63: Finding Mount Fuji

63: Finding Mount Fuji

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Less


Finding Mount Fuji

I like to walk about among the beautiful things that adorn the world; but private wealth I should decline, or any sort of personal possessions, because they would take away my liberty.

~George Santayana

“Where’s the rest of it?” I peered in the doorway of what was to be our home for the next twelve months, convinced that the nineteen-hour flight to Japan had adversely affected my vision. There was no way our apartment could be this small.

“This is all of it,” my husband Pete responded.

“The rental agent said our apartment was a mansion — this place can’t be more than three hundred square feet.”

“It’s a mansion by Japanese standards,” Pete reminded me.

“It’s a mansion if you’re a Polly Pocket doll,” I retorted.

I surveyed my surroundings. Ever since Pete and I were notified that his company was transferring us overseas, I had envisioned what life immersed in the Japanese culture would look like. Nothing I saw before me came close to what I had anticipated. With dismay I realized that the tiny space I was standing in was both the family room and the bedroom — the setup of the futon would determine what role the room played. Stepping forward a few feet, I slid the rice-paper door that divided our sleeping/living area from the kitchen/dining area.

If I wanted to cook, it would be in a contraption that looked like an Easy-Bake Oven — if I figured out how to use the controls, which were all labeled in kanji. The dorm room-sized refrigerator meant daily trips to the grocery store. And while the kitchen was stocked with dishes and cookware, there was no garbage disposal or dishwasher; apparently KP duty was also on my list of expatriate chores. Then there was the bathroom — not much larger than an airplane lavatory, yet somehow the washer/dryer was crammed in there next to a tiny bathtub and single sink. The heated toilet seat, while novel, was hardly a consolation. I wanted my soaking tub, massage jets, and steam shower.

“This place is claustrophobic,” I told Pete.

“Maybe it’ll look better in the morning after we’ve gotten some sleep,” he answered.

“Maybe it’ll look better in twelve months — when we’re moving back to the U.S.,” I replied.

The apartment didn’t look any better, or bigger, in the morning. If anything, daylight illuminated how cramped and unsophisticated our quarters really were. A bulky contraption haphazardly attached to the wall functioned as both heater and air-conditioner. We had a television, but no access to American programming. We had a bike for transportation, but no car. And as for clothes — I now understood why we were told to bring only one suitcase each. We would be sharing a closet that was one-fourth the size of the space we had at home.

For the next several weeks, I hid in our apartment and moped. I came to Japan picturing sprawling landscapes, lush cherry blossom trees, glamorous ladies wearing kimonos, and awe-inspiring shrines. I expected dinners at expensive Japanese restaurants, overnight weekends in Tokyo, invitations to tea ceremonies, and abundant opportunities to be the token “American friend” to my Japanese neighbors. Instead, I was stuck, alone, in a studio-sized apartment overlooking an active construction site and congested city street. The homeless lady who spent her days sitting on the bench outside our doorway was a constant reminder of how displaced I felt. I missed my spacious house, my friends at the gym, my lively social life, and my stocked freezer. I craved Diet Pepsi, peanut butter, and candy corn. I wanted my car, my TV shows, and my cleaning lady.

And then one afternoon, bored and depressed, I saw it — Mount Fuji — right outside our kitchen window and, until now, hidden by the summer smog which had finally lifted. I was awestruck and incredulous that we had been living within eyesight of this iconic and majestic landmark yet hadn’t seen it until today. I suddenly realized how insignificant everything I missed from the U.S. really was compared to the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I had before me. I had been letting all I longed for back in America cloud my experience here in Japan. I needed to stop dwelling on what I had left in the U.S. and start focusing on what I could find in Japan.

Finally inspired by Mount Fuji, I began to explore our little town of Tokorozawa. The grocery store, the convenience store, and the post office were all easily accessible on my one-speed-bike-with-a-basket — who needed a car? Emboldened, I ventured farther from home, taking the train to Harajuku, Roppongi, and Tokyo. And while I loved the bustle and vibe of those progressive and energetic cities, I realized that I was comforted upon returning to what was becoming my welcome-home place — my small, cozy apartment that was simple, clutter-free, and “home.”

I learned to appreciate the simplicity of my lifestyle in Japan. It was liberating not to sort through an overstuffed closet deciding what to wear; I fell into a predictable rotation of jeans, sweaters, shorts, and tops. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel the urge to update my wardrobe — what I had on hand was good enough. I began to look forward to my daily trips to the grocery store. Unable to fall back on frozen food or prepackaged meals, I challenged my culinary skills and exercised my creativity in the kitchen — something I found I actually enjoyed.

I resumed journaling and writing letters to friends and family and discovered a renewed appreciation for something as simple as a reply sent via airmail. And, when one of my afternoon excursions led me to a vending machine that dispensed Diet Pepsi, I was thrilled by this small luxury. I realized that I didn’t need or even care about all the luxuries afforded to me back home. The size of my house, the labels on my wardrobe, inclusion in a social scene — what did that really matter? What did that prove about my worth? Absolutely nothing. And that knowledge was absolutely freeing.

When our assignment in Japan ended, I re-entered the U.S. with a new appreciation for all the conveniences life in America offered but very little desire to take advantage of them. I was overwhelmed by the size of homes we were bidding on — why did I need all this space? And TV — how could anyone focus on one particular show with so many choices? Much of what we had left in storage, I donated to Goodwill — it no longer had a hold on me. And when we finally moved into our new home, the one item I held most dear was a print of Mount Fuji — artwork I hung in our foyer as a daily reminder of how much abundance can come from having less.

~Stacy Thibodeaux


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