WellBeing’s editor Kate travels to Japan to find spaciousness and balance

In Japan, there’s a beautiful concept called yutori, which roughly translates to “spaciousness” or “living with spaciousness”. I learned of yutori when I arrived in Kyoto, the first stop on my three-week Japan adventure. I fell in love with the concept immediately, yet it left me puzzled. How could Japanese people feel spaciousness when they have a population of 126.8 million people? Australia, in comparison, has a population of 24.6 million people — 100 million less people than Japan on a landmass that is 20 times the size.

Despite the odds seemingly being stacked against them, Japanese people live with yutori and I wanted to find out how. I wanted to see where they found spaciousness among all the noise and people. So, I spoke my very broken Japanese to the locals. In Japan, they explain yutori as arriving somewhere early, so that you have time to look around. They say that yutori is the feeling you get after reading a poem that leaves you sitting in the spaciousness of its words. Yutori can also be felt when you’re hiking in the mountains, completely absorbed by the beauty surrounding you.

As I travelled through Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo, I decided to seek out those places that left me with a feeling of yutori. As I was about to find out, though, yutori wasn’t just found in physical places; it was also a state of mind.

Cultural Kyoto

A wooden hand-built boat pulls up next to the jetty my fiancé and I are standing on. Made from oak, a delicate wood grain, the boat is old and charming. We jump aboard and are told we’re heading towards the valley of Arashiyama, Kyoto. As we slowly float, I’m captivated by the dense emerald forest lining the edge of the bright green Ooi River. We sail past fisherman in wooden boats, all using bamboo fishing rods to catch their daily haul. Kids are playing by the river’s edge and, when they see us, they offer a friendly wave.

As we take a bend, I look to my right. I spot fingertips slowly moving from side-to-side, but whoever they belong to are hidden by the rocky boulders lining the edge of the river. As we get closer, two Japanese women come into view. They’re smiling and waving a slow and deliberate wave that I can’t help but reflect back. It’s the most intentional and conscious wave I have ever given, and I think about how, in comparison, waving in the Western world is aggressive and fast. As I wave to the women with newfound intention, I notice a feeling of spaciousness wash over me — my first yutori moment.

Pulling up to the dock, I admire the traditional kimonos worn by our hosts who, with poise and kindness, say hello in both Japanese and English. I test out my Japanese and say, “Ogenki desu ka”, which is the polite way to say, “How are you?” to strangers.

They welcome us to Hoshinoya Kyoto, a ryokan (Japanese-style inn) that belongs to the luxurious Hoshino Resorts chain dotted all throughout Japan. As we follow our hosts up the cobblestone path, I can hear flutes and chimes humming at the top of the hill. We get to the source of the beautiful song: a Japanese woman playing the flute while chimes tinker in the warm breeze. Our hosts share that this is a traditional Japanese welcoming song.

We’re shown to our room and, to my excitement, its floor-to-ceiling windows offer a spectacular river view. Incorporating traditional elements such as tatami mat floors, rice-paper screens, a king-sized futon bed, a Japanese-style bath as well as beautiful cedar and pine furniture — it’s everything my Japanese dreams are made of!

As I wave to the women with newfound intention, I notice a feeling of spaciousness wash over me — my first yutori moment.

I put on my kimono and slippers and stare out the window, admiring the dense greenery surrounding me. It is hard to imagine that in just a few short months, the Ooi River will be frozen over, and snow will cover the thick trees. This is a bizarre thought considering we are travelling in mid-August — the peak of the typhoon season — and the humidity is almost suffocating.

We decide to take a look around the area and stumble across a hidden garden blooming with Japanese rhododendrons, violets and camellias. We read that the garden’s grey and white pebbles have been meticulously placed to represent a flowing river. I sit down and follow the paved pebbly river with my eyes, taking a moment to observe the yutori.

