What I learned about happiness in Japan

Happiness in Tokyo is not going to Disneysea when you have the patience of a gnat.

Is a gnat impatient? Who asked the gnat how he (or she, for that matter) feels? What even is a gnat and where on earth did I acquire that saying?

Wikipedia informs me that a gnat is a flying insect that may or may bite. The term is essentially “a loose descriptive category… there is no scientific consensus on what constitutes a gnat”.

So, under the assumption that this loose category of flying insects has a low tolerance also to inconveniences such as 300-minute waits for rides and the toilet and the Diet Coke stall and just generally to standing somewhere, anywhere, then – yes – I do have the patience of a gnat, and if you have similarly, positively dipterid-like approach to lines and crowds then you too will suffer the same fate. Avoid any form of Disney park at all costs.

But, for the parents who do insist, it is actually a magical place for children. I would avoid weekends and attempt to go during working/school hours on weekdays.

Here’s a picture to illustrate the scenery – it’s big, bold and other-worldly (I can already tell I might run out of adjectives during this blog post).


To any fellow gnats, there are many other ways to obtain happiness in Tokyo and after my six-week stint there I feel qualified to offset my knowledge to you. Here goes:

Skiing and snowboarding day trips from Tokyo: I don’t really participate in snow sports, nor care for them, and though I have many friends who excel in this area, and I am very proud of them, I suck. So, you’ll have to go to someone else’s blog for that, I’m afraid. In the words of Hunter S Thompson, who lived in Aspen (the irony!), “I feel the same way about disco…”

Food: Yes, now we are talking. You must go to the Tsujiki fish markets early in the morning and try the sushi for breakfast (yes, I initially felt the same way – you can enjoy lunch foods for breakfast, you know). Even with a child’s palette and a strong general dislike of raw fish, I thoroughly enjoyed my singular piece of raw tuna sushi, accompanied by my staple: avocado roll. And THAT was easily the BEST avocado sushi I have ever had.

The food in Tokyo is great, albeit hard to navigate if you are gluten free, but the smells meandering from all levels of Tokyo buildings (there are a lot of good little joints tucked away on second, third and fourth floors) are enough to send you off following your nose like a cartoon character. I found some gluten-free delights at the Little Bird café in Shibuya, which also had all manner of both Western and Japanese dishes, sans gluten, with dairy-free options available as well.

Sakura: The cherry blossoms came out to mark spring, almost as if on cue. You simply cannot name a better portrait location for an Instagram photo than under a sakura tree. We went along to the Hanami Festival, which was also very crowded (i.e. can’t-move-for-the-sea-of-people-touching-you crowded), but perhaps the best place to view sakura was in Yokohama (which also has a bunch of rides for kids to enjoy, overlooking a river and with significantly less people than Disneyland or Sea).

Nikko: Nikko is like a Japanese version of Queenstown – quaint, with stunning scenery, snow in winter and tasty traditional Japanese food. It’s a two-hour train ride out of Tokyo, but the train’s seated and heated, so it offers you the opportunity to partake in what I have learned the Japanese love as much as me…

Naps: In Japan, you can nap anywhere. I feel this is a custom New Zealand should freely adopt. On our lunch breaks at university, people nap. People nap on trains, seats in malls, the list goes on. In fact, napping – inemuri – is seen as a sign of diligence, that you are so exhausted, you must sleep when you can. I also noticed that people nap on sidewalks during Hanami Festival. Probably has nothing to do with sake.

Exploring Tokyo streets: In between train naps, armed with a Suica (equivalent to Auckland’s AT HOP card) and Google Maps with a phone WITH FULL BATTERY AND/OR A CHARGING BANK (I speak from experience), it pays to spend an afternoon just exploring Tokyo streets, from the fashionable Harajuku, to the bustling Shibuya crossing, where I’m sure the number of people crossing at any one time is equivalent to New Zealand’s entire sheep population, and more (places, not sheep).

There is so much to do in Tokyo that I can hardly cover it here, especially when I spent a large portion of my early word count writing about gnats. I have been here six weeks, although studying full time, and feel as if I haven’t even managed to touch the sides. So, I am looking forward to returning in June and sightseeing once the Global Leaders for Innovation and Knowledge scholarship has concluded.

The real source of happiness in Japan, generally (and, well, everywhere, for that matter)

The above was all a ruse to get you to read the most valuable lesson I have learned about happiness in Japan.

We were lucky enough to spend two days with Dr Takashi Maeno, the Dean of the Graduate School of System Design and Management at Keio University, who has extensively researched, and written several books on, the concept of happiness.

His research found that the happiness derived from positional goods (whereby satisfaction is obtained from comparison to others via income, social position and material goods) is short-lived. In comparison, the happiness derived from non-positional goods (e.g. health, independence, social relationships, love) lasts significantly longer.

He has identified four key factors to happiness. These are:

  1. Self-realisation and growth – think Socrates’ quest for us to examine our own lives
  2. Connection and gratitude – connecting with others and being thankful for the good you have
  3. A positive outlook
  4. Identity and independence – the idea of authenticity and being true to yourself

We also discussed quite extensively what the future potentially holds and what that could mean for happiness. Our team categorised potential advancements into: human upgrade (think medical breakthroughs and insertion of technology such as a neural lace), a borderless society, changing economic and political systems (will capitalism continue?), the accelerated death of Earth (life on Mars?) and increased convenience. This will impact our happiness in ways we can only begin to imagine. What will positional goods look like when there are no cars, no currencies, and potentially – God forbid – no clothes?

The only thing that will stay the same are non-positional goods: our relationships, our health, our sense of identity and purpose. Internal, rather than external, factors, that can only be derived from one place: inside of us.

I shall leave you with a quote from Plato, the Greek philosopher and Socrates’ right-hand man:

“The man who makes everything that leads to happiness depends upon himself, and not upon other men, has adopted the very best plan for living happily. This is the man of moderation, the man of manly character and of wisdom.”

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Hannah Norton is a former journalist and editor who now works in public relations. In her spare time, she also likes to write – and this website is a collation of her “work that’s not work” – from blog posts to short stories. She is based in New Zealand.

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