Stories from Life in Rural Southern Japan
This is the third part of a three part series, you can find learning the art of Patience and Focus in previous diary entries.
Georgia Dorey lived and worked in Japan for two years. Georgia is now based between London and New York and is a maker and lecturer with a specialist interest in Japanese cultural studies. www.inpraiseofthefold.com
Story 3 – Awareness
Being a member of a family who has always grown fruit and vegetables, seasonal eating has always been a familiar concept to me. The four seasons in the UK are reflected in the crops eaten. For example, rhubarb, leeks and broad beans are eaten in spring. In summer new potatoes, salad vegetables, courgettes, beans and blackcurrants are enjoyed. Bountiful harvests of apples are eaten in autumn, and sprouts and leafy greens in winter.
One of my favourite things about Japan is the fact that they observe 72 seasons. Based on the ancient Japanese calendar, in which the year is divided into 24 and then 72 separate seasons. This means that a change in the seasons can be noticed and celebrated every 5 days.
When visiting Japan, it is almost impossible not to notice how the seasons are celebrated; from seasonally decorated convenience stores to the images on the ATM machine. And be careful not to blink or you’ll miss some produce only available to buy in the supermarkets for a week or two.
Aside from growing up with green-fingered parents, I come from a culture where if you fancy a punnet of blueberries in the middle of deepest, darkest winter, you can pop to the supermarket and have your craving met. In Japan, fruit and vegetables are usually only available during the time at which they are harvested. One of my favourite fruits, the persimmon, is everywhere for a short spell in October and then they are almost all but gone until the following year. This means that during the brief time in which foods are available, they are celebrated, noticed and are all the more enjoyable because of their fleeting nature.
I was fortunate enough to be invited to a variety of lunches and suppers at different restaurants and friends’ houses. As a child, I was taught to try and always positively comment on the food I am fortunate to be eating. Usually an ‘mmm, this is delicious’ would be sufficient praise and then the rest of the meal could be spent talking and discussing. The food is often secondary to the conversation and company. But I noticed that in Japan, the praise and appreciation for food extends throughout the meal. Food is the important and continual thread within gatherings. At first, I found this peculiar and a little excessive, but over time I came to admire how much appreciation people had for something that I had often taken for granted.
It is customary in Japan, even when dining alone, before you begin a meal to hold your hands in a prayer position and say “itadakimasu” which means “I gratefully receive” and when you finish you will end with “gochisosama (deshita)” which translates into “Thank you for the meal”. I was taught that the sentiment behind these phrases had almost nothing to do with religion but rather to give thanks to all the people and resources that have been involved in the process of getting the food onto your plate.
This practice soon became habitual to me and I tried to carry it on when I returned home to the UK but was met with some confused reactions. Instead, I now try to pause before starting a meal, to take note, to appreciate, to smell, to notice colours and presentation and experience the sensation of taste and the feeling of food in my mouth.
The changing of the seasons and the foods that we eat are inextricably connected. By keeping an awareness of the changes in seasons and the comings and goings of harvests we can eat in synchrony with our planet. A conversation over a meal with friends and family is a very special thing, but try to always be thankful for and celebrate where your food has come from and value its transience.
Now I have shared these three stories with you, it is clear to see the thread that runs throughout each of them; to live in this moment. This is a concept that feels so alien to a modern western way of life, and yet forms a part of almost every daily interaction in Japan.
There is an ancient saying in Japan, “Ichi-go ichi-e” which loosely translates as “one time one meet”. The idea is that every encounter and moment is unique and will only happen once in a lifetime, so feel it and be present in it, however challenging or mundane it may be. Embrace this moment for all it is worth because it will be gone in an instant. The only chance of the survival of memories and experiences is through how present you were in that moment.
Living a more considered life and practising what it means to live in each moment is about starting small. You can start now, whatever you are doing, stop rushing, notice the people around you, the space you occupy, the sounds, the weather outside the window, the warm tea in your cup, the new shoots breaking through the cold earth signalling the return of spring. Notice and appreciate these seemingly small things that occupy so much of your life, for there is much to be gained from them.
To share a story is to keep it alive, and I am so pleased to share this little snippet of my Japanese story with you. My hope is that these musings might help you to re-examine the pace at which you move through life and the things you take time to notice, enjoy and experience in the world around you.
Find Georgia online www.inpraiseofthefold.com