The Art of Silence

I was recently in Japan, visiting a good friend while nurturing and growing a better understanding and relationship with her when I realized that she had given me so much more than simply a place to lay my head while I was visiting.  Diana opened not only her home to me, she opened her heart, she bared her soul, and she lived with me.  Not just lived in the sense that we occupied the same space at the same time; more like she LIVED with me, experiencing things parallel to me, noticing things that I had not noticed and pointing them out, sharing her very different and unique perspectives, and living simultaneously yet very differently.  This is the sort of sharing with another human being that I have not done in quite a long time, and I did it very deliberately while relishing each and every moment, remembering to be thankful for the short amount of time, and learning so much that I have taken a while to reduce my thoughts to writing, so let me turn back the clock and move forward from there.

I experienced a once in a lifetime adventure.  Prior to leaving for Japan, I thought that the best thing that I could do was to read up on local customs, manners, etiquette, and short polite phrases, lest I be a hypocrite demanding that everyone in America speak English while I am a visitor in another country with no means by which to express even the smallest amount of gratitude in their native tongue.  I read up on Japanese culture and customs and I am glad that I did so prior to leaving America.  The Japanese have a way of saying only what is necessary; silence is an art form.  If I have nothing to say, talking about the weather is superfluous unless I am speaking to a blind person.  I don’t know why I would fill the air with the sound of my voice, it isn’t anything special, a bit of a Southern twang when I’m tired or angry, but otherwise, a nondescript sort of whine seems an apt description.  I used to fill the air with noise pollution because I had yet to travel on a plane destined for Japan; I had yet to be on a Japanese passenger train bound for Tokyo; and I had yet to be in a Japanese “water park.”

Prior to departing from Newark International Airport, I was sitting in the terminal awaiting boarding.  I looked up from my iPhone to see the lady seated across from me with her hand covering her mouth and I couldn’t even hear the faintest whisper.  I was deceived by the fact that I could not see her lips moving, therefore, I could hear no sound.  Down came her hand and she seemed to be listening intently; back went her hand to her mouth and seated less than 4 feet away, I could not hear a sound.  Her conversation ended and she sat reading a paper until we boarded.  Silence.

Seated next to the lady on her telephone was an older Japanese couple who kept a seat vacant between them which the wife promptly filled with her carry on bag.  She opened the zipper to the bag and a tempest of flying papers burst forth from the zipper and out poured what appeared to be an entire ream of copy paper with various and sundry sheets of indecipherable characters, one of which floated down to my feet.  I retrieved the paper, smiled, and handed it back to the wife.  She bowed in her seat and diverted her gaze; I followed her lead and did the same.  The husband was quite animated as he attempted to catch wafting papers and place them in the seat between them.  This is where it gets interesting.  From his body language I could infer that the husband was angry (or at least losing patience) with his wife and from the wife’s body language I could infer that she had about enough of his attitude.  She put her hand to her mouth, covering her moving lips, she spoke.  His eyes opened wide and then narrowed to barely a slit as he put his hand to his mouth and responded.  Then silence.  Body language relaxed, papers smoothed out, folded and reinserted into the carry on bag.  Then I saw the husband reach for his wife’s bag help her to her feet, and holding her elbow he escorted her to the gate with nothing more than silence.

For 13 hours on the plane ride over to Japan, I was seated by the window, there was a young lady in the middle seat and a young man on the aisle; they were not traveling companions, although the young man assisted her in putting her carry on in the overhead compartment.  The young man appeared to be Asian, and he had a “Foder’s Guide to Japan” that he read for a bit; the young lady, after putting on her compression socks and blowing up her neck pillow, settled comfortably into her seat.  During the drink and food services, the young man and the young lady handed the drinks down the line, took the trays back up the line, and made no eye contact with each other, with me, or with the flight crew.  They were polite.  They were completely silent.  Except for one trip to the restroom, excusing myself to both of my fellow passengers, I was silent as well and I liked it.

I went to a Japanese “water park” which is as far removed from the American concept of “water park” as a mountain is to an ant hill.  In Japan, my experience at the “water park” was extreme relaxation and enjoyment at its finest.  I bathed in hot mineral springs scented and flavored with various green teas, sake, red wine, coffee, charcoal, traditional Roman and Japanese baths, and a myriad of other hot mineral baths.  There were also two swimming pools, one indoor and one outside.  During this relaxing and wonderful experience, I noticed many couples, some young and eager to be in love, others older and more there for the family experience, and a good amount of children. In all of the hours we spent there I did not witness one child having a sugar induced melt down; I did not hear one child exude any sound except the sounds of happiness, laughter, and ease and even those sounds were muted, more reserved and mindful that others are also enjoying a moment of public relaxation and enjoyment.  Also conspicuously missing from the scenery were the scantily clad, over-sexed teenagers ogling one another.  The only thing that resonated loudly within my head was the deafening sound of respect.

