|The route our tour will take is roughly outlined in pink.|
Of course, fifteen days is far too little time to truly immerse yourself in a culture as different from ours as Japan's, but it will have to do. As our starting point, we've chosen a whirlwind tour (mostly by train) from the experts at Japan Travel Bureau that will give us some time at each stopping point to explore the things that interest us most. It obviously won't be a textbook slow-travel trip, but we hope to incorporate elements of the slow-travel approach into it, by using our flexible time to learn about regional history, crafts and foods, and experiencing at least a couple of days of the trip as a typical Tokyoite might (We are going during mid-May, after the national holidays in early May are over, so that should help.). I'm excited to observe an existing bicycle culture and widespread public transit use, and interested to see how else (or even if) Japan is moving toward sustainability in other areas. Witnessing the cultural juxtaposition of Fast & Slow and the small-space living innovations that you see so prominently in huge cities like Tokyo will be amazing.
We'll be spending 4 days in Tokyo; 1 day admiring the area around Mount Fuji; 1 day each in hot spring resort town Hakone, Takayama with its unchanged Edo-period streetscapes, and feudal town Kanazawa; 2 days in Kyoto, where the handicraft centre is definitely on my list; 1 day each in Nagasaki and Hiroshima; then finishing up with an extra day in Tokyo. (Our flying days make the total 15 days.) We hope to wedge in daytrips to Nagoya to visit a friend from grad school, to the peony garden at Tsukuba, and to the Ghibli Museum and the Sayama Forest (to say we're fans of animator Hayao Miyazaki would be an understatement).
(One friend has joked with me that a tightly-scheduled tour is how the typical Japanese tourist sees their own country. Having witnessed the hordes of bus-tour travellers in the Canadian Rockies and on Prince Edward Island, she may have a point.)
Planning the trip also has me thinking about wabi-sabi and its relationship to the Slow movement. To my mind, the best primer for a Western audience that I've read on the Japanese concepts of wabi & sabi and their application to homes and lifestyle is Robyn Briggs-Lawrence's The Wabi-Sabi House. It's a richly satisfying read, and has had a huge influence on my thinking. As I wrote when I reviewed it,
The concept of wabi includes harmony, balance, simplicity, and humility; sabi translates literally as "the bloom of time". Taken together, the words describe the beauty of everyday, functional objects that we cherish because they are well-used, patinated, handmade, and tied to memories. It's living in the moment, modestly and authentically.
Of course, this is a vast oversimplification of a way of life that's difficult to explain in few words. It also leaves out the huge influences of seasonal rhythms, local availability, resource scarcity, and population pressures in a closed society that shaped the philosophy, not to mention the spiritual influence of Zen Buddhism.
Seasonal. Local. Handcrafted. Can you see why I connect wabi-sabi with the Slow movement? So naturally, one of my goals during the trip is to deepen my understanding of wabi-sabi.
By the time of my trip, Briggs-Lawrence's followup book Simply Imperfect will have been released in North America (You know what's on my wish list.). I'm also, after reading others' reviews, aching to read The Unknown Craftsman - one of the few other books in English about the topic that hasn't been singled out as a cliched cultural mishmash by knowledgeable reviewers, in large part because it is translated from the essays of a Japanese expert.
I'm also currently reading Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green From Traditional Japan by architect Azby Brown, in which he explores late-Edo-period Japan as a model sustainable society and looks at technologies and strategies that can be adapted for modern use, many of which are no longer used in modern Japan. It's a densely written cultural history, with brilliant hand-drawn illustrations. I'll be on the watch for examples of what I've read in that book, too.
Also on my to-read list, besides the usual travel guides: Dave Barry Does Japan, at hubby's insistence; Will Ferguson's Hitching Rides With Buddha; and Lafcadio Hearn's 1896 collection of Japanese folklore Kokoro.
So, for readers who have lived or travelled in Japan: Can you think of anything I should add to my reading list? Is there anything we should try to experience (or anything we should avoid)?
Everyone else: can you think of more ways to slow down a whirlwind tour?