Finally, it’s time for dinner: a 16-course degustation from Michelin star chef, Ichiro Kubota. Tonight, we’ll be experiencing “Gomijizai”; “gomi” means the five basic tastes (bitter, salty, sour, sweet and umami) and “jizai”, which means “without restraint”. Our table looks over a teppanyaki grill, and for three hours our tastebuds and eyes are held captive by the chef — certainly without restraint. We try sea urchins, amuse-bouches (also known as a “mouth amuser” and used as a palate cleanser), simmered octopus, gobies (fish) in a Chinese lantern, a conger eel egg cake, pressed prawns, grouper sashimi, ayu trout, charcoal grilled beef, more eel and finally a gold-flaked chocolate dessert. I don’t take my eyes of the chef for fear of missing the precision and care he takes when preparing and plating each dish. We leave just as the stitching of our kimonos (yes, we wore them to dinner) begins to burst and fall asleep still mesmerised by Kyoto’s unique cuisine.

Majestic Monkō

The next day, we participate in monkō, a traditional incense making and appreciating ceremony. We walk to the bamboo hut and meet our host, who is kneeling on the tatami-mat floor before a wooden box. Smiling, she ushers us to sit in front of her and begins sharing the significant role incense rituals play in the Japanese culture.

Historically, incense has continued to develop and modify since it was first introduced to Japan in the 6th century. “Military commanders used monkō as a way to relax during their time off from the battlefield”, our host explains. This is my first exposure to the rich history of incense and I feel a wave of yutori wash over me. I sit in silence and watch as she performs monkō with the upmost respect and sincerity.

After the ceremony, our host carefully unwraps some gold paper and encourages us to do the same. Inside, we find authentic monkō tools. Our host begins explaining the different types of incense wood used for ceremony, such as kyara, aloeswood and sandalwood, and gives us a piece each to smell. Then, using the tools, a ceramic dish and our piece of kyara, we begin to perform our own monkō.

Meticulously, we move the charcoal and ash into a mound around the fragrant wood to create an incense burner. As we sit in stillness, my senses begin to heighten with the simplicity of the moment. My nose twitches as it takes in new aromas and my unwavering focus draws me into a meditative state.

I experience another wave of yutori and, when I’m instructed to bring the incense burner to my nose to “listen to (smell) the aromas and history of the wood,” I’m drawn into a moment so culturally powerful it almost takes my breath away.
Electric Osaka

We take a day trip to Osaka which is about an hour away from Kyoto. When we arrive, we quickly realise it’s not an ordinary day in Japan; it is Obon festival (also known as Bon festival), an annual Japanese holiday that remembers deceased ancestors.

During Obon, a three-day event, it is believed that the spirits return to visit their relatives. On the first day of Obon, people take lanterns to the graves of their families. In a ritual called mukae-bon, the loved ones call their ancestors’ spirits back home. They release floating lanterns into the rivers that meet the sea and make food offerings to temples and altars. Then, they celebrate.

We jump off the train at Osaka and into an overwhelming sea of humans and humidity. It is one of the hottest days of our trip so far, with the humidity at more than 90 per cent. I look around and see people and noise everywhere. Today, my quest to find yutori is going to be a challenge.

We follow the foot traffic and it takes us to the centre of Osaka. The energy is absolutely electric. The streets are filled with families, friends and tourists laughing and eating. Boats float down the river and go under bridges covered in colourful streamers and people. We spot a stage on the river that’s bursting with people dancing and singing. There are red lanterns everywhere. I have no idea what’s going on, where to go or what to do, so I look up. I admire the bright billboards, balloons and giant red octopuses that fill the sky. Octopus, that’s what I want.

Osaka is the birthplace of takoyaki, also known as octopus balls. We join one of the many ques and wait with watering mouths. Finally, the octopus dumplings are served. They’re crispy on the outside, covered in sauce and full of flavour. They’re delicious and I see why Osaka is the place to come for octopus balls. For the rest of the day we escape the heat by ducking into small bars and testing out our Japanese speaking skills.

