Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu, Japan

October 23, 2016

The Extraordinary

This past weekend, somewhere between the delicious bites of Okonomi-yaki going into my mouth and a few of the regulars trying to marry me off to their daughter, I hit on the same truth that's followed me throughout these journeys.

Everything we want to know is right here, under our noses.

I've often defied the accepted wisdom about how you're supposed to travel and get to know a place. I usually skip the famous spots, often live off in some small unknown neighborhood away from the city center, don't go on tours or make lots of friends or visit as much of the country as I can.

Instead, I go deep.

I find a restaurant I like, and I keep going back. Get to know it, the people who run it, and try every last thing on (and off) the menu.

I bet on the principle that everything I could want to know about a culture, a people, a place is right in front of me. It's in the convenience store on the corner, the way my apartment is laid out, the signage on the buildings in front of my street.

Culture scales like nothing else. We can find it on the smallest articles a culture creates, and the highest macro-analyses of their society and self-governance. Everywhere along that range it remains unchanged, complete.

I learn languages when I travel because the language will tell you everything you could want to know about a place - its history, its values, the way people think of themselves, others, and the world. Everything's in there, and there's no way to miss it.

I sat in that Okonomi-yaki house, with a 50-year-old stranger open-hand slapping my shoulders and back over and over, and gesturing toward her friend's daughter. She repeated a single phrase over and over at me, as a question.

My Japanese wasn't good enough to understand it, but I speak crazy-shit-happens-when-you-travel well enough to grasp she meant, "Isn't she pretty? Isn't she?" Next to me, a 92-year old man who'd recently had to move in with his daughter (old age eventually reaches everyone) busted out laughing, nearly falling off his stool. I joined him.

There was a cacophony playing - the laughter of 8 people, the sizzle of eggs and diced cabbage on the grill, the din of a turned down game show on TV, the hum of a refrigerator, the whirr of the overhead fans, a hinted conversation from the back room. Somewhere in it, an ice cube shifted in a glass of plum wine.

In that moment, just within in those walls, was everything I could want to know about Japan. But it was layered in like limestone, waiting for me to look closely.

Every thing we can see right now - you and me both - was designed by someone, built on a set of cultural stories. Nothing is granted. There is no default. As a result, everything is significant.

In that restaurant, I could learn about Japanese social dynamics by noticing the height, style, and spacing of the chairs. By the hanging curtains that covered the door to the outside, and split the internal space - a front room with the griddle, and a back. By the wall of reading materials. The closeness of passing. The delicate plates and purpose-built tiny metal spatulas. The way everyone dressed, spoke, addressed each other. They way they touched and didn't touch. Laughed and didn't laugh. Spoke and didn't speak.

An entire civilization, bundled up into one room, there for the taking.

Everywhere we go. All we have to do is look.

Have a great week,

-Steven

p.s. The best thing I read this past week left me stunned, and thinking. It's about a young creator who died, and the bot who lives on with his memories. It raises some powerful and interesting questions about life, death, and the world we'll quite soon find ourselves in.

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