Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Transparent Welcome Mat

Welcome to my humble abode. What you see is what I own. I live in a house with no secrets, unmentionables that could otherwise be stashed in an attic, basement, or closet. If I had those built-in luxuries, then perhaps you would come across a mound of mess that I'd always be thinking I'd "get to later." But no. No attic, no basement, no walk in, or, hide-in, closets. It's all out there on my open-book welcome mat. I am not that open by choice, but living conditions in Japan dictate that you put your items on display. There are no garages, utility rooms, storage cubbies or "under the bed" options in the Land of the Futon to stow junk. There is one exception in my place -- a "floor cupboard" in the kitchen. The kitchen floor is equipped with a pull-up latch that opens in a magic like fashion and the mysterious cupboard rises towards the surface. It is intended for "pickling." However, I haven't absorbed the culture enough to pick plums off the tree, jar them in my little underground waiting a year until I've got the perfect pickled plum. Besides, it's just a creepy concept for me; stowing foodstuff in the floor just doesn't feel the way nature intended it. Valuable storage allotted for pickling? It's almost a shrine-like treatment so I'm just more comfortable pretending it doesn't open (well, until the season rolls around when Santa's elves need a hiding place at least).

Housing conditions in Japan have accelerated me into an Eco mindset of life. I only buy what I need and I adhere to a strict one-in-and-one-out policy. The rule is quite simple: if I buy a white shirt, the old white shirt's time in the drawer expires. If there is more than a day's use left in the toothpaste tube, the next one remains in the store shelf and not yet mine. Also, in the absence of hiding places, there lies an added advantage of actually knowing where everything is. Besides, it's easy not to accrue items that I have nowhere to put. This "pack light" lifestyle is a relatively new concept that came with the birth of my residence status in Japan.

I didn't grow up with that fear of accumulating stuff a phobia mindset. We had endless storage options in our house in spacious Ohio, down to a basement that was divided into the "finished" and the "unfinished" side. Basically, the difference was in the quality of the stuff we put in each designated area. Over sized toys we currently use on occasion: first class finished side. Toys we out grew but hold sentimental value rather than working batteries: downgraded to unfinished side. Basements are a luxury enjoyed by non earthquake-prone lands. They are underground wonderlands of your past in boxes, mixed in with storage bins for seasonal decorations, old bikes with training wheels, roller skates you can't say goodbye to, fading photos, and even supplies such as a the rest of that can of paint from re-doing the porch furniture 18 years ago, all stowed in the spirit of "just in case" we need it again. Throughout the house, every room had cupboards, shelves, and at least one closet that was tall and deep enough to hold at least three seasons of one person's wardrobe. There was a pantry off the kitchen, which was an undercover hiding place for impulse food product shopping: boxes of Mac and Cheese, jars of spaghetti sauce in bulk, jumbo rolls of paper towels, and an endless supply of cleaning products to polish all of those beautifully glowing storage facilities in the average American home.

I have a decorative taste that was not exactly fined tuned at a finishing school, but it was groomed by a way of life that comes with storage options. As a result, I have faced countless challenges trying to disguise my junk in Japan. If you walk into the home of a gracious Japanese host, you will find a contrast from the pre-conceived idea of a serene, uncluttered, peaceful and understated Japanese rock garden. Don't get me wrong, the home will pass the white glove test. It's guaranteed to be tidy, vacuumed, dusted and buffed at anytime of the day. However, once you've entered the gate, you've also walked straight in to the family utility closet, laundry room, and personal vanity cabinet. To paint a typical virtual picture, in the foyer, there may be a stack of 5 boxes of Kleenex next to a collection of out-dated catalogues, next to bin of the paper recycles next to a bicycle that has no "parking" space out front. Once you put the guest slippers on and climb through the initial piles, you enter the living room greeted by a standard book shelf, with books on the first few shelves, but there will also be a corner of it designated as a make-up station with cosmetics neatly arranged, as well as a bottle of room freshener spray, maybe some compact hand weights, an electric razor and whatever the bank was giving away that month for opening a new account. To be fair, there is divine organization within each of these categories, but an American home would never lump these items together, let alone in plain view. Moving on, signs of a subscription to monthly manga comics are represented by the symmetric stacks of books and magazines on either side of the television, and depending on the weather that day, it's likely that laundry is hanging on the curtain rod (clothing dryers are rare, and not exactly space conservative). Aesthetically speaking, it's just not the "coffee table" display look we go for as Americans. We tend to hide all of the toiletries in the vast cupboards in our vanity area of the master bathroom, and prefer to draw a big fat line on what is private and what kind of clutter can be in view of a guest.

As easy as it has become to adjust to going back and forth between Japan and the States every year, the one thing that consistently gets to me is this contrast in product overload and endless storage in State-side homes. During my annual visit a few summers ago, I was tidying up after a meal in my parents' kitchen, and I found myself searching for some plastic wrap for leftovers (another thing we rarely have here). In a cupboard above the oven (Again, two more things I don't have here), I discovered a supply of aluminum foil that I hate to say will outlive the whole family -- collectively, we just don't have that many meals left in us to require the mileage of dish covering material in the cabinet. However, the storage is available and it's not taking up anyone's personal space. So where does it start? Do Americans accumulate items because they can? Do Japanese keep their products to a minimum because they have no choice? I have enough foil in Japan for the next few weeks, but we have limited storage in the drawer for the roll as well as on the shelves in the fridge to store leftovers. I am not asking myself which is better, the Japanese or the American way, but I do wonder, if I had the space, would I fill it? Or if I had too much stuff, would I dig to store it? So which came first, the pickled plum or the under the floor cupboard?


  1. Brilliant...which came first....excellent ending...

    I struggle with this immensely in the US, but I am also used to picking up milk, veggies, and the occasional aluminium foil at the Santoku as I stepped off the train and made my merry way home. This whole "shop for the month and store for a year" mentality is very hard for me. It would work if we only ate what we had in the overflowing pantry but alas, we still shop and buy, and build up and store.

    Which came first....lovely!

  2. Thanks for the comment. I wonder how your adjustment is now after another year? It took me years to go from the security of ample pantry stock to getting the "shakes" when I felt overloaded with too much back up in one small cupboard!