I’m instructed to bring the incense burner to my nose to “listen to (smell) the aromas and history of the wood.”

Inside the smallest bar I’ve ever seen — so small it has standing room for only five people and no seats — we learn more about Obon festival. At the end of the festival, families help their ancestors’ spirits return safely back to their graves by guiding them with more lanterns. This ritual is called okuri-bon and is said to be incredibly healing.

In another tiny, air-conditioned bar, I reflect on the lack of yutori I feel in Osaka. I’ve spent the day lining up for food and drinks, weaving past people, bumping into sweaty shoulders at temples and trying to escape the heat. Not once have I felt spaciousness … until right now.

The more my mind is quiet, and my senses are withdrawn, the more yutori I can feel. I learn that the subtle nature of spaciousness are on offer at all times. A physical place void of space is not the only way to feel spaciousness; it’s very much a state of mind. By seeking out the concept of yutori moment to moment, I learn how to drop in and drop out of it. This insight leaves me buzzing.

Tokyo central

Our final destination is Tokyo, where we’re spending seven glorious nights. We catch the bullet train from Kyoto and check into a hotel with stunning city views. We’re hungry so we head to Shinjuku to visit a collection of small bars and food stalls that have been nicknamed, Piss Alley, which we learn is a hangover from post-WWII days.

What we find there blows us away: a never-ending maze of narrow side streets adorned with lights, lanterns and flags. Each street is packed with tiny bars, grills and food stalls, all piled on top of each other. Because the bars can only fit five to eight people inside, they are packed and full of life. Some bars are locals only and some bars are themed. It is nightlife like I have never experienced before, and I am hooked.

We spend the next few days exploring Shinjuku, Harajuku and Tokyo city. We take a train to teamLab Borderless, a museum in Koto City, to see Planets, an immersive art installation. The interactive digital art experience defies all logic and explanation and is not to be missed.

The next night, we head back to Piss Alley to find yakitori, or skewered meat, a popular dish in Japan. After spotting a sign with the Japanese symbol for yakitori, we follow it down some stairs to a restaurant filled with locals. We hesitate at the door, but the chef gives us a grin, so we walk in. Designed much like a sushi train — where the chef prepares the food in the middle and the diners sit in a circle facing each other — we take a seat and share a few nervous smiles.

There isn’t an English menu in sight, but we order chicken, beef, lamb, fish and mushroom yakitori simply by pointing at what other people are having. A smoky haze fills the restaurant and we are surprised to see people smoking inside. We really have stumbled into a little-known eatery that we’re sure the locals hope will stay that way.

We order Suntory whisky highballs, a favourite drink for the Japanese, and watch our dinner guests participate in a very impressive movement. In one swift action with their chopsticks, they squeeze a lemon slice into their whisky.

Feeling confident, I give it a go … and fail miserably. I try again but my lemon slice just spins around in circles on the chopstick. I hear laughter and look up — the whole restaurant is smiling at me. I smile back and a few of the locals try to teach me how to perfect this trick, speaking instructions in Japanese and waving chopsticks and lemons everywhere. I try again, under the guidance of my new friends, and I still can’t squeeze the juice from the lemon. I try again with another person’s gestures and instructions. Again, no luck.

Instead of feeling embarrassed, I feel a moment of deep connection. We might be unable to share a conversation, but we communicate in other ways: smiles, laughter, gestures, flailing hands and plenty of thumbs up. When we walked in, we felt a little out of place but, with one simple action (that I can’t even complete) we broke down the cultural barriers that were sitting between us and the locals.

I feel a wave of yutori wash over me. I sit comfortably in this new space and meet the appreciation in their eyes with a huge smile.

Kate Duncan

Kate Duncan

Kate Duncan is the Editor of WellBeing and WILD. She loves surfing, creating raw desserts, flowing through nourishing yoga sequences and spending time with her new pooch, Maribou.

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