The other way
What i like about living in another country is that it makes me question my own culture and way of thinking. Why do we do the things we do?
Sometimes people tend to think that their own culture is very unique. This makes culture appear as a static phenomenom. But, the opposite is true: cultures are never static and are very dynamic and fluid and interchangible. Japan and the Netherlands, although far apart, are not any different.
In history you can find interesting clues of this permeability. In one museum I found wooden shoes, dating back a thousand years ago. The Gion festival appears to have centuries old Dutch carpets. Or antique tea cups made in Japan but which seem to have a Dutch look. Maybe these things have nothing to do with each other. Or maybe they do.
“So, I love that sometimes we need to go to the opposite side of the world to realize assumptions we didn’t even know we had, and realize that the opposite of them may also be true.”Derek Sivers
During my Kyoto Machiya Residency I visited in between 30 and 40 machiya’s (and around 15 or more spots where once a machiya was standing). While trying to find my way to these various machiya’s in Kyoto I discovered that the system for addressing in Japan is an interesting analogy for the mindset mentioned in the quote. Finding my way in Kyoto made me think differently on my orientation in the city.
While it looks puzzling at first, it is actually just a different way of looking and finding solutions. An address in Japan is written in order from largest unit to smallest, with the addressee’s name last of all. So this is completely the opposite way as we’re used to in European countries. The other thing about a Japanese address is that the street name isn’t the most important part of the address, the name of the block is.
In Kyoto streets run the whole length and width of the city, from north to south and west to east (or the other way around if you’re Japanese). In this grid, the numbering of the streets won’t help you to find anything as we are used to in Europe because they’re numbered based on when they were build in a block (not in the street). So number 216 can be next to number 3. The situation in Kyoto is a bit different because Kyoto’s streets are based on a grid and the blocks are very small and sometimes have the same name. So they add streetnames and a cardinal direction to the block names for extra precision.
As example the address of the very nice ‘Cafe Bibliotec Hello!’, located in a converted machiya in Kyoto:
650 Seimei-cho, Yanaginobanba higashi iru, Nijo-dori, Nakagyō-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan
Note that when writing the name in English, knowing the difference, the Japanese swap the address so it makes more sense for you. The cafe is located on the block Seimei, in Nijo-street, east (higashi-iru) of Yanaginobanba street, in Nakagyo ward (Kyoto has 11 wards). So, in this way I’m finding my way in Kyoto in a very different manner than I’m used to in Europe. For me, living in Japan feels like resetting my mind because it makes me look at things in a new way. The simularities and differences open up possibilities I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. In this next talk by Derek Sivers on TED he describes perfectly this feeling.
*PS: In contrary what the TED talk underneath this post suggests about Japan, Kyoto’s streets do have names, but most of the time you’re looking for the cross roads of streets.