This summer I had the pleasure of being able to travel to Japan thanks to a travel grant from my University and some help from my family. The desire to visit Japan was part of my increasing interest in working on unaccompanied flute works which are inspired by Japanese culture. In particular, I am interested in the sounds of the Shakuhachi which is a Japanese bamboo flute. While playing pieces like Kazuo Fukushima’s Mei and Shirish Korde’s Tenderness of Cranes I have always felt particularly inspired. To me, these pieces, more so than other works for flute alone, have many creative possibilities. So I went in search of the reason why music of this kind releases my inner artist: I listened to Shakuhachi recordings, read about the history of the instrument, experimented with making the sounds on my western flute, and finally purchased a plastic Shakuhachi and an introductory lesson. But none of it really gave me the whole picture to the instrument. There was something I was missing. And when I started to ask deeper questions about the culture behind this enigmatic piece of bamboo, I always got the same response: “If you want to truly experience Japanese culture, you are going to have to go there.”
So that’s what I set out to do: go to Japan and immerse myself in the culture and the history. Over the course of the next few blog posts, I will attempt to share my experiences in Japan: the people, food, music, and places that would eventually change my life.
I arrived in Japan in the evening after a journey that took close to 30 hours including 14 hours on a plane traveling from Washington D.C. to Tokyo. I spoke no Japanese whatsoever but I was able to locate my bags and meet with the family friend who had come to pick me up. He was extremely gracious and took me for dinner and to my hotel and taught me the one word that would accompany throughout this strange country: Arigato. Usually accompanied by a bow, this word for “thank you”, as my friend explained, is one of the most important words in the Japanese language for many reasons. Hospitality and, along with it, appreciation are highly valued in Japanese culture. There is no tipping at restaurants in Japan because good service is considered part of what the customer is paying for in their meal. I would soon learn the extent to which this was true.
I think that all cultures should adopt the bowing tradition. It is easy to toss a “thanks” over your shoulder on the way out the door but those who take the time to stop and bow seem truly genuine in their gratitude. The first time I bowed while mirroring someone at the airport, I felt a rush of warmth like I had just made a real connection with that person. There was something exhilarating about it. I think if more people experienced thankfulness like the Japanese do, we would all be better off.
After a night in a hotel and being driven around by my family friend, I was off on my own for the rest of the trip. Armed only with excessive amounts of “google maps” print-outs and my one word, “Arigato” which I am sure I mispronounced (I blame Styx for this), I set off into the wilderness that is Japan for a foreigner.
My first challenge was breakfast. My premier meal alone in Japan was as daunting as any competition I had ever entered as a flute player. Given the option of a “western” breakfast or a “Japanese” breakfast, I of course opted for the latter because why would I come to Japan to eat a “country omelet”? The tray that was served to me had an array of tea, fish, rice, soup, pickled vegetables, and what looked like a poached egg that was extremely undercooked.
The tea, first of all, was unsweetened. And only we in the South call it “unsweetened” as if tea occurs naturally sweet and there is some sort of process by which the sugar is removed from it. This was fine, I learned to not hate unsweet tea over the course of my trip.
Everything was fine until I reached the soup. There was no spoon. Actually the confusing part was that there was a spoon on the table but it was a teaspoon and quite a shallow one at that. I tried one teaspoon of soup before I realized that trying to eat it that way was a pointless endeavor that would keep me sitting in that restaurant for the rest of the morning. Finally I sneaked a peak at a gentleman across from me and learned that you are supposed to just drink the soup from the small bowl as if it were a cup. I also learned my first foreign travel survival skill this way: when in doubt, do whatever the people around you are doing.
Then came the rice and the egg. I was pretty sure that the egg was supposed to go on top of the rice because I had read about this in books but I wasn’t willing to risk the humiliation. I ate everything around the rice in the hopes that I would see someone else eating theirs and learn how to do it but I saw no one else eating it. Finally, it was the last thing on my plate. I couldn’t put it off any more. I started to eat just the plain rice but then I felt as though I wasn’t doing the right thing. I felt like every Japanese person in the restaurant was looking at me. I started to pick up the egg with my chopsticks but it of course fell right through. Another wave of humiliation for being an ignorant American. My heart beat quickened, my palms began to sweat. I looked around nervously to see if anyone was actually watching me (they weren’t but perhaps they had only just averted their eyes when I looked up). I could just not eat it. But what if that was considered rude? Why did I not read a book about the idiosyncrasies of dining etiquette in Japan?! I began to perspire. Then I became acutely aware of my breathing. This was ridiculous! I took a deep breath, bit the bullet, and asked a waitress what the protocol was. To my surprise, she was very kind and showed me how to pour to egg over the rice. We even laughed together at my ignorance and the dish was scrumptious.
I hadn’t even seen any temples or heard any music yet and I had experienced my first life-changing event. Stripped of the power of language beyond hand signals and dropped into a slightly different environment, I had freaked out. It was the same feeling that I get sometimes when I walk on stage for an orchestra audition. You’ve never met the people listening to you and you’ve never played in that room or hall before and just these small unfamiliarities cause things to spiral out of control. The restaurant I was in was no different from those we have in America and the food was made with familiar ingredients but just being insecure about the standard operating procedure nearly induced a panic attack for me. But I learned in that moment that the only way to face your fears is to stand up to them head on. I was afraid of being judged for being a dumb foreigner so I owned up to being an ignoramus and asked for help. This would come to be my biggest ally during the rest of my trip.
And I had even learned this lesson before! How many movies depict characters facing up to their fears? How many books have this exact lesson as a central theme? To know that “facing your fears is the best policy” is all fine and good while sitting in your pajamas at home in front of your television but once you actually have to do it, it is much more daunting. I had even faced my fears many times before by performing and competing as a flutist but it is an experience that one can never have too many times. A teacher once told me
“To face your fears and realize they won’t kill you is an invaluable experience. The reward of this is called confidence.”
The people who had told me “in order to learn about culture, you have to go out and experience it” could not have been more correct. Life is not just in the practice room, or in the movies, or in doctoral dissertations about the Shakuhachi flute, it is out in the world. I know this is cliché but I hope this post will reach my scholarly colleagues who spend their time in libraries and computer labs and that they will understand that they should stop reading blog posts and find a way to go out and experience the world. This will make you a much better musician than locking yourself in a practice room. (Not to say that practicing isn’t important)
Well I knew Japan was going to be a cool experience but I didn’t expect to get so much out of breakfast. But now, whenever I start to get nervous when I walk on stage to play in front of people, I remember my first Japanese breakfast and I tell myself to face the fear of being judged head on. At least then, if I am missing notes, I will be owning it instead of glancing around hoping that no one is watching me.
But seriously, stop reading this and go out and do something!