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I have met thousands of travellers to Japan over the years and one thing that is routinely commented on is how peaceful, organised, quiet, clean and just generally calm people are in Japan. Whether getting stuffed into a crowded rush-hour train, waiting 90 minutes for a bowl of ramen or sitting in their car at a standstill without honking while a group of lost foreigners unknowingly blocks traffic, things that would drive me crazy seem to be taken in stride by the citizens of my adopted home. This is not to say that the Japanese don’t love a good laugh, a big night out, or a loud chat over beers; very much the opposite. But there is wonderful patience and peace that you can sense while in Japan, even in the most crowded areas in the heart of the world’s most populous metropolis. There are plenty of theories (and books!) on why and how this came to be so I won’t delve into that here, but if you are looking to indulge in a bit of Japanese calm yourself, here is a book for your consideration.
Yasunari Kawabata – Snow Country
Yasunari Kawabata was the first Japanese novelist to win the Nobel Prize for literature, and one only needs to read Snow Country to understand why. Although he has a portfolio of poetic novels and entrancing short stories, to me Snow Country encapsulates not only the best of Kawabata but the best of travel in Japan. It is the Lost in Translation of its day: enigmatic, serene, and intriguing from start to finish. To me, the book brings a calm that is almost spiritual; within the first few pages, I am no longer sitting in my study under a springtime sun but riding on a train in the snowy north of Japan in the depths of winter. The interaction of Shimamura and Komako once felt as foreign to me as natto or engawa* but after 15 years in Japan, I’ve come to realise that it is all based in just another facet of Japanese calm. Of accepting the ephemeral and finding beauty in it.
In the Japanese language, a true message is often in what is unsaid. In Japanese calligraphy and flower arrangement, much of the genius can be found where ink and flowers are not, rather than where they are. In haiku, the beauty of an instant is more often implied rather than stated outright. So it is with Snow Country, where deep emotion is felt by all but left unsaid. What can never be is accepted, rather than fought. It is Japanese calm that is both tragic and beautiful.
* Natto is fermented soybean that is either loved or hated (even by Japanese). Traditionally mixed with rice at breakfast, it can be found in various forms and at other mealtimes as well. My kids love it. Engawa is a rich and oily meat that comes from the tail fin of flatfish. It can be eaten raw or cooked and is best known as sushi.
Snow Country and other works by Yasunari Kawabata can be found in most good online bookstores.