In the Heart of the Great Nanpou Tree

I am inspired by the Japanese version of Excellence. I see people completely devoted to their craft, singlemindedly striving to do it the best they can no matter how humble the pursuit. Like anywhere, of course, there are plenty of examples of mediocrity in Japan. But sometimes I will see someone--bartender, soba maker, sushi chef--who is very, very good at what they do. Devotion and humility are writ large in their posture and demeanor. Those two attributes are about as good a definition of excellence as I can think of.

Shimokitazawa is a cool neighborhood to live in because I see lots of people doing things they seem to enjoy and getting by modestly but, conceivably, happily. There's a fashion-design boutique down the street called Meme. It's a spare studio with a big mirror, a rack of clothes hanging from the ceiling by wires, a mannequin with various half-finished bits of clothing pinned to it, and a drafting table.

There are usually Japanese hipsters standing inside discussing mannequins while one of them slouches in front of a MacBook, working. When they're not inside they're drinking wine on their front step. I get the impression it's a husband and wife who design the clothes and every evening one or another of their friends drops by to hang out. Whether or not their label ever makes it to a storefront on a major street in Harajuku remains to be seen. It's possible, but they seem more concerned with enjoying life and trying to do something well--make clothes, in this case.

A little further down there's a little workshop where two young guys are constantly working with tiny tools and bits of wire and magnifying lenses. I still have no idea what they do but it looks like they're repairing eighteenth-century watches or something. And every so often I'll walk past and they'll be sitting outside with a pizza, chuckling about something. Japan is so dense that only those who have really made it can afford an arty, minimalist Ginza boutique with polished wood floors and a zen garden in the courtyard. The eighteenth-century watch guys work in a steampunk laboratory the size of an American walk-in closet. But they probably are experts at whatever they do and I think that is its own kind of success.

The other day I had coffee with a friend in a very cool coffeeshop. It was a cozy, eccentric place with lots of dark wood; I felt like we were nestled into the roots of a huge tree. The owner, an old man with smeared bifocals, had a cool coffee setup: a rack of bunsen burners with glass percolating tubes, a coffee lab. He made each cup individually and in his movements I got the sense that this man had spent years learning how to perfect his coffee. It was good coffee, of course, but what impressed me the most was his air of dedication.

On the walls were were African masks, random scraps of paper, Miles Davis posters, pictures of cats. Books and magazines were stacked everywhere. It was very peaceful. My friend observed that time flows differently in places like this and I realized that he was right. Tokyo is Tokyo: bustling, artificial, noisy, hectic. But then you open the door and walk in and almost instantly relax. You're no longer in Tokyo. You're in the Heart of the Great Nanpou Tree.

There is something noble about the pursuit of excellence, something rewarding in a way that being a mediocre rich guy can never really compensate for. Of course, the real challenge is to figure out how to get rich while pursuing excellence. But I suppose that misses the point a bit, doesn't it?

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