33 Ways To Improve Your Life, Japanese Style

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33 Ways To Improve Your Life, Japanese Style

Words by Mr Ashley Ogawa Clarke

25 September 2023

Tokyo is a city of extremes. The beating heart of Japan – at least since it took over from Kyoto as the country’s capital in 1868 – it is now the largest metropolis in the world, a forest of glassy skyscrapers, inner-city temples and hidden ramen shops, not to mention some of the best menswear on the planet. A short walk around Shibuya will leave even the most style-conscious man from elsewhere feeling entirely underdressed. Why else do you think MR PORTER stocks so many Japanese brands?

Still, to the uninitiated, Tokyo – and by extension Japan as a whole – can be an inscrutable place. How do so many people live on top of each other? Why is the food so good? And why are people so well-dressed? Here, a few of our favourite Japanese experts (and experts on Japan) divulge a few ideas on what we can learn from life in the Japanese capital, and beyond.


Enjoy the silence

Tokyo might be home to nearly 14 million people, but apart from the jingles you’ll hear at the train stations and in the convenience stores, it can be surprisingly quiet. “Very few people speak on the trains,” says Mr Paul McInnes, senior editor of Tokyo Weekender magazine, who has lived in the city since 2000. “It’s a wonderful way to have some quiet space and think about your day.”


Be happy in your own company

Tokyo can be a lonely place, but it’s also somewhere that people have learned how to deal with being alone. “People just don’t worry about doing something on their own and it doesn’t feel weird because everyone’s doing it,” says Ms Kaori Oyama, a Tokyo-based producer who used to work for Beams in London – and is more than happy to go solo dining. “You can go to the cinema or go and eat ramen and not have to wait for someone to come with you.”


Be a detail-oriented shopper

One secret to that aforementioned knack for being well-dressed? It’s all in the details. “The Japanese mentality is very detail oriented,” says Mr Eiichiro Homma, the founder of Tokyo-based menswear brand nanamica. “When it comes to small things like the inner shirt or shoes and accessories, that’s what we focus on.” From fabric to silhouette, pay attention to it all.


Find your inner otaku

If there’s one thing the Japanese have mastered, it’s how to have an overly specific hobby – and we’re not just talking anime and manga. “There are so many galleries and museums dedicated to some unbelievable niches,” says McInnes. “Tobacco & Salt Museum, Meguro Parasitological Museum, ramen museums, cup ramen museums!” It’s testament to Japan’s all-in approach when it comes to doing something you love. So, if you have a passion, no matter how individual, this is your cue to follow it.

“Spirits reside in all natural objects that must be respected and revered”


Appreciate your connection to nature…

“Japan’s connection to nature is a deep and integral part of its cultural heritage,” says Mr Max Mackee, the British-Japanese CEO of Kammui, an outdoors-focused travel platform (founded alongside Japanese streetwear legend Mr Hiroshi Fujiwara). “Japanese indigenous beliefs held that spirits reside in all natural objects that must be respected and revered.”


…And be inspired by it

“Nature is a source of inspiration, from the various festivals, or matsuri, to social activities like cherry blossom viewing enjoyed throughout the year,” Mackee says.


Be mindful of every moment

“Japanese culture has always valued the state of ‘mindfulness’,” Mackee says. “This shows up in various parts of Japanese culture, from traditional Buddhist meditation practices, to the consideration and respect shown to others.” The transience of cherry blossom season in April is the clearest example of this: “They bloom only for a very short moment, and that moment passes.”


Get your rice right

“We never boil and drain our rice,” says Ms Emily Lucas, Producer at MR PORTER, who grew up in Tokyo. The Japanese way to do it? “Always start by soaking it first (to rinse off the starch), then add it to your rice cooker or pot. You can cook it in a regular pot, but for extra points invest in a donabe, or Japanese clay pot. I use the knuckle method to measure the ratio between rice to water. Cook for 15 mins, then leave to rest for 20 – you’re left with perfect fluffy rice. Not wet or soggy rice that you get if you just boil and drain.”

“Even if something looks impossible, it is possible. My ability is beyond my imagination”


Revel in variety

“Japanese food always has a range of different dishes, so you can eat a lot of different types of food in one meal,” Lucas says. “Japanese breakfast alone often offers more vegetables and nutrition than the average Western meal. I particularly enjoy the element of slow living and taking the time to sit down and enjoy a proper meal in the morning.”


