Five life lessons I learned in Japan

Here at Preen, we’re fully aware that adult life doesn’t always go as smoothly (and look as beautiful) as curated Instagram feeds. We all face challenges amidst all the good things. Meet Mikka Wee, a former food editor-turned-working gal in Singapore, who’s about to share all the ups and downs that come with adulting and living. Welcome to Bless This Mess

I spent the past two weeks in Japan, traveling to Tokyo, then Hakone, then Kyoto, Osaka, then back to Tokyo. It was freezing the whole time—it even snowed in Kyoto and Tokyo—but we didn’t let it dampen our spirits and ruin the trip. So we soldiered on, despite the cold wind slapping our faces, and found warmth and refuge in cozy ramen restaurants and tiny standing udon and soba bars.

Despite the non-stop hustle and bustle, I kept myself from using the Internet so that I could feel the pulse of Japan. I wanted to experience every bit of it—the rush hour, the courteous bows, and the meticulous attention to detail—and I’m glad I got a satisfactory fill from this trip. While waiting for the trains, I would shuffle between observing my surroundings and reading some Japanese fiction. I finished Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo and did a re-read of Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha while in Gion, so you can imagine the gazillion goosebumps that appeared as my eyes caught a glimpse of a real-life geisha making her way towards a teahouse!

There’s a reason why Japan has always left me in a constant state of awe and wonder. During the course of the trip, I would always ask my husband WHY and HOW is Japan so awesome?! Of course, you have to understand that I am seeing The Land of the Rising Sun from the eyes of a tourist, but after two weeks of being immersed in Japan’s culture, here are a few things I’ve learned, and reasons why I will keep coming back.

1. The Art of Focus

I say that focusing is an art because it’s a skill that is quite challenging for most of us these days—especially for me. Take the Japanese restaurant culture, for example. Each store has a specific specialty; whether it be kakigori (shaved ice), or mochi, or tempura. The dedication and focus they pour into mastering a single craft is quite inspiring, and they do it with so much finesse. When you plan to visit Japan, I suggest making a visit to a café that serves coffee “kissaten” style. Watch how the coffee is prepared—from the grinding of the beans, to the way they pour the water and serve you the beverage. It’s similar to the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, which we had the pleasure of experiencing as well in a more modern environment.

In this modern day in age, it takes A LOT to simply compress our attention into a single stream and allow it to flow undividedly and pour it into a single task. As I type this, part of my brain is wandering and my fingers, I feel, are itching to open Netflix, but I will resist the temptation and learn to focus better.

2. Don’t Forget Your Roots

One of the qualities of Japan that I appreciate the most is how they’ve managed to mix their traditional and cultural practices with today’s modern society. I’m sorry in advance if I keep relating my learnings to their food culture because 95 percent of the places we visited were either food streets or restaurants.

As I mentioned in the previous point, Japanese restaurants tend to focus on a single item—katsu, or soft cream, or hot cakes. And most of the time, the preparation of the dishes is something that has been passed down from generations. There’s a certain magic when it comes to sticking to a bit of tradition that makes the final product even more special.

3. Kindness and Respect Go Hand-in-Hand

I recall this certain time when I was taking a photo of a pudding store, and I accidentally bumped into a man who was rushing for work. I apologized profusely, as I stepped on his perfectly shined shoes (yikes!), but to my surprise, he was the one who apologized for being in my way and kept apologizing and smiling as well. I know this is common in Japanese culture, but I was so bewildered because I knew that if someone stepped on my newly-shined shoes, apologizing and smiling would be the last thing on my mind. But here I was, looking confused as ever as the man said sorry one last time, smiled, bowed, and walked away.

This takes me back to those days when we were taught to say “po” and “opo” to our elders. I rarely hear it now (and I’m guilty, too!) But it’s a nice reminder that respect is always cool, and respect begets kindness, more often than not.

4. Never Settle

Going back to my first point on focus, another quality that I noticed with the Japanese is that they always strive to improve themselves even if they are already veterans in the craft they’ve devoted themselves to. Even tempura masters are constantly researching on which new produce or fish would make a good fry. And honestly, I think this is the key to why the quality of products in Japan—whether it’s notebooks or food or ice cream cones—is consistently top-notch. They are always so mindful of how things can be improved further.

5. Minimize to Maximize

Lastly, as it is my goal to live a more “minimalist” life this year, I’ve seen a lot of it in Japan especially when it comes to their lifestyle and the way they design their spaces. They tend to focus on less clutter and more heart. One of the most interesting things I chanced upon was a circular gyoza bar, which allowed the kitchen team to cook gyoza while interacting with the customers. There have been too many instances when I’ve been so amazed at how the Japanese were able to conceptualize something so great yet so simple! It’s definitely inspiring, encouraging, and challenging me to think outside the box and live more fully with less.

While 2018 has been off to a busy start, I’m happy I got to spend a good chunk of it learning from and getting inspired by the Japanese culture. I catch myself contemplating about it from time to time, trying to wrap my head around what makes Japan the way it is, and just when I thought I’ve exhausted everything that there is to marvel at, a slew of new realizations make their way into my head. Their creative spirit and their unique lifestyle is truly one that I’d love to experience again….very soon.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of, or any other entity of the Inquirer Group of Companies.


Art by Lara Intong

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Jacque De Borja: Jacque De Borja is an introvert pretending to be an extrovert, who gets insanely emotional about things—especially if they’re about dogs, women’s rights, and Terrace House.