I lived and worked in Japan for many years. I often talk about my life during that time, usually because people ask about it. They ask "How was life in Japan?" as though they are saying "How was life in outer space?". It's that foreign to some people.
I am terrible at explaining my life and experience there. I am even worse at explaining why I fell in love with Japan and the Japanese way of life.
There is a deep seeded pride and dignity to Japanese life, something that dates back to the dawn of human life on that small string of islands. This way of approaching the world is especially present when it comes to ones work, even more so with artisanal work.
I was once in a quite tofu restaurant in Kyoto between the lunch and dinner crowd. I watched the chef delicately carve a cross into the tops of every mushroom that would be served for dinner. I asked him why he was doing that. I was expecting a culinary answer, they cook more evenly, release flavor into the broth, something along those lines. Instead he told me "they look more pleasing to the eye this way."
During that time I lived in a small town in Southern Japan. Throughout those years I found a handful of shops, bars and restaurants that I loved and visited as much as possible. One of the bars that I came to appreciate was called Bar Trump.
It was a "Jazz" bar. I put jazz in quotes because the only relation this bar had to jazz was that the owner/bartender loved jazz music and played old records all night long. There was never a jazz band playing in this bar, mainly because it was 8 feet wide and 20 feet deep. A standing base would not have fit, let alone an entire band.
I loved this bar. I loved the burgundy silk wall paper, I loved the whiskey, I loved hearing music I knew little about, but most importantly, I loved the bartender. He had dedicated his life to his obscure little bar. To you and I it was just one of a thousand bars in downtown Kumamoto, but to him, this bar meant everything.
On a cold winter night in 2006, I stopped in for a late night chat and to have a local sweet potato whiskey, we got to talking about his family and his life in the city. He told me that he opened his bar in the mid 90's and has never taken a day off, in 15 years.
To the world, to that city, to the neighborhood, that bar being closed for a night would mean very very little. But to him, closing his bar for the night was not acceptable. He told me he would hate for a good customer, someone that respects and trusts him to be let down.
That is something that stuck with me, in great clarity for many years.
Last winter I came across a story in the Wall Street Journal titled "Made Better in Japan". Up until very recently, this was the best proxy I had seen to help translate my passion for Japan. The piece starts with this:
"My boss won't let me make espressos," says the barista. "I need a year more, maybe two, before he's ready to let customers drink my shots undiluted by milk. And I'll need another whole year of practice after that if I want to be able to froth milk for cappuccinos."
I could go on and on about these kind of stories. About the best cameras, zippers, knives, beef, cotton and denim in the world, but I feel that I too easily miss the nuance and subtlety found in this way of thinking.
I am constantly on some sort of personal subconscious quest to explain Japan to the world, or maybe to explain Japan to myself. When I come across a coherent story like the Wall Street Journals, I want to shout out the window, or email everyone I know.
That in mind, I feel that my quest made a very significant discovery last week. Much to my surprise, it was not drudged up from an old ship wreck, or found in some ancient text, instead in came slithering right up to me in the form of a film, a film about a man.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a 2011 documentary about Jiro Ono, an 85 year old master sushi chef who has been making sushi for the past 75 years (yes, he started working in a sushia at age 10).
This film is incredibly articulate in all of the ways I am not.
Preparing and serving sushi has very finite options, there are only so many ways to put these dishes together. Western culture tells us to improve, evolve, grow. Jiro took the opposite approach, take away, simplify, strive for a level of purity.
His restaurant only serves 7 people at a time, no menus, no drinks, no appetizers, just the set he has decided on for the day.
Jiro truly believes that after preparing and serving sushi for 75 years and being the only sushi chef in the world to receive 3 Michelin stars, he can still improve as a chef.
"Once you decide on your occupation, you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That's the key to success."
Several scenes in the film are spent with a Japanese food critic who knows Jiro's sushi very well, and has been a customer for many years. In an early scene he says that he still gets nervous eating at Jiro's restaurant.
Jiro Ono, his two talented sons and the small staff behind the scenes of his restaurant embody an ever-present and powerful force that is pumping through the veins of the Japanese culture.
I saw the tip of this iceberg while living in Japan, but it became much more clear from a greater distance. When I relocated to California after a half a decade in Japan, that sense of pride and personal responsibility started to come into focus in a new and distinct way.
Living in Japan and spending time around passionate and talented people had a deep and meaningful impact on me. It is very easy for me to say that my time there is why I do what I do today.
The pride Jiro has taken in his work for 3/4 of a century, the chef preparing mushrooms in Kyoto and the owner of Bar Trump inspire me everyday.
They don't inspire me to be the best or to follow some wild dreams of success, rather they inspire something greater, something earnest within me.
Since seeing Jiro's film nearly a week ago I had been unable to process this inspiration, unable to put my finger on the emotion that bubbled up during those 81 minutes.
However, last night it hit me, as clear as could be: Today I want to be better at what I do than I was yesterday.