Alice Williams: 5 things Japan teaches us about simple living

By Alice Williams

In Japan, food isn't a maths equation or a bargaining tool: 'If I fast for two days I can binge for five!' Photo / Getty
In Japan, food isn't a maths equation or a bargaining tool: 'If I fast for two days I can binge for five!' Photo / Getty

Every nation has something they do exceptionally well. The Swiss have their chocolate, the Dutch their legalised marijuana, and Germany their amazing cars and wonderful sense of humour (OK maybe not the last). And Zen-loving Japan? Stress free simplicity.

When you consider that Japan has 336 people per square kilometre compared to New Zealand's 17, it's clear the Japanese do not have extra space for junk. No surprise that their hottest export right now is de-cluttering expert Marie Kondo, who can fold a T-shirt like nobody's business.

While in the West we're all madly trying to be more, achieve more and earn more, we're finally catching on that living simply is essential to being able to enjoy abundance, minus the stress.

These are the top five techniques I incorporated after a recent month-long trip to Japan:


The key to the famed Japanese efficiency? If something slows them down or doesn't "spark joy" (be it a habit, food, people) they simply ditch it.

Forget moderation. Keeping it in your life just a little bit is actually more difficult than cutting it out altogether. By dropping it cold turkey we simply don't have to think about it.

Research shows we have a finite amount of willpower, but if we can turn a habit to autopilot, it's effortless to maintain.

Make a list: what slows you down, saps your energy, feels good for two seconds than drags you down with guilt and remorse for the rest of the day? Which ones would you be willing to ditch?

The trick is to be realistic, not idealistic. Sure, I'd liked to abstain from caffeine, alcohol, sugar, white flour and crappy TV, but damn it I'm human. Instead, I focused on cutting just two: sugar and TV. Two months later they've stayed gone, I feel immensely better, and hey - two out of five ain't bad.


Most Japanese city-dwellers don't have a living room unless they roll away their futon first, and they literally can't bring something new into their apartments unless they get rid of something else to accommodate it. Calories in/calories out, but with "stuff".

Instead of 20 "average but they were on sale" T-shirts, keep the three that fit you awesomely and chuck the rest. Donate those 'I should read them, but one paragraph saps my will to live' books and get a library card. And you know those drawers with the pen lids, old phone chargers and Christmas cards from 2003? For the love of God, just bin the lot.

READ MORE: Now that's how you fold a T-shirt


Please don't cry. You won't starve.

In Japan, food isn't a maths equation or a bargaining tool ("if I fast for two days I can binge for five!"). They simply eat three full, well-rounded meals a day (carbs and deep fried tempura included), and bugger all in between. And you never, ever see anyone eating on the street.

We, on the other hand, have trained our bodies through constant grazing to interpret the slightest sign of hunger as a dire drop in blood sugar. But any dietitian will tell you that if you're covering your nutrient requirements in main meals, you don't actually need add-ons.

Japanese food looks fiddly, but it's easy to prepare. Simply open a sachet of Miso (and FYI, studies show that having soup like miso at the start of a meal means you consume less), drizzle a lump of tofu with soy sauce, add some leftover rice and a can of tuna. Yum.


Japanese people are incredibly stylish without being slaves to fashion (once they've passed the age of Harajuku). They spend up on key pieces and look after them. Capsule dressing is in their DNA.

By all means choose one hobby to splurge on, but for all else think "stylish utilitarian". Embrace quality, not quantity.


Most of us have a few time-sucking vices (I'm looking at you, Facebook and MasterChef) that bring neither pleasure nor reward. But they're instant and easy and so we slide right into them like a warm bath.

But how much pleasure does each activity actually give you? You may be shocked to discover that the time sucker is a person or relationship. If you can bring yourself to rip that Band-Aid, you'll be happier for it.


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