Japan: A Culture of Quality

(Below is an excerpt from a letter I wrote home to America while I was in Japan in early March 2011, a day before the earthquake and tsunami hit)

Japan, at last, I’ve come home (to you). As I walk the streets, visit galleries, warehouses, and auctions, I feel I know these gardens, and temples. I get chills of awe and recognition hourly. As I wander though a 700-year-old temple garden,  I’m stopped in my tracks by a flash of sunlight filtered though the bare trees landing on a bed of moss so green it glows. Tigers come alive for me on a 200-year-old folding screen. Temple bells ring long and true. I’m home.

At a bank I stop to cash some US dollars into Yen. The young clerks never walk; they trot from one part of the bank to another, even from one desk to another. The trot has an energetic, alert, graceful feel to it, alive, not rushed. It makes me smile. A small spark of joy is lit, leaving a sweet memory. I’m out of the bank, Yen in hand, in a mere twenty minutes.

Rhett (my main contact in Japan and the reason I can be here) took me to an auction today. In his 20 years of auctions in Japan, he has never taken anyone else. Having gone today, I understand why. I’m really happy and grateful for that experience. I’ll write more about that later. Working with Rhett is remarkably easy. It’s as if we have been working together for years. No worries, no crossed messages, just an ease of going through each day together, enjoying the same things and working with the same challenges. What a gift.

Strangers have been overwhelmingly generous to me. When we are out buying, often prices are half what Rhett would have expected. I think people sense my love. We walked into a junk/antique shop today owned by an old friend of Rhett’s. After looking for half an hour and buying a few good pieces at good prices, I found on a table in the back of the shop, a very small, wooden folk art animal/toy that appeared to be about a hundred years old. I wanted to ask about it, but the owner and Rhett were outside talking. I held the toy for a minute and thought, “If I were to be given a gift, this would be it.”

It was an idle thought because that kind of gift giving is unusual in this situation in Japan. It happens frequently in Indonesia, but not here.  I put the toy back and wandered through the shop until the owner came back in. A few minutes later, as I was pawing through a stack of kimonos, the owner touched my arm and held out a small wooden toy to me and said, “Gift.”  It was the same toy I’d held and wished for only a few minutes earlier.

Of the thousands of objects in the shop, she chose that piece as a gift. Perfectly in tune, that gift was followed by a string of other gifts, a copper hibachi, Japanese dolls in glass cases and more. Rhett pulled me aside and asked: “What’s with the gifts, man?” I said, “Just a past life connection, it’s OK.”

I don’t understand what took me so long to get here. The Japanese aesthetic, the beauty, the off-balance balance, and a hundred everyday nuances touch me. This is a culture I know I will never truly understand yet it feels so easy, so natural to me. Japan’s everyday rhythms match my own. I bow and bow again and am happy to be bowing to others. I want to honor each person whom I meet. Our bows to each other do just that, and more…

Be well.


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Having journeyed to the Far East and Asia over 20 times in the past 20 years, I’ve been intrigued and inspired by the ingenuity, craftsmanship, balance and human spirit that have gone into the making of those works I have seen and collected.

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