Invest in a good pair of slippers

“No shoes in the house – this is a given,” Lucas says. “Even barefoot in the house is frowned upon. Slippers, always.”


Don’t answer your phone in public

Next time your phone rings in a crowded area, consider hitting mute. “Public phone calls are a big no-no in Japan and on the train and bus you’ll often hear announcements warning against it,” Lucas says. “This is a courtesy to other people – no one wants to hear your phone chat, especially first thing in the morning on the way to work.”


Take inspiration – but with respect

The Japanese are perhaps the world’s best cultural appropriators. From curry to omelettes to fashion, Japan takes from other cultures and makes it their own. Just look at how KAPITAL makes better denim in Okayama than the American denim that inspired it. “In Japan, we excel in applied science,” Homma says. “We can’t go from zero to one, but if we can find one, then we can go straight to 200.” Again, referencing that detail-oriented mindset, he says: “If the Japanese make a garment, it’s usually higher quality and detail oriented. It becomes more sensitive.”


Get in tune with the seasons

As people in the country love to tell you, Japan has four seasons. So do a lot of other places, you might think, but it’s taken particularly seriously here in everything from food to decorations. “Japanese are very keen on seasonal ingredients, from fruits in summer to the oden, which pervades every konbini [store] during autumn and winter,” McInnes says. “Even the beer-can designs receive an update such as the cherry blossom designs in late March and April.”


Steel your sense of discipline

For Mr Kodo Nishimura, a Buddhist monk, LGBTQIA+ activist and the author of This Monk Wears Heels, the key thing that he learnt growing up in Japan was self-discipline. “Especially when I was in training to become a monk, we had to chant for hours and hours every day for three weeks,” he says. “One time, I started coughing non-stop and spat blood, another time, almost fell asleep standing up while chanting. What I learnt from these tough experiences is that, even if something looks impossible, it is possible. My ability is beyond my imagination.”


Balance out city life with the outdoors

“In the big city, everything is available 24 hours a day,” Homma says. “It’s very convenient on one side, but it’s a very fixed, ready-made life.” To combat life in the concrete jungle, outdoor pursuits have become increasingly popular in Tokyo – Homma goes sailing at the weekends. “I can feel the vibes of the Earth. If I go sailing on Saturday, I can forget about everything from Monday to Friday and forget about work, it’s how I regenerate my mind.”


Take your trash home

One of the main things the rest of the world can learn from Japanese culture? “Cleanliness,” says Ms Kylie Clark, a consultant and specialist in all things Japan. “Japanese sports fans have become known for cleaning up stadiums after matches, and one of the many things that strikes visitors to Japan is how clean it is. It’s not difficult to take responsibility for our own trash and surroundings.”


Bathe at night

“I think we take more baths and showers than everyone else,” says Mr Taka Miyake, founder of Tokyo-based skincare brand euer. “And we always bathe at night, so that your sheets stay clean. Some of my friends never ever skip having a bath. Even if they get home super drunk, they’ll still have a bath or shower before getting into bed.”


Get yourself an onsen routine

Public bathing is also big in Japan, which is why you’ll find so many onsen, or hot springs, across the country. A good skincare and haircare routine when bathing is a must, and not just for hygiene reasons. “It’s not only cleaning your own body, but cleaning your mental state and your soul as well,” Miyake says.


Become a Konmari minimalist

“People don’t generally get to live in spacious apartments, especially in Tokyo, so people think more minimalist here,” Miyake says. He references Ms Marie Kondo (known here as Konmari), the minimal cleanliness expert known for vapourising anything that doesn’t “spark joy”. It’s a clever way to stay clutter-free. “We can’t live in wide spaces, so we know how to live in a small space” Miyake says. “I just stopped buying things that aren’t necessary. I know I’ll throw it away because it’s not going to fit, and I want to keep things tidy.”

“People invest in things and like to save up for something special”


Become a super-queuer

“On the busy train platforms in Tokyo, we always try to keep a line,” Miyake says. “Even at a bar when you’re waiting to get a drink, we queue up.” And we thought the British loved a queue.


