What Japan Tells Us
I’m about to leave this country after being here almost three weeks, and I am full of gratitude for the gifts of people and place.
We came here to photograph, to travel the territory, and incidentally we learned about the gentle supremely polite society we entered. I think being here makes us gentler and kinder ourselves. Sometimes a shopkeeper will bow to you as he or she gives you your credit card receipt and your package, and immediately your instinct is to bow back to them. Or at least, it is my instinct. Everything here is incredibly clean and tidy, and yet when you listen to them speak to one another, the dialogue is all over the place in terms of intonation and rhythm, sometimes sounding sort of crazed. They are a peaceful AND an animated people. They don’t wave their hands like the Italians, but they speak in a wild variable series of sounds. I love listening to these conversations.
I love taking off shoes when I enter a restaurant or a temple or someone’s home. Why? Because it gives me pause before I take the next step and enter the new environment. Again, it is about respect and a gentility that we lack in our daily lives in America. We were in a museum on Naoshima Island and about to enter a room with Monet’s water lilies displayed, and they required us to take off our shoes to enter. I did so happily. I walked in and breathed more fully in the space where Monet’s art lived. Someone on our trip asked me why we had to take off the shoes here for Monet but not for another room of paintings, and I said that the Japanese had a love affair with Monet and it was an act of respect, of reverence, to take off your shoes before entering, much the way you shed them when you enter a Buddhist temple.
I have been here only three weeks and there’s a lot I don’t understand, but I know that there is a peace of mind when you go out into the countryside and sit with farmers and people who make exquisite buckwheat soba noodles, and you eat at their table, and know that life can be a lot simpler than you thought. Because it is about being in the moment. Living close to your experience and giving your best effort in doing what you are driven to do. Taking photographs here was a pleasure because you were always in the moment, and all the sensations were right there in front of you: the cedars dripping with soft rain, the red maples shouting out in the gray landscape, perfumed incense at the shrine, the sound of water lapping up on a little beach near your hotel, and a mother and child staring at a koi filled pond, oblivious to the crowds around her…
There is so much beauty in this country, it seems, or is it that I’ve been made to exist so much in present time that everything appears curious, interesting, and beautiful? The visual gifts are here, the gentle civilized society is here, the earthy and nourishing food is offered, and all we need to do is be in our moment.
I think I know why people from the West who come here want to stay. They want that opportunity to find gentle mindfulness and the freedom that is born from that. They want to be nourished by a civilized society, and feel the weight of centuries of mysterious Buddhist and Shinto practices. And then, there is always the breathtaking beauty of the misty deep Iya Valley, the rich lineage of serious art handed down over generations, or the lyrical Inland Sea, all of which are enough to keep you enchanted.