Sunday, January 16, 2011

Traveling to Japan (and Wabi-Sabi's Relationship to the Slow Movement)

My husband and I have just started planning a two-week visit to Japan, as our gift to each other for our 40th birthdays. It's our first international trip together, since living thousands of miles from our extended family means that almost all our travel budget goes toward trips home to Nova Scotia.

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 HakoneTakayama 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?


  1. I will lend you one of my favorite books about Japan called "Learning to Bow". I believe it's also available in the library. It's written by an American who teaches English in rural Japan. It is an excellent read, I've read it about 4 times. It's really insightful and funny!
    Definitely read the usual travel guides (Lonely Planet,etc). Also watching videos might be valuable!
    In Japanese class we were taught the concept of "wabi-sabi" in poetry. It is traditionally expressed in fleeting moments of beauty like cherry blossom season. I look foward to your adventure!

  2. Thank you Judy! That would be awesome! We're working our way through the DK travel guides for Japan and Tokyo (I love how visual they are). One could turn mentions of "Lost In Translation" into a drinking game for the Tokyo one.

    Update: have just finished the Will Ferguson book, which I read in pieces over the course of this weekend, and I'd definitely recommend it - it's hilarious, as all his books are, but I also feel like I have a much more balanced understanding of Japanese culture and history now. I wouldn't necessarily advise his approach of hitchhiking across a country as a way of engaging with the local culture and landscape, but I think his was definitely a slow travel experience.

  3. Tokyo is where we'll be the longest, so I'm looking into bike rentals there, and found a few bike bloggers there! Links:
    ... So I plan to read through these, and follow their links, and see what tips I pick up from them. =D

  4. Via the blog, it seems that the most public face of the sustainability movement there is the recent re-emergence of farmers' markets, which is being promoted through the national government's "Marche Japon" program. We'll try and fit in checking out the food & wares at the two biggest farmers' markets in Tokyo, the Earth Day Market on the weekends at Yoyogi Park Elms, and the United Nations University Farmer's Market.

    There is also public education facility about going green called the Minato City Eco-Plaza (, but frankly it looks really lightweight and doesn't seem like I'd learn anything from it I don't already know.

    Luckily I also ran across Tokyo nonprofit organization Be Good Cafe's website (; they seem to be an E-SAGE like group who host seminars on ecovillages, permaculture, and CSR, organize educational events, and have a handful of hands-on permaculture projects. There is a list of green businesses who participated in their Sept 2010 Eco Products Exhibition, most of whom seem very similar to businesses here (because, you know, it's a global economy and everyone sells the same stuff). There are a few unique products though, like chopsticks made from broken baseball bats and advanced flexible solar panels, and through the list I learnt of the following retailers that I'll try to check out: Project Sustainability (PS, organic clothing from a range of eco-fashion houses,; the UK's People Tree (; and Think The Earth (

  5. Just an update on how we've slowed down our actual itinerary; JTB were really open to our requests to customize the tour package. In the end, our trip will now be 12 days instead of 15, and we've dropped Kanazawa and Nagasaki from our list of destinations so we can spend less time on bullet trains and more time hanging out in interesting places. We've signed up for a couple of whirlwind day tours (of some major sights in Tokyo, Kyoto and Nara, and the Mount Fuji area) in order to maximize our unguided time to explore places and topics that interest us most. We've also moved the dates to the end of May, so peonies will no longer be in bloom (hence, no Tsukuba), but flag irises - those heralds of rice-planting season - will be in bloom everywhere we go.

    I've also done a lot of research on Takayama, which despite our brief time there (only about 24 hours) might be our Slowest destination, with a beautifully preserved Edo-period Old Town of little museums and working shops, the traditional craft demonstrations in the Hida Folk Village open-air museum (friends from the Maritimes: think Sherbrooke Village, only in the Japanese Alps), and a mapped 3.5km walk (or bicycle ride?) that meanders past the castle ruins in a local park, through part of the non-touristy suburbs, and past several temples.

  6. Oy. Is 'Dave Barry Does Japan' ever dated and unfunny now.

  7. Two more book recommendations: Kate T. Williamson's gorgeous, lavishly illustrated A Year In Japan, from Princeton Architectural Press, and The Forgotten Japanese: Encounters with Rural Life and Folklore, by Miyamoto Tsuneichi, translated by Jeffrey S. Irish, from Stone Bridge Press.

    For learning the fundamentals of the language, I'm using a combination of iPhone/iPad apps: Human Japanese, Dr Moku's Hiragana Mnemonics, and Lonely Planet's Japanese Audio Phrasebook. I have no talent for languages - NONE - and I'm finding all three to be excellent resources for learning the basics of pronounciation and key phrases, and for the ability to decipher signs that are in the primary Japanese syllabary instead of our alphabet.

  8. In case anyone is interested, I found the website of the Japanese Ecotourism Society:
    That's the English 'About Us' page. Everything else is available in Japanese only.

    We have our tickets now... *excited*