Travel & Culture

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Japanese culture and lifestyles through the eyes of NHK WORLD personalities

March 24, 2016

Focus on Slow Looking

Kit Pancoast Nagamura / Poet, Photographer, Editor, Columnist
Kit Pancoast Nagamura

Writer and photographer Kit Pancoast Nagamura keeps up with Japanese culture as a columnist for The Japan Times. On NHK WORLD, she appears on Journeys in Japan and from April will be a regular on HAIKU MASTERS.

A lot of people first approach Japan with lengthy checklists of things to do and see. That’s understandable, because Japan is, for many, a once-in-a-lifetime destination and the country offers an overwhelming array of attractions. But it’s all-too-easy to pack in an itinerary so frenetic that you, ironically, miss out on the country’s quiet quintessence.

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The heart of Japan, I think, is best accessed by putting intent and direction aside for a bit, and freeing up some time to tap into a less goal-oriented but more organic way of observing. This may sound like I’m suggesting you snap out a yoga mat in the middle of Shibuya Crossing and watch people pass by. That’d be dangerous, but it’s the right impulse.

You’ve heard about the health and taste benefits of “slow cooking,” right? Well the same goes for “slow looking.” All you need to do is give yourself a chunk of time to, for example, linger at a café, or spend an hour in a garden doing nothing beyond watching shadows grow, or explore the backstreets of one of the world’s safest countries.

Photographers usually excel at slow looking (ask their long-suffering family members!) When shutterbugs travel, they’re constantly watching for a chance encounter, a shift in the weather, or the perfect angle of light. They also know that the faster you march through a place, the harder it is to take in anything more than the obvious. If you move too quickly, you might miss the odd beauty of clouds reflected in skyscraper windows, or the lace of rust on an old metal sign. Your eye needs time to adjust.

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But beyond improving your photos, when you engage in slow looking, you’ll find yourself gradually swept up in the social flow of things in Japan. It’s wonderful to observe the interactions and laughter of the people who live here (because, truly, Japan's greatest living treasure is the sweetness of its people), and you’ll find yourself forming questions about what you see. What are those guileless, roughhousing schoolboys joking about on their way home? Will the owner of the scarf someone is tying carefully to the electric pole circle back to find it? What is the taxi driver snoozing in his car dreaming about? The longer you linger, the more you engage with, and become part of, the place.

When I take guests to visit the famous Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, they note the enormous torii gates, the gifts of sake and wine, and the temizuya, for purifying hands and mouth. They also take a peek at the honden main hall, and some offer prayers.

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If I can convince them to not run off to the next “must-see” location, they tend to focus in on the shrine’s two old camphor trees, yoked together by a shimenawa (straw rope), and the emma (prayer tablets) penned by people from around the world. Sometimes, we catch a wedding procession under a red umbrella, or a shrine maiden crossing the courtyard in her crisp vermilion hakama and white haori, or simply enjoy the waves of profound quiet between groups of tourists.

One summer at the shrine, a fat green praying mantis landed on my guest’s arm. Japanese kids circled around her to get a look, and my guest felt celebrated, and embraced by Japan. The mantis, himself a master of slow looking, calmly observed the whole thing.

Photographs by Kit Pancoast Nagamura

photoNecro Nekko (Zoshigaya Cemetery)
photoEffervescence (Hida Furukawa)
photoIro-otoko (Iiyama)
photoProtected Potatoes (Okinoerabujima)
photoDusklit Lantern (Rikugien)
photoTanabata Wishes (Kamakura)
photoSilver Lining (Engaku-ji)
photoFull Moon and You (Tokyo)
photoPine and Sakura Wedding (Meiji Shrine)
photoPetal Nouveau (Hanamiyama, Fukushima)
photoYoung Tea Master (Tamagawa River)
photoKannon Spring (Kameido)

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Kit Pancoast Nagamura / Poet, Photographer, Editor, Columnist

Kit has never been able to choose between working in the visual arts or the verbal ones, so she has cobbled together a career that spans both. Her long-running The Japan Times column, titled “The Backstreet Stories,” as well as her features written for JAL’s Skyward Magazine and numerous appearances as a photographer and poet on NHK WORLD’s “Journeys in Japan” have taken her the width and breadth of the country. Her passion for the poetic form of haiku, ignited by her grandfather’s gift of a small book of poems when she was a child, has given her a window into Japanese culture, and changed the way she looks at the world. Whenever possible, she closes the day writing haiku.

Question How long have you been in Japan?
Aggregate time totals more than a quarter of a century, which is slightly alarming to note!
Question What was your original reason for coming to Japan?
I studied with the late Dr. Shuichi Kato at Brown University, and he strongly suggested that I visit Japan and write about it. I applied for a fellowship (funded through the generosity of IBM’s Thomas Watson, Jr.) and won a year’s study in Tokyo. I returned to the U.S. to take my master’s and doctoral degrees, and when I returned to Japan again, it was for love.
Question What's your favorite scenic spot in Japan?
My favorite spot is the one I’m in at the moment, but I’m probably happiest sitting in the vicinity of artisans, watching the rhythmic beauty of their work. It’s mesmerizing and humbling.
Question What's the one thing that's essential to your life in Japan?
Sense of humor. But I nearly always have a camera and a notebook with me, too.
Question What is your favorite Japanese word? Please briefly describe what it means in English.
Mono no aware
The phrase mono no aware (which conveniently seems to include the English word “aware,” even though the pronunciation is different) means a sensitivity to and acknowledgement of the impermanence of everything, including one’s own life. It’s a concept at the core of many Japanese novels, films, poetry, and even manga. If you look slowly at the world, you will surely encounter it.

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