Life’s best travel souvenir: A new way to live

A super clean Japanese train.

A super clean Japanese train.

After a trip, nothing gets me down more than the mundane aspects of being home. Dishes, cleaning, grocery shopping all pale in comparison to the journey I’ve just survived, making me wonder how to incorporate that open-eyed feeling of exploring into the day to day chore of living in the present.

Truth is, nothing shapes your vision of yourself or your world better than traveling. And yet the challenge for me is coming home, taking those fresh eyes and applying those life lessons to the landscape that you call home.

For example, I just got back from Japan. While there, I was baffled about how there were no trash cans anywhere, save recycling containers near drink-dispensing vending machines. When I asked guide Avi Lugasi about this phenomenon, he explained that Japanese culture teaches that the community is the most important above all of your individual needs. This is why no one talks on trains (you cannot bother others; for more on that, click here), or calls out anyone’s shortcomings. Instead Japanese believe that we each have a responsibility to take care of our community, to keep it clean, beautiful and essentially ours.

That is why the Japanese have no trash cans (and ridiculously clean toilets). People carry around plastic trash bags everywhere. See instead of creating more work for others, they do their part to carry their extra rubbish with them to deposit back at home. This both lessens the amount of trash going into the landfills (which of course they also have creatively used to build islands in Tokyo) as well as lessens the impact of their footprints upon the lives of others.

Unfortunately learning that created one of my most embarrassing Japan travel moments. We were riding a train in Hiroshima and the boys were starving. Kai grabbed a small bag of cheddar bunnies away from Nikko and the crumbs exploded all over the floor of the train. The train was silent when it happened and it seemed the air stood still, with everyone watching us. Knowing that Japanese take care of their public and private spaces, there was only one thing I could do. Suddenly Kai and I were on the floor trying to sweep up the bright orange crumbs from the ground with our hands. A young woman stood up and handed us two wipes to use as well, then sat back down and watched us dutifully put the needs of others before our own, erasing the evidence of our filth from their orderly world.

Of course coming back to San Francisco and seeing the collection of rum bottles rolling down Mission Street, or the dude just throw his Evian bottle on the ground even though he was ten steps from the trash can, ignited this feeling of frustration with home. Our streets, our public transportation and our communities are dirty. Unfortunately, there is no way to encourage all of San Francisco to take pride in our city to clean it up. There is no way to encourage Muni to be punctual and clean. Or to expect San Franciscans to put the needs of others above their own.

And so instead of complaining about it, I took an aspect of Japan home with me. After a recent Giants game, I packed up my trash and threw it away myself; and as I wander through the streets of San Francisco, I pick up the safe-to-pick-up garbage, because hey, our community is here and it is my job to contribute, even in a small way and for now, I suppose it is enough to merely have experienced a touch of their community spirit in order to pluck those strategies to use in my own life.


9 responses to “Life’s best travel souvenir: A new way to live

  1. Just don’t start cleaning up empty beer bottles before lunch time when you’re eight months pregnant and holding hands with your toddler. People will give you looks. (True story, and once again I was DISPLAYING CIVIC PRIDE.)

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