What if you could live a happier and healthier life just by spending some time indoors? Watch the video or read on…
Spending a lot of time indoors can easily lead to cabin fever. The four walls seem to press in a little closer, the outside world and the passage of time seem disconnected, and we drift along in our own bubble, living in sweatpants and drinking juice straight from the carton. Case in point: instead of writing this article, I opened my fridge and began spooning ice-cream into my mouth, which was so exhausting that I took a little nap on my floor.
But given that the word “home” carries so many positive connotations—“comfort,” “safety,” and “welcoming,” to name just a few—developing good habits while we are there is surely setting us up for living healthier and happier lives overall.
I’m a bit concerned that Tokyo Survival Channel might have hacked my webcam because they came up with a challenge and somehow decided that I would be the perfect person to carry it out.
My mission: live happily and healthily at home—“Japanese-style”—and undertake five tasks.
“Think of it as enjoying Japanese culture from your room,” they said. “Live well. Learn things. Report back.”
So I swept aside an errant pair of socks and shoved a bag of waste paper under my desk to draw up a plan. Given that Japan has the highest life expectancy in the world (UNDP, 2018), I wondered if there were a trick or two to be learned. A short while and two cups of coffee later, I had a list of activities to try at home to be both physically and mentally healthy. Only it wasn’t going to be that easy…
CHALLENGE 1: Marie Kondo’s KonMari Method
Marie Kondo, now world-famous thanks to her Netflix show in early 2019, has become a symbol of decluttering homes, transforming them into blissful and peaceful environments. Her reception in Japan perhaps has not been as warm as overseas. Things like greeting one’s house respectfully like addressing a god at a shrine and thanking clothing items for their service have certainly raised a few eyebrows.
These are not “Japanese” things, but Marie Kondo things. Yet her words have struck chords with people around the world and I was prepared to give her KonMari method a try.
Indeed, in the scale of challenges, I thought tidying up would be a good place to start. I thought wrong.
Marie Kondo is my nemesis.
I am a hoarder.
I am surely one of the world’s untidiest people. I never tidy up unless I have guests. Even then, I merely shove things in corners and try to get any visitors to focus on the view out the window or, perhaps, the sake bottle I’ve hurriedly placed in front of them.
I hoard. I have collected tickets and business cards from every single exhibition, event and restaurant I have been to in the past 5 years. They sit in bags on the floor, waiting to be scrapbooked in scrapbooks that don’t exist.
Sorting through the joy
I had avoided watching Marie Kondo’s Netflix show completely, because I knew I would find it traumatic. I struggled through two episodes.
First of all, I found Marie Kondo herself intensely creepy, with her fixed smile and overly girly, excitable voice. Then, I watched with disbelief as the participants were only mildly emotional over some items and soon got into the swing of discarding things easily. They do this by applying Kondo’s most famous principle of tokimeku—translated as “spark joy.” If you hold an item and it “sparks joy,” a little flutter in your heart or tummy, you’re allowed to keep it.
The trouble is I am a very happy person and very many, very tiny things bring me joy. I get joy out of coat hangers that are shaped like birds because…. ooh bird-shaped coat hangers!
The key, Kondo says, is to tidy by category, beginning with clothes. Following the instructions, I approached my wardrobe and pulled every item out one by one. Then I emptied my drawers, then my other drawers. This took a surprisingly short time of about 10 minutes, which is probably 8 minutes longer than most people.
Then, I turned to face the mammoth pile on my bed. It was as if my clothes had gained their own presence, morphing into a gigantic fabric monster, looming over me with menace.
Taking a deep breath, I picked an old exercise T-shirt that I no longer wear and tossed it into the reject pile. I did this a couple more times, before I remembered I was supposed to be thanking the items respectfully. I picked up my T-shirt and muttered, “Thank you, but no thank you anymore,” and put it back down. I definitely felt a bit stupid.
Working through the items, my keep pile grew larger and larger. I picked up a large, puffy space-consuming skirt I was sure I was going to throw out. And I was hit by intense joy at its beauty that I actually grinned. This happened multiple times. I am just too joyful. What a problem to have.
After hours of toiling, I amazingly had three sacks of clothes to be donated or recycled.
Transitioning from messy to tidy
But this was only the first stage. Next, came the magic KonMari method of folding clothes so they stack vertically. I set to the task and, as soon as I saw even my skinny leggings standing on a vertical edge on their own, I was hooked. I folded and stacked like a child who had just discovered the joys of Lego.
It took two whole days (with ample breaks), but I conquered my clothes
I shot a mini video on my phone in order to shock my mother at my progress. However, it also indicates that I might still have a lot of work to do… like tackling the other 4 categories of stuff. Watch until the end:
The process has revolutionised my wardrobe. I can find everything easily. I even found this fancy jacket I had forgotten about, and so I got made up all fancy to celebrate.
