Posted by: Mark | April 7, 2010

Being Crafty in Tokyo

I grew up in Tokyo. I lived here for 6 years, in the years that are definitely foundational enough to qualify the claim that I grew up here. I say “here” because I’m writing this in my parents’ living room, in Tokyo, Japan. They moved back here about 18 months ago, and I’m visiting them, returning to Tokyo for the first time since our family moved away 15 years ago.

It’s an understatement to say that it is incredible to be back. I’ve returned to the world of my childhood. When I walk into a Lawson convenience store, the stacks of candies, ice cream bars, and chips are more like stacks of memories, and the stories and phrases of youth have come flooding back. I had anticipated enjoying Tokyo, but I’m innamorate. I’m remembering some of my previous skill in Japanese language and writing, but best of all, I’m re-connecting with the culture.

On our first day, my parents took us to a craft store, one I hadn’t been to since I was probably 10 years old. In there, you pick a project–my wife picked out a box that would be a good spot for me to finally stop losing my keys–and then you sit down alongside a teacher and get to work. She had to go upstairs and select the decorative paper that she would want to adorn the box, and then went about forming it out of cardboard, laquering it with the paper, with a gentle Japanese woman coaxing her along.

For me, I went down to the basement and picked one of my favorite old crafts. It’s basically a glorified Paint By Numbers. The picture is a nice scene of Mt. Fuji and the seasonal cherry blossoms, and most of it is blank, and the blankness is bordered and numbered. A4, B17, C28, etc etc. There are two sheets of adhesive paper, with the accompanying shapes, which you cut out and place onto the right spot. The outcome, which I’m still working on, should look pretty nice.

My parents and my wife were working on their projects upstairs, and I was relegated downstairs to work by myself, which I found to be extremely enjoyable. The store played the type of smooth jazz that you have to admit is actually kind of relaxing, even if you’d never say so publicly while you’re waxing your hipster moustache at a Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix concert. A bubbly Japanese woman came over to instruct me on how to do the project, ignoring the fact that it takes the intellectual capacity of a goldfish to figure it out, and did so with the earnestness and sincerity of Jack Bauer telling the president that everything was going to be Ok, he was going to get the terrorists. However, while Jack Bauer is always out of breath and gruff, the Japanese woman’s voice was light and floated, and reminded me of the soundtrack of my youth.

These shapes that you cut out to paste on your project are about as convoluted and intricate as they can possibly get. We’re not talking about cutting out circles and squares, but the types of shapes that the most ambitious geometrist would have a hernia over trying to calculate the area. There is no rushing. I sat down, rolled up my sleeves, and got down to work. Within about 2 minutes, I found myself in love with what I was doing. The cutting was so slow, and so detailed, that there was little else that you could think about. It required total focus. The chirping of the Japanese women around me and the smooth jazz blended into a melodic hum that made me feel 10 years old again, but 60 in wisdom year. It became, like many other things that I love passionately, an activity whose every detail I savored, so much so that I started writing this post in my mind as I was experiencing it.

I got to trying out my pigeon Japanese with the teacher who was willing to try out her pigeon English, and we had enough common ground to chat. I told her that I lived in Tokyo 15 years ago, and that I used to come to this exact same store, and do crafts exactly like this, when I was a kid. She basically wet herself with excitement over this. Any other customer who came into the store was immediately given a full run-through of my credentials: I live in San Francisco, and was visiting my parents, and was doing a craft I had done as a little boy. The pants-wetting enthusiasm proved to be contagious, and I started to think that the owner of the store should be paying me, rather than vice versa, for me being there and doing a craft.

It’s clear that the craft was difficult and detailed by design. That there was no rushing on purpose. And all of the sudden, all of the other Japanese traditions that I had really hated as a kid, like tea ceremonies and ikebana, made a ton of sense to me. They make you focus on one thing to slow down in a city that is notorious for its neon lights and high-strung anime. In fact, I’ve already put about 4 hours into the project, and I’m not even halfway done. I’m hoping to complete it before we leave, but I’m in no rush. It was genius for my parents to start a vacation with this craft, as it slowed me down into a mental state that has allowed me to soak up every other aspect of my time in Japan thus far.

Cutting these shapes out of paper validates why old Chinese people in my neighborhood get up and do funny exercises on Ocean Beach in the morning. It proves the point Andrew Bird makes in the song “Simple X,” which he summed up by once saying in an interview that if everyone took 5 minutes to have breakfast in meditative quiet, there would be world peace. As the Kenyans put it, Haraka haraka heina baraka. Hurry, hurry has no blessings.

So if you’ll excuse me, I have a craft to not rush through.



  1. Awesome. Is that the store in Asakusa-Bashi? That place was the joint back in the day.

    • Yesssssssssir.

  2. i love reading your thoughts! you are incredible. thanks for sharing!

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