A few tentative steps into a dark back alley in Tokyo reveals a lively food market bursting with color, aromas, and above all, cleanliness. Any traveling germaphobe will undoubtedly feel right at home in the Japanese culture. The floors of the markets are immaculate despite the stampede of people and narrow walkways.
This cleanly mindset might be because a significant proportion of Japan’s population practices Shintoism, which serves as a way of life rather than a religion. In Shinto, everything has a spirit, even inanimate objects like the streets and sidewalks; there is an unspoken accountability amongst such a high density of people that makes the strong sense of community undeniable. Everyone takes responsibility for their own trash and only disposes of it at home, and local restaurants require entrants to take off their shoes upon arrival to avoid tracking in negative energies from the streets… scientifically known as germs.
The immaculate surroundings inspired by Shintoism only minimize unruly distractions amongst all food experiences. Barriers that may disrupt the eating experience in the U.S. are essentially removed in Japan. Even in the metropolitan area of Tokyo with around 38 million citizens, rather than inhaling wafts of the next-door dumpster, people are left solely with the brilliance of fresh scents and aromas.
When I came home from Japan, I found it challenging to try to explain my experiences and how they profoundly impacted my life. A “clean market” sounds cool, not life altering. However, embracing Japan’s culture can spark positive changes in a daily routine.
The good news is, you don’t need to book a flight to Japan to reap the benefits. Here’s how you can take inspiration from the Japanese culture to make healthy changes in your own home.
Leave your shoes at the door
Don’t bring the shoes you wear outside into the kitchen, especially when cooking or working around food. In 2016, germophobes’ worst nightmares were confirmed when a University of Arizona research study found that the average shoe sole is covered with over 400,000 units of bacteria—90 percent of which transfer directly to your spotless floor when they first touch it.
The Japanese are on to something by leaving their shoes at the door and away from food, even in public restaurants. I now practice this at home where I wear my indoor slippers only to cook and meal prep. I am proud to say that my kitchen slippers will never see the light of day or the great outdoors, and my regular shoes will no longer get to experience my kitchen.
Put your healthy foods within reach and on sleek displays.
I used to be guilty of going to the grocery store and keeping my food in their plastic bags. Or, I would pile any packaged foods into my cabinets without much thought. Japan’s city-centric markets taught me how the look of food and its display can help encourage a particular eating choice. Color coding your fridge, or at least putting all of your colorful fruits and veggies on display in beautiful but practical bowls may entice you to grab one, maybe even crave it. I am more likely to gravitate toward a clementine in a fruit bowl, rather than dig through a drawer and its barrier fish-net wrapping to reach one.
Create the kitchen ambiance that ignites happiness and comfort.
I will personally admit, I can be an unorganized mess. I spend so much of my energy at work keeping myself and key documents orderly, that my belongings tend to implode by the time I get home.
If Japan taught me anything, it’s that ambiance is key to influencing habits. Set the mood you want while you cook. Take out any trash you may have left in your garbage BEFORE you begin your magic in the kitchen so that you can enjoy the aroma of your fresh food. Maybe I could have just taken note after I watched Sandra Lee on the Food Network as she meticulously matched each dish with her décor, but nonetheless, my travels have instigated a foundational positive change.
Consider fresh alternatives to replace packaged foods.
At the time of my travels I was coming down with a cold, so I opted for some orange juice. When I asked one of the food vendors for a glass, she grabbed an actual orange from the shelf, and stabbed it with a biodegradable straw. Who knew it would be such a unique and memorable experience to drink orange juice from an actual orange! Even more alarming, why did this seem so “exotic” to me?
In the United States, it often feels effortful to eat healthy; in Japan it is effortful to eat unhealthily. If I was as thirsty for attention as I was for an orange juice, I firmly believe if I walked around Chicago with a straw in an actual orange, I would surely get noticed. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be looked at twice if I was carrying a juice box.
The more I have the opportunity to travel the world, the more apparent the disconnect between packaged versus “real” food becomes. I get it, it may be uncomfortable to walk around with reusable straws in your fruit, but if you’re at home, why not? If you host a party, I can guarantee such swaps will be a hit.
Understand that your food choices and habits aren’t just about you.
This is a big one, and probably the hardest to define tangibly. The sheer amount of respect Japan has for its surroundings and ultimately the food that ends up on people’s plates is enlightening. In traditional Japanese restaurants, the fish offered is based on what’s fresh and seasonal that day, not on what the customer is in the mood for. So, when grocery shopping in the United States, do not hesitate to ask where your food comes from; sustainably sourced food products wreak less havoc on the environment and may even go an extra step to support your local community.