Am I Too Frivolous for Japan?

Every language attracts a special kind of student. Spanish speakers are lazy and charming. Those who have mastered French are sometimes chic and always sybaritic. Hebrew attracts the committed; Turkish, the committed and complicated. Adventurers are drawn to Arabic, and Mandarin is for brainiacs who love a challenge—so much so that they often abandon the language altogether once they’ve got it down. And Japanese? Japanese speakers are serious, serious people. Of course, all languages demand tedious, diligent study, but there’s something about Japanese that calls out to those who are quiet, kind, and, often, spiritual. People who would rather kneel on a tatami mat contemplating a calligraphy scroll than, say, slump on a sofa watching Gossip Girl.

I always fancied myself too frivolous for Japan. Going there would be like visiting a library—a quiet, orderly place where nothing much happens. A world unto itself with lovely things to look at but nothing much to do. I love libraries; I just didn’t want to spend my vacation in one. All that politeness stressed me out. There seemed to be a million rules—take your shoes off here, wear these slippers in the bathroom and nowhere else—and I didn’t understand any of them.

I started to rethink this position when I realized that my recent holiday destinations—wonderful, envy-inducing places all—had started to blur together. In my recollection, dinner in Dublin was just like lunch in Moscow, albeit with 50 percent less gristle. That great bookstore in Madrid really wasn’t all that different from the Barnes & Noble a few blocks from my apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y. As I surveyed the living room—I happened to be perched in front of the TV set at the time of this epiphany—my vacation souvenirs stared back at me reproachfully. The memento I’d purchased in an Amsterdam museum shop was a close cousin of the keepsake I’d bought at a Barcelona gallery. Sure, each knickknack featured some iconic image of the city or country it was supposed to represent, but all those tasteful trinkets could have rolled off the same assembly line in Kansas or Kenilworth.

Just then, I noticed a pile of books that my girlfriend had left on the kitchen table. (Did I mention that I’ve lived with one of those kind, serious students of Japanese for nearly a dozen years?) One book was a series of profiles of “Edo craftsmen,” elderly Japanese men (and a few women) who had turned their backs on the modern age—and apparently the law of supply and demand—to devote themselves to pursuits such as kabuki calligraphy, kimono tailoring, and the construction of household shrines.

They were a gutsy bunch of bad-asses, these shokunin. In Japan, a land of conformity, it takes determination to renounce the necktie and business suit of the salaryman in favor of coarse cloth work clothes. Some shokunin appeared to have given up human company altogether: The photos showed old men working alone; occasionally two balding heads shared a tiny room. The stories about them fit the Japanese stereotype of respecting one’s elders—most of the gray-haired masters had taken up tools decades earlier at their father’s request—but there was also a dose of obstinacy in their choice of career. You think kimono-crest printing went out with the dodo? I’m (barely) living proof that you’re wrong.

The second volume, Blue and White Japan, design guru Amy Katoh’s mash note to the nation’s signature color scheme, is one of those seductive design books that have you ready to trade in your set of Crate & Barrel dishes for a collection of chipped, unmatched china after just one flip-through. You’ll also want to discard your store-bought tablecloth in favor of an improvised covering pieced together from farm rags. Apparently, I had two options for acquiring these must-have objects: a lifetime of flea-market browsing or a visit to Katoh’s store in Tokyo.

I needed a pack of tissues to get through Old Kyoto, the final book in the stack. Focusing on “family establishments that have been in business for at least a hundred years, and in some cases for over ten generations,” it’s a collection of obituaries-in-waiting disguised as a guidebook. Pretty much all the shopkeepers Diane Durston profiles would qualify for Medicare, and one entry about a charming cask and bucket maker concluded with a heartbreaking postscript: “Tomii-san, unfortunately, had no son and no apprentice to carry on his honorable trade. He passed away in 1998, leaving a hole in the heart of the Nishijin district where the bright red buckets out front (his only ‘sign board’) were once a famous landmark.” I used to think that the best guidebooks made you want to race to a destination before it’s “spoiled”; this one left me desperate to get to Kyoto before anyone else died.

It’s not as if I really needed any casks or buckets, but like a lot of people whose work life is hyperactive, I freak out when faced with the unstructured days of vacation. Perhaps heading to Japan with a purpose—tracking down some of these men who make things with their hands, often with the same tools their great-grandfathers used, and figuring out what drives them to live the lonely life of a traditional craftsman—would help me understand more about my own attitudes toward work and vocation.

I had also heard a lot of good things about Japanese television.