It does not appear to me that the people of Japan use language or, more particularly, words in a frivolous manner.  They do not cloud the air with senseless and needless verbiage.  The weather is obvious, how my day was is subjective, what is for dinner will be obvious.  So what is being said behind a hand?  What makes the hand over the mouth something mysterious?  Is it because I’m a nosy American, always wanting to get the skinny on what is being said, felt, done?  I’m pondering my own inability to be silent, to relish the silence, to stop the ever-present vomiting of words into the atmosphere.  Words that once spoken cannot be unheard.  Words that once expressed cannot be unfelt.  Words than once released cannot be forgotten.   There is an Art to Silence.  I am a child with a crayon.  After Japan, I believe that I will be studying on how to be more capable of coloring a masterpiece.


28 thoughts on “The Art of Silence

  1. Your visit here has enriched my life in ways I can’t quite verbalize. We are so glad your experience was such a positive one, we truly enjoyed having you here. Often people go on vacation with the attitude of going full force and non-stop, constantly moving and as you noticed with a lot of noise. We hope your pace was enjoyable and you feel fulfilled. There is so very much to do and see here that picking things was sometimes difficult, how do we take you to a Temple but not get tickets to Kabuki? Or go for curry a second time but not take you to a theme restaurant or Thai. This was the difficult part of your visit for me, in fact I insist you return so we can soak up more culture together. 🙂

    I love that noticed the silence, it is one of the things that has a grip on me about Japan. The quiet ways of doing things, saying things, just not disturbing anyone else.

    I would love a deeper discussion with you about your first paragraph and how we lived simultaneously but differently.

    Looking forward to further posts about the rest of the trip. (hopefully??)

  2. Reblogged this on Life Notes and commented:
    Recently, a very good friend made the trip to Japan to visit us. These are her thoughts on the trip. It was a magical 9 days for me and delightful for the husband. She is welcome in our home anytime.

  3. I’m always interested in hearing people’s impressions when they visit Japan.
    It’s been many years since Japan was new to me. When I first came here, everything was new and surprising to me…but Tokyo has become more familiar to me now than America is!

    (Talking about the weather is a popular subject with Japanese people though. 😉 )

    Please visit my blog:

    • I will be writing more about my experience I’m Japan. I left a piece of my heart and my soul there. I hope one day to retrieve them both and bring some of Japan into both!

      • I look forward to reading about it.

        Maybe I’ll write a post about how I experienced culture shock when I visited America some years ago. 😉

      • >I suffered from it greatly and was only away for ten days.

        Really? Did you feel “reverse culture shock” after returning to America from a short trip to Japan? In what ways?

        How about culture shock in Japan? I bet many things here surprised you! I know I experienced culture shock when I first came here.

      • I was surprised at how loud and seemingly obnoxious we are here in America when I was standing in line at customs and a grown woman threw a tantrum because they told her to leave her drink on the garbage. She used almost every expletive that I know in English. Then there was the realization that children in Japan are independent at a young age, taking cabs and buses and trains all alone. Meanwhile, most children here are driven by their parents to the bus stop which, by the way, is located at the end of their driveway. I was struck by the lack of self respect we display here. The lack of garbage cans in America just means “throw my garbage in the floor” but in Japan it means “put my garbage in my pocket/purse and carry it home.” I chalk that up to a gross lack of responsibility and accountability.

        Arriving in Japan was not shocking at all, except for a faux pas on my part when entering a dressing room with my shoes on. I read up on the etiquette and customs, learned to say “thank you” and to now before ever stepping foot on the flight. And, I am European by birth so a large amount of proper home training came in handy!

      • That’s very interesting!

        >I was surprised at how loud and seemingly obnoxious we are here in America

        When I last visited America, I also noticed that the airport in America was a lot noisier than what I’ve become used to.

        >Arriving in Japan was not shocking at all

        Really? No culture shock at all? I came to Japan before there was an internet…so I didn’t know what to expect when I came here in 1990. Many things surprised me.

        >entering a dressing room with my shoes on

        Yes. In Japan, we take off shoes before using a store’s dressing room.

        >I am European by birth

        Where were you born? When did you move to America?

      • My mother is an Austrian who married an army soldier during WWII. We moved to the US permanently when I was 9, 40 years ago. I have always removed my shoes when entering someone’s home but never a public place. I am very American and love this country, yet yearn for an America when females took pride in self respect and appearance, where children aren’t taught to act out of entitlement and bad behavior. It’s a different America than it was 40 years ago and it hasn’t been all good change. Visiting Japan made that much clearer.