I am a Marie Konvert!!! Sensei, I will be your Declutter Disciple!
I definitely had a healthier and happier mindset with which to approach my next tasks.
(I have yet to tackle the other four categories of stuff… check back with me in a week.)
CHALLENGE 2: Learning self-restraint through cooking
Washoku—traditional Japanese cuisine—was designated a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013 for several reasons, ranging from an impressive variety of ingredients to seasonality and aesthetic sense. Yet there is definitely one thing that most people around the world can agree on: the traditional Japanese diet is healthy and well-balanced.
As found throughout many aspects of Japanese culture, the mindset with which one approaches an activity is also important. Restaurants and chefs always boast about the specialist care they use to select and process their ingredients.
The word kodawari is common, which can mean “speciality” but, in a broader context, roughly translates as obsessive attention to detail, a fixation, fastidiousness, perhaps even a form of perfectionism.
I am not a kodawari person.
But I am a new Konvert, so perhaps I can learn some mindfulness while preparing a nutritious meal?
An email landed in my inbox advertising Elizabeth Andoh’s online cooking tutorials. An American who first arrived in Japan in 1966, she is widely considered one of the leading English-language Japanese cuisine experts who peppers her recipes and techniques with cultural explanations and advice.
I clicked through to her videos on “skillet skills” (doesn’t that sound a little bit sexy?) and decided to give teriyaki salmon a try. She promised this recipe would teach us gaman, which she described as a form of self-control or self-restraint, not poking about and—crucially—just leaving something alone. This is very true for human relationships in Japan, she said, smiling wryly at the camera.
I set about whipping up a teriyaki sauce, which is incredibly simple as it only uses soy sauce, sugar, sake and mirin. Then, taking her words to heart, I heated up my skillet (read: slightly grimy old pan) and placed my fillet of salmon in the pan. And left it. And watched it anxiously. And left it some more. And watched it some more.
GODDAMN I HATE GAMAN.
In truth, I hadn’t put enough oil in and so when it was time to flip the fillets, they had stuck slightly to the bottom and started to break up. However, miraculously, I got the timing just about right – the fillets were still succulent and – watching Andoh’s carefully plating—I arranged them, while also imagining vertical stacks of clothes. KONVERTED.
A beautifully balanced plate
The result was possibly the most beautiful and balanced meal I have ever cooked myself: teriyaki salmon, assorted mushrooms in garlic butter shoyu (soy sauce), brown and white rice topped with black sesame, and miso soup with kombu and silken tofu. I took multiple pictures so everyone could see what an accomplished person I had become in two days.
CHALLENGE 3: Walking meditation
We hear a lot about mindfulness nowadays and the importance of taking care of one’s mind, which is a very good thing in general, regardless of any cabin fever-inducing situations.
Zen Buddhism, which is first believed to have been introduced in Japan in the 12th century, has long incorporated meditation as part of its practice and teachings, primarily through zazen, which translates as “sitting meditation.”
Rather notorious as a strict practice and for tourist try-out “experiences” where you can be whacked with a wooden stick for not concentrating, the heart (or the mind?) of the practice is to focus on simply sitting and letting thoughts pass by without getting too wrapped up or involved with them.
That sounds lovely, but I have been doing a lot of sitting recently.
“Well, there’s kinhin,” said my Japanese culture expert and helpfully geeky friend. “Walking meditation.”
Kinhin is traditionally practised in between sessions of zazen, partly as a way to ensure blood circulation returns to your legs and that you don’t permanently lose the ability to use them.
This more active form of meditation sounded right up my street… given that it could also be practised in my room. The space in which you should normally walk is probably at least three times the length of my shoebox space but adaptability and making one’s peace with what one cannot change also seem important lessons to take on board.
Measuring my stress levels before and after
First of all, I downloaded an app Stress Scan, which uses colour fluctuations in my fingertip to measure variable heart rate (the variability between heartbeats) in order to calculate my stress levels. Developed by a Japanese company, Drumsco, I felt like I was winning extra bonus points for the “Japanese” aspect of this challenge.
My measurement came out as 26/100 and 67bpm, a cool low-stress level.
Then, I set about 10 minutes of kinhin, pacing my box of a room and trying to match my breathing to my steps, holding my arms clasps in front of me, resting on my solar plexus.
At first, it felt very awkward, which is precisely the opposite of what it’s supposed to be: the guidelines said to not focus on one’s image of oneself, or how one might be performing it, but to let your body and mind fall into the rhythm and become seamless or unified.
I continued on my journey, cursing the couple outside on the street, who were examining the bushes and made me really, really want to know what was so interesting in the bushes.
My thoughts sped past me. Lunch was awesome. I can eat more delicious things later. What will I cook tomorrow? I heard that XYZ store was doing takeout.
95% of my thoughts were food-related.
