Before COVID hit us and left us all stranded for a couple of years, I started connecting with designers and creatives in Japan. Full of curiosity for the culture, the practice, and the current state of the field, I made a call on Twitter to meet local designers and creatives.
That’s how I met Nori Iijima and his company GIV. From the heart of Kawagoe, GIV is bringing web and graphic design plus marketing services to local businesses. Since the moment we connected on Twitter we’ve been supporting each other and cheering each other through the pandemic.
This writing is a memory of the meet up in Kawagoe – for myself, for the people at GIV and for anyone interested in Japan and design. I will sum up the experience in three different parts: immersion, past meets future and a break from the noise.
Blue skies and a perfect temperature were the start to a business meeting in Kawagoe. When I was waiting for Nori and the team, I had a moment to adjust to the pace and feel the peace of Kawagoe. Slow, calm and quiet life; combined with the warm light and temperature, I felt welcomed.
Nori, planned an entire day of local activities that would allow us to experience Kawagoe through the concepts and key ideas which influence the everyday approach to business.
Walking through Kawagoe in a group dressed with Kimono, gave me a sense of immersion that otherwise I would not have been able to achieve.
This moment was designed to prepare us for the rest of the experience, immersing ourselves in the culture wearing traditional Japanese clothing and learning more about the identity, importance and meaning of Kimono.
Kawagoe is a short commute from Tokyo, and only a quick twenty minutes ride from my accommodation during the trip. Riding the train is like traveling back in time to Edo, a past period of the Japanese history.
In Kimono dress, we strolled the streets of Kawagoe and talked about architecture and stories of this city. A thing that stood out is how most of the building use black walls; this was an invention from the Kawagoe constructors to protect the buildings from fires. Builders could achieve the distinguished dark color using imported pigments from India. As with Kimonos, this black was not purely functional, it also expressed an identity of status and symbolism.
During our meeting in Kawagoe, we experienced a Japanese tea ceremony – a very delicate and specific procedure where a ceremony master will prepare tea through a harmonious, delicate and carefully studied process. In words of our coordinator:
“Even if a ceremony master has been doing this for decades, they feel like they’re never ready nor perfect. There’s always ways to learn, improve and get better. But, they are thankful for doing their best each time, and are grateful for the imperfections of the process”.
This is not far from how I feel about design. We are never done learning nor designing – however there’s a sense of gratefulness for doing our best every time, improving and learning every single time. Improving our processes, systems and knowledge.
Although Kawagoe is full of pride on its own history and past heritage, there are a lot of buildings that are being restored to make space for newer and modern experiences. We got the chance to meet with one of the persons who is doing a big effort in this. We got a nice tour in one of the recently restored cafés and talked about what it takes to do this.
The trip ended with a short pause from the noise of the busy life. Experiencing Zazen for the first time. The priest guided us all the way from the origins of Zazen to details of the practice and rituals.
During 30 minutes we meditated and reminded ourselves that not everything in life needs to revolve around work. We were invited to sit down, look ahead and clear our minds — and as simple as it sounds, it was probably the most difficult thing to do. It’s easy to stay in the loop of productivity but challenging to take a break to look inside ourselves.
Sharing experiences was the closure to this perfect journey — although the meditation space was the same, our mind and thoughts wandered somewhere different. Hearing from the rest of the group was healing and reassuring: there is simply no right or wrong way to take a break and everything is welcomed.
The physical space is very important. Creating the perfect atmosphere for meditation included handpicking objects full of history, having a very aesthetic and pleasant room free of distractions — and carefully choosing the essences and noises to set the right mood for the practice. It is, as if the priest intentionally designed this space, the same way, we as designers would put together experiences for our projects.
Half a day in Kawagoe gave me some new tools and ideas to navigate both my professional and personal life. Having the perfect guide and company helped me discover this city and I am glad to capture the insights in this writing.
There are three take away a from my time with the guide and the wonderful people from GIV.
Experiencing and looking at things from the outside is helpful — but putting yourself in the shoes of the locals gives you a new level of immersion. How can we do this in our digital products to design better systems?
Most of the people I met during this trip holds tradition in a very special place — they look for ways of blending the new ways of doing things without forgetting where they come from. How can we keep moving forward while learning from past experiences?
Moving ahead and being productive is not the only path. Pausing to reflect on ourselves is as important as being ambitious. I want to find moments of silence often and create a physical space that is inviting to do it. How can we bring breaks from noise into our daily life?
Thank you so much for reading, and thanks to Nori Iijima from GIV and everyone in the team for this great experience and for some of the photographs that I am using in this article.
Special thanks to Ariya for guiding us and preparing this very special day in Kawagoe.