      • Have you ever re-visited Austria? Do you remember it well?

        >It’s a different America than it was 40 years ago

        I’m sure it’s different from how I remember it.

        I know Japan has changed in many ways in the twenty-four years I’ve lived here. I think one unique thing about is though…no matter how modern some aspects of Japan become, they still keep many old, traditional aspects.

      • I was last in Austria about seen years ago with my sister and her daughter. We visited many relatives and friends and things there seemed to have been kept under some colossal glass dome! Not much changed.

        Perhaps the issue is that America really has no traditions.

      • It is my sincere hope that Japan remains as humble, respectful and filled with pride and that they continue to keep their traditions.

        How did you come to live permanently in Japan? Are you from America?

      • I think America has some “very American” traditions and customs.

        I think American-style Halloween, Thanksgiving and X-mas, as well as American-style weddings, funerals, graduations are all very uniquely American traditions.
        America also has an image of large food portions of meat, religion and guns.

        All very different from Japan (and, I assume, other countries).

      • I live in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, approximately two miles from the elementary school massacre. I was raised by am arms specialist and was on a marksman team most of my formative years. I don’t understand why we civilians require rapid fire guns, automatic or semi automatic weapons or hollow point bullets. A little gun education and safety and you don’t need any of those things.

        I am also a Pagan so the once very beautiful and fun experience of going door to door on Halloween has dwindle from receiving 150 kids that night 14 years ago to getting maybe 20, if we are lucky, the tradition is sadly waning and more and more people view it as a negative thing and have home parties in lieu of trick or treating. It has also become dangerous for children to knock on the doors of their neighbors given today’s violent American culture. It’s very sad that children cannot be children.

      • >How did you come to live permanently in Japan?

        Maybe I’ll write a post with more details about what brought me to Japan.

        But, in short, I was offered a chance to work in Tokyo for two years when I was 20 years old.
        Now, twenty-four years later, I have a Japanese wife and three grown daughters.

        I have had a Permanent Resident visa for years now..

        >Are you from America?

        Yes, I was born and raised in America.

      • >I live in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, approximately two miles from the elementary school massacre.

        Oh, that was a terrible tragedy!

        There was a school shooting at my high school in Florida when I was a teenager.
        I witnessed the school vice-principal being shot.

        > I don’t understand why we civilians require rapid fire guns, automatic or semi automatic weapons or hollow point bullets.

        I don’t like guns at all.

        The lack of guns here is one of the (many) reasons I love living in Japan:

        >I am also a Pagan

        Sorry. I don’t know what “Pagan” means.

        >the (U.S. Halloween) tradition (of Trick ‘R Treating) is sadly waning

        Oh really? Just as I thought….America has changed from how I remember it.

        There was no Halloween at all in Japan when I first came here. Nowadays, many stores have Halloween decorations and sell Halloween-themed treats in October…but no Trick R Treating.
        Japanese people wouldn’t be comfortable knocking on their neighbors’ doors and asking for treats.

        My post:

      • Pagans are the reason there is even a Halloween. It means that I am of a non-Abrahamic faith, not Christian, I worship a deity whose is known in Asia as Kannon, Guan Yin, and Kwan Ying. I was so very happy to explore the numerous shrines and Temples dedicated to Kannon. I just wish I had done more research on Her Japanese roots and following prior to arriving in Japan.

        Overall, my experience of the Japanese people was like a lotus flower. I am only just now, several weeks after leaving, finding the sweetest scent as one petal opens to reveal another. Pride revealed humility; Silence revealed contemplation; Compassion revealed assistance. My lotus continues to open as I remember a facial expression or an experience or just a memory of how I felt there. As I said, I left something of my heart there and a piece of my soul. I hope to one day return to Japan to retrieve those pieces and be a more whole and better human being as a result of all of my experiences.

      • I see. Buddhist and Shinto traditions are followed in Japan…but most Japanese people don’t believe in actual deities.
        I hope you’re able to revisit Japan. And that you enjoyed it here.
        I guess you like Japanese 「和」 (peace, harmony). Were you able to see a Japanese garden?

      • Diana took me to a flower park and we walked a promenade with many roses and actually I LOVED Japan a great deal. I hope I return there as well!

      • I wonder shy you couldn’t open the link.
        Well, how about this google image search of Japanese gardens:

        >We went to Hase-Kannon Temple which has a zen rock garden which was beautiful

        Oh, it’s famous. It’s very nice.
        Did you visit the Great Buddah too?

  4. Was it Hana-no-Kuni flower garden in Kanagawa? That’s the world’s largest flower garden. It’s very nice.
    But I meant a Japanese garden…because you seem to like “zen”.
    Like this one:

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