I began to match my breathing to my footsteps, marking out a rhythm and it helped to simultaneously calm and focus my mind. Before long, 10 minutes were up and it hardly felt like any time had passed at all.
My Stress Scan measurements weren’t as encouraging as expected: apparently I was now 33/100 with 68 bpm, which is slightly higher. I decided to write this off as panic about how was I going to chop up the extreme volumes of footage I was obtaining. I definitely need to work on my mind-focussing technique.
The real trick to walking meditation
I spoke with my zazen-fan friend afterwards. “It’s about noticing your breath going in and out,” he explained. “Your heart pumping and organs operating without your conscious thought. Then thoughts pass up and over like clouds passing by.”
That description really struck a chord. How often do we give our minds a rest without sleeping?
Unexpectedly, I want to try this again. It sounds like daydream permission. If you are going to daydream, you might as well move around while you do it!
CHALLENGE 4: TV gymnastics
Indoor fitness is all the rage from no-equipment workouts to no-jumping routines. In my home country of the UK, everyone is talking about getting fit with Joe Wicks, especially his workout aimed at kids, and BBC has even brought back Mr Motivator, a unitard-clad, music-pumping motivational man from my childhood.
Yet Japan has never done away with its TV exercises.
Every weekday afternoon, NHK, the national broadcaster, brings viewers five minutes of Terebi Taiso. These are TV gymnastics with three demonstrators, one sitting, one standing face on and one standing, performing simple moves you can do in your living room.
I am not known for my natural coordination, but I have a feeling these afternoon broadcasts are aimed at the elderly generation, and therefore I should be able to follow along.
The twee-but-aspirational piano music begins and so do our instructors for the day. I cheerfully follow along, while painfully aware I don’t look anywhere near as smooth or as graceful as the three people on screen. I also wish they whey were wearing colourful unitards.
The exercises are very simple but it feels invigorating to be moving around. Certainly, we accept a lot of modern life as a given without question, but there are many things about our lifestyles that don’t make sense – humans spending most of their adult lives sitting down, for example.
CHALLENGE 5: Brewing a decent cuppa
I am that British person who doesn’t like tea, who moved to a country that is also obsessed with tea. I probably should have thought harder about that.
While matcha has become a global health food fad and tourists flooding to Japan love to enrol in tea ceremony experiences, there is also a renewed interest in tea among younger Japanese, with so-called “third wave” tea salons cropping up across Tokyo to capture the market not so enamoured by third-wave coffee shops.
Equally, while tea at home, like in the UK, often involves shoving a tea bag in a mug, there is also a trend towards learning the correct way to brew delicious tea—oishii ocha no irekata.
Tea from Sengan-en in Kagoshima to make me Shimadzu strong
Being untrendy but ambitious, I decided to give tea a good amount of attention and learn to brew it correctly myself.
The tea I was going to be drinking today was from Kagoshima, the prefecture on the furthest southern tip of Kyushu and actually Japan’s second-largest producer of unprocessed tea. Plus I had received it from Sengan-en, a stately home that belongs to the Shimadzu clan, one of Japan’s most powerful families who ruled Kagoshima for around 700 years.
Given green tea is known to contain antioxidants that help protect the body against disease, I was hoping it would make me Shimadzu strong.
Making good Japanese tea is all about getting the numbers right. According to the instructions on my bag of tea, the water temperature should be 70 – 80°C and the tea should only brew for 30 to 60 seconds in the pot with nothing left behind to stew.
I don’t have a thermometer, but with a bit of guesstimating, the fresh, lightly grassy mellow scent from the leaves translated into a smooth, light liquid and possibly one of the best cups of tea I’ve ever had.
No green teatime is complete without wagashi
Of course, afternoon tea should be accompanied by sweets, and I tucked into a kurakan manju from Akashiya, a traditional sweet store from Kagoshima dating from 1854.
The sweet is a cake made from Japanese yam, rice flour and sugar, bun-shaped and filled with red bean paste. It managed to have a sticky and slightly chewy texture, while remaining light, and was all too easily devoured.
I sat feeling accomplished and sophisticated, enjoying the most civilised afternoon tea I had ever prepared for myself. What’s more, trying regional produce was like travelling Japan from my room; I was going on a mini taste adventure.
Happier and healthier?
Sipping on my mug of tea, thoughts of coffee banished to the back of my mind, I found myself unexpectedly content.
I glanced around my unusually tidy room with a grin. While perhaps my challenges were not strictly or exclusively Japanese, they had taught me the importance of attention to detail and making an effort to do things properly, and these are certainly qualities prevalent throughout Japanese culture.
In a short space of time, I had developed a new relationship with my room and perhaps even with myself.
The real challenge, however, still awaits me. I still have to KonMari the rest of my room and tackle over 5 years of clutter.
Wish me luck.