A good friend and I recently returned from a trip to Japan. We went to two cities during our one-week stay - Osaka and of course Tokyo. Japan has long captured the west’s fascination with its famous work ethic, innovation, nightlife, and wildly unique pop culture.
Dan and I must have walked an average of 10 miles a day. There was so much to see in a short amount of time. Luckily, living in New York, a “walking town,” had prepared me for seemingly endless strolls through Japan’s immaculately clean streets filled with bright lights and great restaurants. We did everything from visit Osaka’s Dotonbori Canal while the sounds of loud Japanese pop blared in our ears to check out the latest electronics in Tokyo’s Akihabara District. Japan seemed to have 20 New York Cities scattered throughout the country, several in Tokyo alone.
There are many differences between Japan and America, some subtler than others. For example, people in Osaka ride their bicycles on the sidewalk. What’s more is just about every person we encountered in Japan was almost absurdly polite. If a cyclist was riding behind the two of us during a morning stroll, he or she would not say a word indicating a desire to pass. More often than not we would only notice the person when they were practically on our heels. “How long do you think she was behind us?" I asked Dan on more than one occasion. “I have no idea,” he’d say. For all we knew it may have been half an hour.
For a country that is positively the cleanest I have ever seen there are paradoxically very few garbage cans. At times I felt like there were about 4 in the entire country. Buying a coffee in the morning and taking it along for an early walk was actually a very big decision because you’d be stuck with the cup long after you finished drinking it. I’m talking hours. Never had I given ordering a hot tea such intense thought.
Still, the minor inconveniences were nothing compared to the amazing sites Japan had to offer. There was the Tokyo Tower, a 333-meter communications pillar built in 1957, which offered stunning views of the city. We visited Osaka Castle, an impressive fortress built over 350 years ago. It played an important role in the unification of Japan and the gelato at the nearby snack bar wasn’t half bad either. There was also no shortage of shrines. Japan loves its shrines. And they no doubt offered a chance for reflection. But the truth is, I learned the most about how to live a richer life by a far simpler place.
Family Mart is essentially an improved version of 7-Eleven, but with three noteworthy differences. First, Family Mart has amazing snacks that are presumably healthier than those found in the aisles of say an AM/PM. Second, within 600 square feet of space you can buy just about anything you need to live comfortably for the rest of your life. Any place where I can buy a stapler, an umbrella, and a sandwich is okay by me. But what stood out the most was the service. Regardless of the time of day (open 24 hours of course), the crowd, or weather, the employees of Family Mart were always extremely polite and professional. They greeted each customer with deliberate intention and energy. Patience was always practiced and as a foreigner I never felt self-conscious about my inability to speak the language.
It turned out that Family Mart was just the beginning. I paid close attention to how thoughtful the hotel staff was towards its guests. I watched train agents go well out of their way to help commuters find their transfers. The Bullet Train was always on time, literally to the minute. And each person, regardless of their occupation or background carried themselves with an almost radiant self-respect. What I learned was invaluable: The meaning of your life and what you choose to do with it has as much value as you decide to give it. From the CEO of a multimillion-dollar company to a cashier at a convenience store, there was little if any distinction to who valued their position more. I understood that the store manager at Family Mart may have been aiming for higher aspirations, but nonetheless his commitment and professionalism never wavered.
Japan taught me that regardless of what you do for a living you must approach it as a craft worth honing.