Five years ago, I went to study abroad in Japan for one semester. It was the first time for me to travel alone and for such a long time, too. I was so excited! My friends threw me a farewell party and on my last visit before leaving, my family hugged me goodbye like they were certain that they were never going to see me again… I felt like my whole life was going to change! And it did because of what I learned during that time.
When I got off the plane and was picked up by some seniors of my university who drove me from the airport in Fukuoka to the little village in the mountains of Northern Kyûshû, Beppu, where the sea borders on a little valley between three high mountain peaks that are covered with lush subtropical vegetation.
I was blown away by all the new sights! It was a two-hour ride in the open back of an old truck, where I was sitting together with a bunch of other new students from all over the world. None of us talked since we were all too excited to see Japan for the first time, that rushed by our eyes in the light of the setting sun.
After nightfall we were high up in the mountains and could see the lights of the houses underneath, reflecting on the dark sea, together with the light of the bright stars over us. It was a magical start to our new lives in Japan.
My time in Japan was definitely one of the best experiences of my life, and I learned so much over there, that I could never have realized, had I stayed in Germany.
Seeing and being part of a completely different way of life, a different society, opened my eyes to many alternative ways of thinking, of interacting with people and of approaching life itself.
It was foremost these 3 realizations that changed my thinking and behavior the most after being to Japan:
1. A society where people care about others more than themselves can actually work
The first thing that surprised me, when I came to Beppu, was the way how Japanese people care about each other’s feelings and well-being. It starts with the Japanese language, which has many ways of expressing your own feelings and humility of opinion while you speak, simply by choosing certain verb endings and grammatical constructions.
Even though in Germany Japanese people are considered to be exaggeratedly polite, I soon realized that the Japanese carefulness with words and gestures is more than just politeness – it is actual concern with other people’s feelings.
You go out of their way to not overstep any emotional boundaries that might upset the other person. You speak humbly of yourself in order to not provoke the listener with arrogance and you show that you respect the personal spheres of the other person.
It’s a system of give and take that serves to create a harmonious relationship between everyone. And surprisingly – from a German point of view – that actually works, most of the time. You hardly see any real fighting between Japanese people, sometimes mock fights between friends, sometimes a careful expression of unhappiness that is usually responded to with an apology.
What was even more stunning was the practical absence of crime in every Japanese city that I traveled to. I felt totally safe to be out alone as a girl at night because nobody would bother or try to mug me. That really blew my mind. After living in Frankfort for the last two years before I came to Beppu, I was used to being harassed by drunken men on the subway almost every day, to reports of shootings and murder on the news every morning, and to junkies trying to steal my stuff whenever I passed by the main station after nightfall. But here – nothing but friendly, helpful people! At least, that was my experience. Of course, even in Japan, there must be some black sheep, like in every big group of people. But compared to Europe, Japan just seemed so much safer and more harmonious to me.
So this was one of the things that changed my thinking a great deal: It is actually possible to live together much more peacefully if everyone is educated to respect each other from the beginning. Before going to Japan I narrow-mindedly thought that German society with all its freedom and tolerance must be the best society there can be. But I was wrong: It can be better. Others are doing it better. It is possible to actually survive, if you care more about others than yourself, as long as everybody plays along with that.
2. You can be happy with only the simple things in life
The second thing I learned in Japan, was that people can be very happy by appreciating the small things in life. When I took a voluntary class about the Japanese tea ceremony, which was especially interesting to me, as I worked at a tea company at that time, I was introduced to the concept of the tea ceremony which is based on the practice of appreciating the simple things.
The tea master Rikyu says, that you will enjoy the tea just as much or even more, drinking it from a simple cup in a simple setting, rather than drinking from a golden cup, in a golden chamber, which would only distract you from the real enjoyment of having a cup of tea in peace. It is not the teacup that makes you happy, but your mindfulness and the act of drinking itself.