Revel in being cheap

Cheap is not a dirty word in Japan – and it’s not a byword for bad quality either. “There’s a word in Japanese called puchipura, which means cheap cosmetics that are still high quality,” Miyake says. “It’s about adjusting your lifestyle to your budget, but still enjoying luxuries when you can.”


Quality over quantity, every time

On the other hand, the occasional splurge is important. “People invest in things here and like to save up for something special,” Oyama says. This could be a cashmere coat or leather jacket that they’ll keep for decades, or just a solid pair of gloves. “Income isn’t generally that high in Japan, but at the same time people have more discipline with their money.”


Maintain your clothes

And when you have saved up to buy something special, take care of it. “It’s like if we buy a great pair of shoes or even a knife and mend it as we use it, and maintain it,” Oyama says. “People are really good at being respectful for things.”

“We think there’s a soul even in small objects, so we treat them better”


Love the small stuff

This approach is rooted in Japanese culture in general, in nature, but also in things that have been lovingly crafted by hand. “It’s the way we kind of think there’s a soul even in small objects, so we treat them better,” Oyama says.


Be reliable

Japan might not be as punctual as its reputation suggests (“My friends are always late to meet me,” Oyama says). But people generally keep their promises. “If you call a plumber, they’ll come in immediately,” she adds. “It’s not always the case, but generally in Japan, people care more about other people’s time.”


Always follow the rules

Japan loves rules. Suffocating? Yes, but it makes the machine run smoothly. “People love to follow rules here,” Oyama says. “It can be tiring, but at the same time it means that generally you know what to expect.”


Don’t talk to strangers

“People just don’t talk to strangers here, so it means spontaneous things don’t really happen,” Oyama says. “On the one hand, it’s quite sad. But at the same time, we respect each other’s space, which can be a good thing, too.”


Get into washoku

Traditional Japanese food, known as washoku, is some of the healthiest in the world. “We study about healthy eating and nutrition at school and we learn cooking from six years old [at school],” Nishimura says. From onigiri (rice balls) to soba (buckwheat noodles), there are plenty of washoku staples that are easy to find globally and make nutritious additions to any diet. “Japanese food helps people to stay healthy and keeps us looking youthful inside and out,” Nishimura says. “My recommendation is to replace soda with iced green tea.”


Drink your sake with pizza

Looking for the perfect pairing for your margherita? “Try a junmai-style sake with pizza,” says Clark, who is a certified sake sommelier. “The umami in the tomatoes and cheese are a great match with the umami in sake.” She has some other useful sake-pairing tips, too: “For light fish dishes, mussels, or oysters, try a sparkling sake or a fruity junmai daiginjo. Red wine drinkers should look for the words kimoto and yamahai on the label, as sakes made using these traditional production methods tend to be bold and complex.”

“No shoes in the house. Even barefoot is frowned upon. Slippers, always”


Always bring back a gift

Never show up empty-handed after a trip. “I am a big fan of the Japanese custom of buying local food and drink when travelling, otherwise known as omiyage,” Clark says. “I’ve adopted this custom on a more personal scale, seeking out things to bring home to support local producers whenever I travel, like yuzu kosho from Japan, chilli peanut butter from the Netherlands (it’s a big thing there), or a bottle of Wye Valley mead from a trip to Wales.”


Try shiatsu

Japan might have done a good job of exporting its culture when it comes to sushi and Studio Ghibli, but Japanese-style massage – also known as shiatsu – is less-widely known. “It’s like acupuncture, but uses finger pressure instead of needles,” Clark says. “Seek out a practitioner in your nearest city and try it.”


Grow your own shiso

Shiso is a herb ubiquitous in Japanese cuisine, that has a unique and vibrant flavour. It’s easy to find if you’re in Japan, but can be expensive elsewhere. “So, grow your own,” Clark says. “I have so much of it growing here in London that I make jars of miso-shiso pesto with it.”


Always hand in lost property

Everyone’s heard the stories – you lose your wallet in Japan, and it finds its way back to you without a single yen missing, at least most of the time. “You just can’t lose your stuff in Japan,” Miyake says. “People pick it up and hand it to the police station, even your phone and wallet. It’s about having respect for another person’s things.”