I bought many things on my recent trip to Japan. It was hard not to: just about everything on sale in Japan was eminently worth buying. Food, drinks, books, shoes, humble boxes, ceramics, paper goods, whatever I set my eyes on was simply beautifully crafted, with precision and care. Even more, it was all displayed with such respect for the object that it made everything seem meaningful, valuable, important.
Even more importantly, every item purchased was so lovingly wrapped for me by the shop assistants that many of the things I bought I didn’t have the heart to unwrap. I felt, in a way that might be quintessentially un-Japanese, that I might ruin some crucial quality of my buy by getting it out of its paper packaging.
So take a look at this humble little thing, a papier-mache box, I bought in a shop in Asakusa, and religiously carried around for a month after in its original packaging. Watch as it comes apart, the thing of beauty (見事) that it is.
The box itself is gorgeous; after all, that was what I saw on the shelf in Asakusa. However, the multiple layers of packaging added an entirely new level (or layer) of beauty to it. The habit of wrapping a square item in a square sheet of paper by rotating it slightly was common to my experience of Japan: many very humble items came to me wrapped like that, in very humble shops and from people who clearly weren’t any sort of paper artists. The folds in such a wrapping process result in many very small, unusual corners. It was only once I had unwrapped it, and examined the paper, that it became obvious that, despite the seeming haphazardness of the angle, and the irregularity of the little folds created along the way, there was great thought involved in the technique. It was only once the wrapping paper was laid out that the symmetry of the folds was revealed:
After returning from Japan, I spent at least a month gripped by what my boyfriend called a case of post-Japan blues afflicting all Australians. Nothing, to put it simply, was good enough anymore. What would have seemed like ordinary customer service until my departure for Tokyo suddenly looked like gratuitous acts of random and deliberate rudeness. I was appalled by shop assistants across multiple states shrugging and declaring that they weren’t really good at wrapping, instead handing me some brown paper and letting me do the job myself, if I was so keen on having my bought goods packaged. In a bookshop in Brisbane’s South Bank, adjacent to GOMA, a bookshop that purported to be a classy joint, I had to quite warmly insist to the shop assistant that his wrapping skills would certainly be adequate before he deigned to wrap the pile of books I had just bought with the intention to give as presents. And not to say anything about the quality of the purchased goods. After Japan, quite simply, nothing was good enough anymore.
Japan is certainly heaven for anyone with a love for applied arts – Japanese arts are all applied, and Japanese culture values application enormously. But being there reminded me strongly of the little pleasures of living in Europe – travelling a few kilometres whichever way and experiencing a thousand microfelicities upon finding something new, beautiful and native to the local area to savour, touch, perhaps bring back as a little present (omiyage, お土産). And I remembered my visit to Perth, my first travel in Australia outside of Melbourne, walking through shop after shop, all of which could have been called Cheap&Nasty (dot-painted boomerangs, koala keychains, postcards of men holding pints of beer), and wondering how it was possible that so many people had spent so much time settled on that corner of the Earth without producing, appreciating and refining a single thing, a single item special to them. A single thing worth making with care, displaying with respect, wrapping with love and selling proudly to a visitor.
One could make the age argument (Australia is so young!, has not had the time to produce papier-mache boxes worth raving about!), but it is an insincere argument. What makes the Asakusa box special is not the thirteen hundred years of Japanese civilization. It is the care with which it was made, the care with which it was displayed, the care with which it was wrapped upon purchase, the care which naturally extended to my own greater appreciation. Such care comes with respect for the craft, and appreciation of beauty that is a degree separate from the utility, cost or status value of the object. It is materialism in the proper sense of the word.
It is care that Australia lacks, not history. After all, most of what human beings do, as a species, is rather banal: growing and eating food, building shelter, hitting balls of varying shapes according to varying rules; some paved roads here; some drying racks there. Civilization and culture are not so much the sum total of our operas, marble horsemen and bell towers, but of our ability to imbue with meaning and purpose these everyday activities that we have shaped our life around. What makes Italy a deeply satisfying place to live in is not the ruins of the Colosseum, but the way Italians talk about food and football: not as guilty pleasures, but as activities of cosmic importance. (As of Japan; look no further…)
To be able to tell why something that you do matters, it is not enough to bullshit (marketing thrives in Australia as well as in Italy), because a narrative of that sort is not a lie. It is definitional, and generative. It is born by giving a voice to one’s own innate sense of what is important, and it makes others care for it more. It forms, by default, a community. But it requires an opening up, and it makes one vulnerable. Especially if the context is that of a place in which it is considered somehow embarrassing to care.
Just ran across your blog while reading up about mono no aware. Nice site.
I think we were in Japan at the same time!
I similarly returned to Los Angeles feeling that everything here is somehow “rough” or uncivilized compared to that country.