly sweet with extra frosting on top, it’s sweet enough so that you taste other flavors besides just sweet, it’s あっさり。Fuji Apples, the food I was most excited about eating, were crossbred by Japanese researchers in the 1930s to create the perfect apple; I believe they succeeded. Japanese food culture is about variety and not letting any single flavor overpower the others.

While the word is generally used to describe food, language cannot be separated from culture and the words we choose to describe food might just describe our personalities as well. Much of Japanese culture is what goes on beneath the surface. Not being too straightforward or impolite, not being demanding. What’s left unsaid might be as important as what’s actually stated. “Reading the air” is an important skill in order to adjust yourself to the mood of the room.

Like any culture, there are positive and negative aspects. Loyalty also means it takes longer to build trust. Talking to strangers in Japan is weird whereas in America I don’t think twice about it. Hospitality and generosity are strong values but opening up about personal matters doesn’t come as easily.

My experiences in Japan have taught me the importance of seeing people as the complicated, nuanced beings that they are. There is always so much that goes on beneath the surface, wherever you are. Caring about people means really listening and wanting to hear their story, no matter how long it takes.

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Ueda

Two weeks ago I returned to Ueda, a city where I spent a pretty big chunk of my childhood. Staying at a family friend’s house, we had no idea we were about to experience the biggest snowstorm in over a hundred years. Some friends who were planning to come over had to walk, and they ended up staying the whole weekend. We shoveled 3 feet of snow so the car could get out, had snowball fights, played cards and most importantly, held the inaugural Ueda Olympics event.

Let me explain. With three feet of snow and a step ladder, we were trying to think of something creative to do. Since this was during Sochi, we decided to create our own unique “snow diving” event, combining the technical difficulty of diving with the winter X-games. Check out the YouTube videos Here

Shoveling Snow with Saki & Mr. Aoki

Shoveling Snow with Saki & Mr. Aoki

Kuni San came to visit!

Kuni San came to visit!

Once again, I was reminded of how gracious and loyal my friends in Japan are. Despite having busy lives, they took the entire weekend just to hang out and take it slow. Friends like that are rare anywhere, and I’m thankful to have them now in several places around the world 🙂

Great Friends

Great Friends

 

Naked Friendship

One of the best ways to get to know someone in Japan is to take a bath with them. That might sound strange, but the Japanese have a phrase for this, hadaka no tsukiai, which translates roughly to naked friendship. Literally stripped of all clothes and outward formalities, the relaxed onsen vibe gives you the chance to go beyond the surface. It seems the only other way to do this is to consume lots of alcohol so I prefer the onsen.

Having been in Japan less than a month, I already have some great onsen stories. Like the other day when I got into a snowball fight against two Australian kids in the rotenburo (outside bath). It was awesome. Just as I was getting out, the 10-year old hits me right in the back. I had to fight back. I duck around the corner, make two quick snowballs and return with a vengeance, hitting the kid square in the chest as snow explodes everywhere. They try to retaliate but I quickly escape into the relative safety of the dressing room. All they could talk about after that was a rematch, which I was regrettably unable to oblige.

Then there was the onsen conversation about English grammar with a Korean friend. He works here at the hotel and apparently studies English in his free time. I don’t remember the question, but we talked for at least 30 minutes, completely naked, about some obscure grammatical question that I had no clue how to explain in simple language.

Also over a bath, I had conversation the other day about differences between Japan and the US. Specifically, my Japanese colleagues couldn’t understand America’s dieting/bingeing culture. They thought it was hilarious and ironic that people would become vegetarians, or not eat carbs, or do some crazy diet and still remain overweight. “Why wouldn’t you just eat healthy from the start?” was their simple response. Japanese people don’t exercise much and they eat an excessive amount of white rice but their waistlines and life expectancy are worth noting.

In the end, hadaka no tsukiai reminds me of my need to be more “naked” in my own friendships. It’s easy for me to coast along, never digging deeper or having challenging conversations. But those are the conversations that matter the most and I want to value the people I can have them with. Friendship takes longer in Japan but lasts for a lifetime. With old friends and with new, those are the types of friendships I want to intentionally cultivate and invest into.

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