December and January

Japan Field Notes PT. 3

A leaf turns to ice

Vincent Van Patten
8 min readJan 31, 2023

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Kanazawa, Japan. Photo by the author.

Words

I love what words can build, how they cause the mind drift and stoke our heart’s flame. Words create meaning out of nothing but a will to put them down.

All words require is passing time, life lived. I love how words can come from anyone and anywhere, how they weave a story about what it means to be here in our unique soul, looking through a window at a world which only we see.

Share your words; they mean more than only what we hear.

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Drawing

I was sitting in a Christmas lesson with a brother and a sister in little Santa outfits around a table on the floor. It was silent. They were coloring. The moment felt so calm, so serene; the kids were in the zone.

The little boy, six years old, was kind and quiet, smart. They colored Christmas trees and I just sat there and watched in awe.

I love color. I thought about how special that moment was, watching these two kids with pencils in their hands putting the color on the paper instead of looking into a screen. They were enamored, and it hit me.

Creating’s in our DNA. I sat in that room with those two little kids and their mom who watched, I think, savoring the moment of peace.

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Loving What You Do

There is a way to enjoy the work we do, even love it.

There’s work that resonates with the fibers of our being and makes the world shine brighter. It’s not easy finding this sort of work. But it’s possible.

We might not be paid for this work, at least for a while if that’s our goal.

“The test of whether people love what they do is whether they’d do it even if they weren’t paid for it — even if they had to work at another job to make a living,” writes Paul Graham in his article How to Do What You Love.

Is that person out there? Our future self? Waiting for us to take that step, that leap, that fall; waiting for us to pursue what we’d love to do?

Or at least, waiting for us to accept that that something exists?

It’s not easy. Nothing worth striving for is.

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Snowboarding in Hokkaido, Japan

Growing up, snowboarding in Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan, seemed out of the realm of possibilities. But damn it sounded cool.

This December, my oldest friend and I boarded in Hokkaido. Our days went from boarding in some of the best powder in the world to eating ramen on the mountain to spending the evening at an onsen in the snow.

We made it happen.

Doing things like this takes effort. But effort is what creates memories which last a lifetime. The effort is worth it.

Believe your dream is possible, take a step towards it no matter what that step is — that’s the most important thing — and go. Your future self probably won’t remember the extra work you got done that week, but they’ll sure as hell remember a life changing experience, whatever that might mean to you.

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The Snow Monkey Plunge

My family has a tradition in Los Angeles of swimming in the ocean on New Year’s Day. It’s called the Penguin Swim. I did my own version in Furano, Hokkaido on New Year’s Eve: the Snow Monkey Plunge, going between the onsen and laying naked in the snow. Sorry for the image.

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Kanazawa, Bars

Kanazawa is an ancient and preserved city near the Sea of Japan. The city’s flush with canals and rivers harmonious with stone steps and wooden bridges. The feeling in the winter is wet and subdued, cold and natural.

A tranquil energy emanates throughout the samurai quarters, the renowned garden, the castle grounds. My friends and I wanted to make it to the sea, but didn’t have a way without a car.

A friend from Sapporo had told me to visit a bar owned and run by two half French, half Japanese brothers. We did, and as if by fate, one of them took us surfing the next day in the Sea of Japan.

I find it fascinating how bartenders never know who will walk through their doors on any given night. Yet they’re always there, doing their work and creating a unique environment.

Isn’t that how it can be with life? You prepare; you do the work because it matters. You do it not for the recognition — not waiting for the right person to walk through the door.

You do it, day in and day out, because the work itself is what lights you up.

This was obvious with these legendary brothers. It didn’t matter what night it was. They were there because, it seemed to me, they wanted to be. That’s the dream. We’re lucky to have met them.

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The Train Station

Where adventures begin and end. There’s always a melancholic, thoughtful feeling to them. What’s to come and what has gone.

Few others scattered the Tokyo platform.

A sharp breeze drifted through the open windows. The challenge’s being present, not thinking of where I’m headed or what I’m leaving; the challenge is to be there with the entirety of my being, appreciating what is.

What’s done is done, and when the train arrives you get on or you don’t.

The train arrived to take me home to Osaka. It’s nice to do nothing but watch the world go by. Where of course, you sink deeper into thought.

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Back to Class

On my first day back to teaching I was having lunch by the station twenty minutes before the train left.

