My (Imaginary) 3-month Trip to Japan

September 26, 2012 | Alex

On balance, I am grateful for my overactive imagination. If I finish my book on the subway or have a bout of insomnia, I have endless hours of entertainment powered by nothing but my own brain. It never runs of batteries and requires only about 6 hours of recharging a day to operate at maximum capacity.

My imagination has also proved to be a valuable escape during stressful periods. If you've ever experienced a loved one's surgery, you know the hardest part is sitting around the hospital waiting. And waiting, and waiting and waiting. You're too strung out to read a book, you're afraid to fall asleep lest you miss an important update from the medical staff. Imagining away the down time during my father's heart surgery allowed me to retain a modicum of calm and be very present when it was required.

That said, an overactive imagination can be a curse. I inherited many things from my mother. (Regrettably, not her sky-high Danish legs. I take after my firmly-rooted-to-the-earth Polish ancestors in that department.) But the way in which we're most alike is our paranoia. We are chronic worriers. If a family member doesn't pick up after the third ring, my brain has already assumed the worst and started asking questions like, "would I take a leave of absence from work to deal with my grief?" and "who could I ask to help me sort through their possessions?" #Crazytown.

I only wish I had better control of when my head spins out of control. For example, I was browsing my old pins before bed last night (around 11:45 pm) when this image launched a very vivid and extended daydream:


Okay, so here's the thought process that sparked the 1-2 hr daydream as I can recall:

1. It's so simple. Just a fitted sheet, a duvet and a pillow on a twin size bed that appears to be a flat board elevated ever so slightly off the ground.

2. Is it the fluffy duvet and grey linen that looks so inviting? Or is there something about the basic economy of the image that's drawing me in?

Then, wham, suddenly I'm imagining that this bed exists in the Japanese countryside. It's my bed. I made it and everything on it. For you see, I'm at this camp that teaches you to make what you need and live with less. I read about it on the interwebs, quit my job, put my possessions into storage (even in daydreams, I can't bear to ditch my stuff. Yikes.) and caught the next flight to Tokyo. My suitcase contained only the items on the streamlined packing list:

  1. 2 tops - 1 short-sleeve; 1 long-sleeve
  2. 2 pairs of pants
  3. 1 sweater/sweatshirt
  4. 1 toothbrush + toothpaste
  5. 2 pairs of sleeping clothes - 1 warm weather; 1 cold weather

Sources (clockwise from top left): Uniqlo HeatTech loungewear top and pants - Olive;  Steven Alan Alma Striped Knit Top; Linen trapeze top via pinterest; Uniqlo HeatTech Premium Down Ultra Light Parka; Wooden toothbrush with natural bristles; Pure & Organic Mint Toothpaste; Linen drawstring pants via Pinterest; Grey leggings with skirt via Polyvore; Muji Ochiwata Cotton Dress   (shown as nightgown)

My accessories consisted of the bag I brought with me, a warm scarf for temperature control during the transitional months, and two pairs of shoes-- zara gold espadrilles (I have these shoes and firmly believe they are a staple, even if they are gold) and a pair of work boots (in an effort to be somewhat practical about this):


Sources (clockwise from left): Canvas and Leather Tool Bag, Brookfarm General Store; Zara Espadrilles (no longer available); Cashmere Loop Scarf, Barneys; Sorel Wicked Work Boots, Sierra Trading Post.

Now that I'm looking at it all together, it sort of looks like a lot. But not for 2-3 months, I suppose. I figured I could layer the heat tech PJs when it started to get chilly, but not cold enough for the lightweight parka. (Real life note: I have experience with Uniqlo's heat tech products, including their light weight down, and it is flipping amazing. The long johns are all I ever want to sleep in anymore. The down jacket was a god-send on a recent camping trip.)

My fellow campers and I were picked up at the Tokyo airport by our teacher for the drive to the camp's remote site. When I arrived, I received a few standard issue items. One mattress and one pillow. A ream of linen. With only a few hours of daylight left, we received our first lesson: sewing 101. We set about making a pillow case, a fitted sheet and a duvet cover. It was late summer when I arrived, so the duvet itself wouldn't be necessary for a few more week-- by which time, we would have learned  how to make one.

(Stepping out of the dream again for a second: I'm dying to learn to sew. And weld. And understand electric wiring and maybe glass blowing. To be clear, I have no illusions of being any kind of expert in any of the above. I plan to continue woodworking and wood turning until I reach a level of proficiency that I'm happy with. Given time constraints, I don't want to waste too much of my spare time dabbling in other areas, but it is important for me to have a fundamental understanding of how things work. It's also important for me to master the vocabulary so I can really understand when I speak to skilled tradespeople.)

The second day, we learned to make beeswax candles so that we could extend working hours once the sun started to set earlier. We made candlestick holders on the lathe. I chose a sculptural design inspired by the danish modern greats. We also made soap-- a good choice for early on in the trip. Good hygiene only becomes more important as you strip down your belongings to the bare minimum.

Let's see, what else? We made cutting boards, whittled eating utensils and experimented with ceramics to make plates, bowls, and other kitchenwares. We even took a fascinating field trip to a nearby knife shop. We built what basic furniture we required to eat, sleep and gather together. We learned the basics of weaving different types of textiles, as well as how to work with leather. We brushed up on our design history, with a particular emphasis on Japanese architecture and design. There was time to work as a team, time for solitary work, time for socializing together and time for oneself. There was plenty of time for reading, albeit by candlelight at the beginning.

Eventually, we got around to our lesson on electrical wiring as well as a primer on the history and construction of paper lanterns. After a month of living by candlelight after sundown, I was pretty excited to add this Noguchi-inspired number to beside my bed. A few students opted to design their own pieces, but I was interested in the exercise of following in the footsteps of the master in order to better understand his thought process in designing the Akari Table Lamp Model 1N. 

As the months went on, I slowly increased the comfort level of my living quarters, but was careful never to build something I did not need. Although I was learning to live light, there was still room for fun (fun is a necessity). To dress up my utilitarian duds for our celebration on the final evening of camp, I made this necklace out of wooden beads, fishing wire and leather.

Needless to say, the food was healthful and excellent. We took turns preparing meals and cleaning up, under the tutelage of a local chef. Our diet consisted mostly of traditional Japanese fare mostly, although as the campers came from all around, we shared elements of our regional cuisine when it was our turn to cook. My favorite meal, was this eggplant and sesame udon:

I'll spare you the remaining details of the daily activities I imagined, but I lost a lot of sleep spinning this detailed web of an imaginary minimalist craft camp. My woodworking skills improved by leaps and bounds. I learned how design objects are made. But most importantly, I experienced the peace that comes from living with less. So once I got back to the states, did I sell all my stuff in storage? I fell asleep before I had to decide...