From 2006 – 2010 I lived and worked in Japan; 2 years in the remote countryside and 20 months in the busy metropolis of Tokyo. The two places and experiences were so vastly different that they felt almost like living in two countries, but in both situations I observed and absorbed a lot about what can contribute to daily happiness.
This is not to say that the Japanese are a particularly happy nation; according to the 2016 World Happiness Report published by the UN each year, Japan ranks 53rd in terms of happiness sentiment amongst its population. This is quite a bit lower than the UK (23rd), Canada (6th) and the US (13th).
I can see why Japan ranks so averagely. It’s true that just observing many sectors of the population leaves you a little depressed: the middle aged man who works stressful, high pressure 16 hour days and never sees his family, the teenager who is too shy to leave his room, the woman who married too young and not for love and who was forced to give up all her hopes and dreams to attend to the house and kids. These are stereotypes, yes, but all characters I encountered frequently during my time there.
At the other end of the scale are some of the happiest, most at peace and self-aware people I’ve ever met. Many parts of the culture are just set up and designed to make you feel content. Japan is also the place where I figured out a lot about what made me happy (and quite a bit about what didn’t – perhaps I’ll save that for another time!), so without further ado, here’s my personal list of what Japan taught me about happiness.
1. A Passion & Gratitude for Food: No deprivation, no guilt, just real food and smaller portions. Japan has a phenomenal food scene. Despite the abundance of fish on every menu, it didn’t matter that I was a vegetarian; I still really, really enjoyed the food. It was seasonal, fresh and appreciated. When you grow up surrounded by rice farms, you know how precious and difficult to harvest each grain is. The same can be said for the fruit, vegetables and fish that make up the diet, and not a spoonful is wasted or thrown away. Each month there is a new fruit in the supermarkets to try, and my coworkers would often bring in boxes of fruit or vegetables sent from relatives elsewhere in the country. We’d all share the food and it was glorious. We all know that food can make us happy; eating healthily, seasonally and sharing food without guilt or counting calories only enhances this pleasure.
2. Bathing (and nakedness) is Great. Imagine that it’s a weekend and your friend invites you to go to the public baths with her. Not so strange you think, until you realise that it’s a naked bath. For such a repressed society, getting nakey is all the rage in Japan, with most of the population taking a bath every night, and enjoying ‘Onsen’ or ‘Sento’ (hot springs and public baths) frequently. There was a huge public bath at my gym where I would go to bathe every night, chatting happily with women from the neighbourhood while we all sat in the nud.
I’m not going to lie, the first few times were terrifying. Now I miss itW Especially in the winter, we so often don’t see or experience our bodies for months on end. Quite the contrary in the land of the rising sun (ahem…); in Japan I was naked so often, with friends and with strangers, and this meant that I was much more in tune with my body and more likely to eat and exercise better. Plus, taking baths every night is so wonderfully relaxing – if you can squeeze it into your night routine then I’d highly recommend it.
3. Being Surrounded by Mountains and Lakes Makes me Smile. Some of the scenery in Japan is just awe-inspiring. And that’s not a phrase I use very often. I’ve been moved many a time by the sheer beauty of Japan’s scenery, and seeing Mount Fuji for the first – or the hundredth – time is the best. thing. ever.
4. Short and Sweet Holidays are Better than Long Ones. The Japanese don’t tend to take long holidays; it’s not in the culture and annual leave restrictions don’t really allow for them. But they are masters of the one night / two day, or the two night / three day break. Cramming in a holiday into such a short time frames might seem stressful and unappealing, but the culture works so efficiently and seamlessly that it turns out to be really relaxing.
Trains are always on time and you can get your luggage sent to your destination in advance for a small fee. I never had a delay or issue with checking in, and there are people to serve you in your room or make up your futon before you hit the hay each night. That is, after you’ve eaten a delicious, seasonal and local meal (see #1) and had a divinely relaxing bath (see #2) followed by a couple of beers and for some reason, an ice cream from the vending machine in your hotel. I found that doing this regularly was far more refreshing and interesting than going away for 2 or 3 weeks once a year. Long live the mini break!
5. An Appreciation for The Seasons. Most (but not all) parts of Japan have four distinct seasons, and boy do they know how to celebrate this. There is always something to look forward to; Sakura (Cherry blossom season where you sit in a park and have a boozed up picnic with friends), Koyo (the stunningly colourful autumn leaves), firework nights and tons of summer festivals.
I found that rather than wishing winter to be over, the abundance of tradition and ritual for each season meant that there was always something special going on, usually accompanied by a feast with seasonal food and drink. While I’ve often grimaced through winter waiting for summer to come in grey and cold England, now I try to find the positives in the long dark winters; finding a good book to curl up with, candles and fires, a glass of red wine in a cosy pub.
6. A Love of Simple Things – Some of the best experiences I had in Japan were just so… simple. The culture is full of traditions that on the surface you might dismiss as boring, but in fact they are so pared back that this is where their beauty and joy lies. Ikebana (flower arranging ), the tea ceremony (which can take 3-4 hours – not like making a cuppa at home!), putting on a kimono to just to go for a walk around the park and take photos. All of these things hold such happy memories.
Many of these activities are quite traditional, but even with my younger friends such simplicity existed in a modern day form. Going out to hunt down (and often queue for) the most beautifully presented cake and coffee in town, photographing the Sakura in the park before sitting down with a bottle of Sake and rice cakes and spending the afternoon people watching.
Another example – the 15 year olds at the school I taught at celebrated their birthdays with red rice (rice made with red beans in it) and perhaps a cake if they were lucky. No parties, no presents, no big deal. Japan is famous for its minimalism, and somehow I found that there is often more in less; an appreciation of small pleasures rather than a constant overwhelm or a want or need of something bigger and more exciting all the time. I rarely felt the “grass is always greener” syndrome that I see here – though admittedly this might have changed since I left with the rise of social media and smart phones. Sob.
7. Presentation is Often Everything. Particularly in Tokyo, everything from the fashion to the food to the interior design of hotels, bars etc. is so well thought out and perfect that you can’t help but smile.
8. Feeling A Part of Something is Key to Wellbeing. Though I feared that moving to Japan at 21 years’ old, not knowing anyone, and living by myself might be hugely isolating, it couldn’t have been further from the truth. Never have I felt so involved in the community, found socialising so effortless, and been surrounded by supportive and loving groups of people. It’s true that Japan, much like most of Asia, has a group mentality, and as such there is always an invite extended to a party, a dinner, an outing, a holiday, a day trip.
Without even trying I had several groups of friends and soon became a member of many different clubs and communities. I know that for sure, being a part of these groups was a massive happiness booster. It’s also cited as one of the reasons why the people of Japan’s most southern island, Okinawa, have the longest life expectancy in the world – communities are great for making us healthier and happier.
9. Volunteering is Not Selfless. Honestly, this one happened quite accidentally. I was somewhat bullied into teaching English classes to Japanese adults in my evenings, and then to young children, and then I was asked to talk on various topics at some weekend club meetings. None of which I was happy about, especially since teaching English was my day job and I sort of expected to be paid for it. But something funny happened… I actually got a bigger buzz from voluntary teaching than I did from my work. And then I got involved in other voluntary activities, most notably going to Cambodia for 3 weeks to build a school and teach in rural communities. I think it’s true what they say – volunteering is not an altruistic act a all since the volunteer is often the one that benefits most from this experience. It all goes a little something like this…
And that’s it – my 9 happiness lessons learned from living in Japan. Have you ever been thrust so far out of your comfort zone that you learned a thing or two about happiness? Leave a comment!