I realized I left my scan-in card at my apartment, about 3/4th’s of a mile away. I left frantically and sprinted home in my work clothes.

It felt good to run.

I smiled as I ran, practically laughing at the absurdity of the situation. My dress shoes clacked on the pavement and my tie flew in my wake. A woman with her baby cracked a smile as I passed.

After being in travel mode I was back in the classroom. The funny little kids and friendly adults made it an easy transition, and that tells me something. I’m doing this for a reason. It isn’t a menial job, but something I connect to in some way.

Life goes on. We find what we connect with and what we don’t. No point laboring on what’s past when there’s so much good ahead. This moment won’t last forever. Cherish the journey. Be good to people. That’s it.

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Do You Speak Japanese?

It’s a unique experience getting to know my students but not truly knowing them. I’ve been with many of them for five months now, but still there’s this gap of understanding between us.

We obviously can’t go deep in conversation. They don’t really know me. I don’t really know them. Still, I do my best to be me without much language.

Two young kids asked, teacher, teacher, do you speak any Japanese?

We’re technically not supposed to speak any Japanese in the school, but I gave a quick daijoubu desu, a phrase which pretty much means all good.

Their eyes widened and they gave an exhale of surprise with an eeeeee. I laughed. I guess they didn’t think I speak any Japanese. Life is funny.

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Calling From the Ramen Shop

Calling from my favorite neighborhood ramen shop in the morning to get my substitute shift for the day. That was a special moment, like I’m really doing this.

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Itterasshai, Ittekimasu!

I was interviewing kids in one of my classes one by one, and when I left with one student, one of the girls said itterasshai!

The boy responded ittekimasu! I’d learned about this the week before at our hostel in Tokyo. When we’d leave the girl at the front desk would say itterasshai, which essentially means you’re leaving, come back safely.

We’d respond ittekimasu! Which means something like I’m leaving, but don’t worry I’m coming back.

This really embodies a unique facet of Japanese life: the sincerity, the cordiality, the kindness which runs like a winding and thoughtful river through its culture.

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Shogun

I’m reading my favorite book, Shogun, for the third time. I saw it at a bookstore in Osaka and had to read it while living in Japan.

It’s a historical tale which tells the story of John Blackthorne, an English pilot on a Dutch ship who washes ashore Japan in the year 1600.

The story is masterful — a grand-scale journey which inspired me to come here initially and which is causing me to fall in love with this culture as I read it again.

The same book carries a different meaning depending on who we are when we read it. We’re not the same reader, for we’ve changed, we’ve grown; re-reading a classic can help us see the world anew.

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Tiny Acts of Love

Life is romantic.

We never fall off track, we only sway.

Life is poetic.

I’m feeling poetry lately. Meaning often inexplicably emerges from this experience — things which seem so normal move me.

I’ll follow what I’m feeling now. I’ll follow the music. The highs and lows and these feelings, these fucking feelings, the looks we give and the choices we make to be better — to make the world better, giving a shit about another soul. It rips at me.

That shines through in the smallest acts. I know it does. These acts define our time on earth.

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Music.

How did humans evolve to be cool? What is cool? Undefined, indescribable.

Not merely a rebelliousness; confidence? A confidence to be you, whoever that is. The confidence to own it irrespective of how you’re received by the world.

A comfort in one’s body and soul. An understanding of what truly is underneath this omnipresent facade, yet a vision of what could be if we’d dare to be ourselves. That’s cool to me.

The other night I went to see the band LADY FLASH and then a dance contest that a friend of a friend was performing in.

There’s little I love more than to experience others be themselves and share their gifts, a beauty so lucid and unmatched through music and dancing.

I lose myself at concerts and shows — no judge of character, no inner critique, just love. I love to dance, but these groups in the contest were on a different planet.

Primordial style. Dance. An ancient art. Moving the body which possesses the spirit to a higher power, a frequency that’s beyond us. People came together until dawn, appreciating, laughing, sharing in something that’s unequivocally good in this world. That’s pretty damn cool.

Japan Field Notes PT 2.

Japan Field Notes PT 1.

To follow my travels from Japan and much more, check out Citoyens du Monde❤️‍🔥🫶⚡️🤟🏻📚🌧🛸

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Vincent Van Patten

Exploring what lights my soul on fire ❤️‍🔥 Living in Japan. vincentvanpatten.com