The idea of thinking of your wealth in terms of what you have, instead of what you don’t have, changed my perception a great deal. Do you really need fancy things, or do you merely want them? What do you actually need in order to be happy? If you think about what you are able to do right now to make you happy, you can instantly get a lot of joy out of life without stressing about needing to buy things that might make you happier in the future. Just try to be more mindful of the enjoyable things that are part of your everyday life already!
As I sat there, sipping my green tea from a small ceramic cup and having a tiny cookie with it, and thinking about how lucky I am to be in this moment in Japan, in that little tea-room, sitting on the floor and having a tasty snack together with nice people, I realized that this was actually a perfectly good moment of my life. That I didn’t need more than that. I was already happy.
After that my mind just stopped every now and then, just to assess the moment, see all the good things in it, like coming home to a heated room while it’s cold outside, or having a piece of chocolate, or laughing with a friend and in my memory those good moments were all added up to a invisible list in my mind that convinced me that my life is indeed already pretty good.
If you start to study the ideas of foreign thinkers, there is much more that you can discover that will make your own life better in some way!
3. Your own way of living is not necessarily the best; it is worth being open to alternative ways of thinking
The third thing that living in Japan taught me, is to be open minded towards other cultures instead of just seeing the differences and condemning everything that is different from what you know.
Before I came to Japan, I heard many of my friends talking about Japan as an inferior country, warning me I should be careful of criminal people and primitive living conditions. It can be hard to get the right picture of a place where you’ve never been when all you hear about it comes from the news which only tells you about all the bad things happening in the world.
If you really travel somewhere, however, you see a much different picture, a much more complete version of the so-called “ground-reality”: You will see people who are very similar to yourself, with pretty much the same needs and values and with their own way of lives that did maybe not make sense to you, just hearing about it from afar, but that you learn to understand once you spent some time there. Circumstances are different in other parts of the world, so people had to adapt to life differently and once you are there you will see how it makes sense.
The Japanese politeness, for example, made no sense to me hearing about it in Germany, where politeness is mainly all fake smiles and formal speech, which has usually no real emotions behind it and just serves to facilitate business and social interactions. Why would you want to bother to pretend so much in every situation of everyday life and restrict yourself with stiff rituals and so many social rules?
I imagined life in Japan as a social minefield, where you will be judged as impolite for every honest word you say and where your freedom of expression would be terribly restricted.
While politeness in business might be just as fake and mandatory in Japan as in Germany, in everyday life, however, I understood quickly why people chose to treat each other with so much respect. It was not a bother, but it was actually nice to be nice and to be treated likewise by everyone.
It was something that I could simply not imagine before seeing it with my own eyes. But once you see that other people manage to do things differently and that there is more than one way to do things and that the way your own society works might actually not be the best there is, really opens your eyes to all the alternative perspectives of right and wrong and about how limiting it is to never try and look at the world from somebody else’s point of view.
This realization is what motivates me to keep traveling. Once I saw that there is so much more out there – so many things that you cannot imagine before seeing them; so many ideas that only make sense to you, once you see them work in their place of origin – I got hungry to see more of the world and widen my horizon as much as possible!
Every journey has taught me many valuable lessons that I could never have learned at home and my travels opened my eyes to so many different points of view. By living with locals everywhere for some time, I learn about their daily struggles, about the way they perceive their environment and about the many different possibilities to live a happy life, under various conditions.
It is easy to judge people when you are sitting at home, seeing only tiny fragments about other people’s lives in other countries through the media. However, once you abandon your narrow-minded pride and leave the place you know behind to discover all the things that you don’t know yet and put yourself into other people’s shoes for some time, you will be amazed how much you and your horizon will grow!
You will realize that your own home is not the center of the world and that your own way of doing things might not be the best there is. That can be very humbling at first, but it will enable you to learn and to grow and to create a life that is much bigger and fuller than that of most people, because you can see beyond the borders of your own garden fence and you will know, how many different ways of life there are for you to choose from.
This is what I learned on my first big journey abroad and it changed my life considerably. I hope that everyone who reads this will be inspired to find the courage to go beyond the places you know and open your mind to all the possibilities the world contains!