Two nights ago, in Tokyo (pop. 13.5 million), our family slept in one of the nicest hotels in the world. The sheets were soft, the mattresses perfect. We noshed on snacks left for us by the gracious staff and contemplated Mount Fuji through our wall of windows. We enjoyed top-of-the-line bath products and plush, white robes. The grown-up half of our traveling party was in heaven.
Last night, in Hida (pop. 4,000), we slept in a traditional Japanese house on futons placed on straw mats on the floor. Our pillows were, quite literally, sacks of beans. It’s chilly here, and our house does not have heat (although, thankfully, we do have space heaters). There is no soap. There are no bath towels. But there’s a huge space for running and for jumping and for playing with stuffed animals. The kids think it’s Shangri-La.
These kinds of contrasts have shaped the first half of our trip and provided some of its greatest opportunities for reflection. Beyond just lodging variations, we’ve noticed cultural differences that will keep our minds busy for months to come.
In Tokyo, for instance, we witnessed firsthand the work-focused culture—the one that gave rise to the Japanese word for “death by overwork.” We stepped off the train at 9:45pm, the same time thousands of bleary-eyed office workers were boarding to begin their nightly commute. Convenience stores sell a variety of eat-and-run lunches, and vending machines everywhere offer a rainbow of caffeinated products. In Seville, by contrast, stress from overwork does not seem to be a common affliction. Most businesses open late, then close in the afternoons for siesta time. Weekday lunches easily last upwards of two hours and involve three or more courses. It is nearly impossible to find a cup of coffee to go; instead, it’s savored at tables with friends.
In Saint-Emilion, locals and visitors alike seemed to follow a speak-only-when-spoken-to mantra. Here in tiny Hida, though, our Airbnb host gave us only two rules: Say “konnichiwa” (“hello”) to everyone you pass on the street, and don’t burn down the house. Clothing in Bangkok swirls with color, from women in magenta dresses to monks in saffron robes. In Tokyo, I played a game with Harper to keep her occupied while waiting for the subway: Try to spot someone wearing a color other than black, grey, navy, white or beige. In Granada, we were always on the watch for pickpockets. In Japan, nobody seems to lock up their bikes, and waitresses have more than once chased us out of restaurants to give us money we’d left behind. Hida, the town we’re in now, does not employ a single police officer.
Each place we’ve visited is unique from the others, and yet all of them are alike in a few ways that make them different from the U.S. Light switches always seem to be in odd places. Clothes dryers are a rare commodity. Paper products aren’t nearly as good. And, most noticeably, so many things are so much smaller. The washing machines, the refrigerators and the cars are a fraction of the size of American ones. And so are most of the people.
At home I sometimes find myself running on autopilot. I listen to the radio on the way to work but arrive at the office with little recollection of what I’ve heard. I get halfway through a shower and suddenly realize I can’t remember whether I’ve shampooed my hair. Being in foreign places, without the lull of familiar sights and rote routines, makes me more mindful. Everything is at least slightly different from our norm, and these variations require me to be more attuned to what I’m doing from moment to moment. If only I could find a way to maintain this presence of mind once we return home . . . . Maybe I should ask Derek to move all of our light switches.