The world’s fascination with the distinctiveness of Japanese culture is tempting for any traveller. Curious about what this country had to offer, I flew to Tokyo with a concrete itinerary that had mental time slots for every place that was recommended to me. The plan was to visit Kyoto as well.
So What is Wabi-Sabi?
Through the course of my research for this trip, I stumbled upon the country’s cultural conception of Wabi-Sabi, which I found to be interesting. In Japanese aesthetics, it is the implicit acceptance of imperfection and incompleteness in everything around us. It is a serendipitous approach to life itself, but little did I know that it could translate into a useful motto for a traveller.Upon reaching Tokyo, I couldn’t wait to visit the several religious shrines and walk down the anime and manga-filled streets of Akihabara, which are aesthetically remarkable, to say the least. But Wabi-Sabi was more appealing now than ever, especially as I sat amidst the people on the Shinkansen train from the airport to Kyoto. I chose to explore Japan through their cultural lens rather than my own myopic itinerary.
Onwards to Kyoto....
Kyoto felt like a quaint, historic city with sprawling natural beauty that was waiting to be explored. While many vouch for the timeliness and efficiency of Japanese public transport, I decided to rent a cycle on the first day instead. It was reasonably affordable and safe to cycle on the streets of Kyoto. After visiting the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, I discovered the Katsura-gawa river nearby.
Reminding myself of my new motto, I cycled the Katsura River Cycling Road using my map. The world-famous Kinkaku-Ji temple visit had to be put on hold. The long stretch encompassed rows of Japanese houses in semi-urban and rural Kyoto, giving me a chance to interact with the locals and brush up my broken Japanese.
The next day, I extended my spontaneous cycling adventure to the banks of the Hozugawa River. This one was different, with grand mountainous landscapes and lush green wilderness, which was serene and unlike anything I had witnessed within the city. Kyoto’s well-organized preservation of natural sites reminded me of how the Shinto and Buddhist tradition emphasizes the coexistence of people with their ecology, a strain of thought translating itself into popular Japanese artworks as well.
Back to Tokyo.....
On my train ride to Tokyo, I thought about the ideal ways in which one could understand the culture of a country. Exploring the cuisine was one way, but being a vegetarian in a place known for its seafood left me with very little experimental freedom. However, T’s Tantan at the Tokyo Station served excellent vegan ramen which was both cheap, accessible and delicious. Wabi-sabi opened my Tokyo itinerary to understanding the charming stationery world of Japan.
The highlight of my stay was Kakimori, a stationery store in Taito City. Unlike other ordinary stores, Kakimori allows one to create, customize and design their own notebooks from scratch. Standing by the idea that technology replaces the joy of writing, the store allowed me to choose from a broad range of covers, different paper types, fasteners and colours to curate my own personalized journal. A short walk away was Ink Stand, a store which lets you customize ink colours for your fountain pen. The Bun Bougu Cafe in Tokyo is a quirky stationery-themed cafe. My visit involved a delicious and hearty meal along with a newfound admiration for the variety of pens and pencils that I didn’t know existed. The city made me dizzy with its stationery options, reminding me that my childhood-favourite Uniball pens were also from Japan.
My stationery expedition taught me that more than anything, the Japanese valued the creative process deeply, with their long-standing tradition of calligraphy. Everyday-stationery wasn’t just a matter of functionality, but a matter of thoughtful aesthetics: a style which is reflected even in the architecture of their shrines and skyscrapers.
On my flight back to India, I realized how necessary it was for a traveller to leave empty spaces on a trip so that the journey can guide us into the heart of a country’s culture. Japan was nothing like I originally imagined, but at the same time, it was everything that the Internet promises in terms of its unconventional uniqueness. Wabi-sabi has stayed with me ever since. What I know for sure about Japan is that while you can attempt to be organized with a rigid itinerary, it always has something more to offer and surprise you with its cultural eccentricities.