what is Japan like?

Having just come back from Japan I have lots of photos of our craft skills exchange to share but as a first post I thought I would share some more general thoughts answering the question everyone has asked since I got back. “What was Japan like”

Like any tourist I only saw a snap shot, a brief view of a small part of a big country. I also went with preconceptions having read much about the history and practice of traditional crafts. I went expecting to see ancient traditional life alongside cutting edge twenty first century life, maybe this is what I was expecting. Master hewer Amemiyasan chatting on his mobile whilst sharpening his axe.

I don’t know why, but I was surprised to find that most of what I saw was actually neither old nor new but as in most developed countries layers of material culture with the largest proportion being from the latter half of the 20th century. What surprised me was the amount of “stuff” from the 1970′s and 80′s. In the UK we seem to have a very rapid turnaround throwing stuff out and replacing with new so electric appliances such as washing machines, kettles, hifi etc look very old in just 10 years but I saw plenty of such appliances that were clearly much older. Houses too seemed primarily to be from the latter half of the twentieth century.

Food was probably the biggest difference, miso soup and rice could be served for breakfast, lunch or dinner and in fact we normally had it at least twice a day. It is clearly a very healthy diet and when we came back to the UK the thing that struck us most was how fat and unhealthy looking people were. It was difficult for us to judge the age of folk in Japan because old folk seem to stay active and have good posture, no stooping with age.

I am always interested when abroad in reading the landscape. How are the fields layed out and what does that tell us about how people live today and in the past. In the area of Japan where we were I was surprised to see lots of small scale agriculture and cultivated fields interspersed amongst the housing even well into reasonably large cities. In the UK nearly all agriculture is much more mechanised, these small fields were ploughed by tiny tractors.

And of course the cereal crop was rice. No livestock so no fences or hedges.

Our hosts father in law owned one of these small fruit orchards and we stopped one morning to scrump ripe plumbs.

And these were the grapes, each bunch carefully covered with wax paper to prevent damage by the heavy rain.

One of my favourite parts of Japanese culture was the public baths or onsen fed by hot springs. The Germans and Swedes were quite at home stripping naked and jumping in a big bath together, British folk tend to be rather reserved but after a long hard days work there was nothing better. They all varied but always first thing is a shower room where you scrub down, then there are big pools at various temperatures, most have “natural style” architecture so the pool is made with lots of big granite boulders and sometimes a nice timber frame structure for a roof, sometimes completely open air. Our favourite was high on a mountainside overlooking the city lights below. It’s obviously not a place to take photos but if you put “onsen” into google you will see the sort of thing.

So that’s all for now, lots of photos of woodworking and gorgeous Japanese tools to follow.

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