Eat and Run with Stic: Journey to Japan
Routes x Culture | Words by Stic | Photos by Afya Ibomu | Edits by Laurence Bass
Rapper and Runner, Stic of dead prez shares how Japanese culture and philosophy feeds his pursuit of healthy living.
Photos by @Afyaibomu
Edited by: Laurence Bass | Granular
Today’s run I’m enjoying a nice and easy forest jog at Cochran Mills Park, a local 400-acre sanctuary of beautiful natural trails, lush evergreens and rocky waterfalls nestled just fifteen minutes down the road from my house on the southwest side of Atlanta. Exercising outdoors in natural settings, “greening” as it’s called, has been studied by scientists around the world and the positive benefits to mind, body and spirit are numerous. The Japanese have elevated spending quality time in the forest into a healing art form, they call Shinrin-Yoku —forest bathing. Being out here in the serenity of these wooded trails brings to mind fond memories of running in Tokyo.
Land of the Rising Sun
It was my first ever visit to Japan. I was there for a dead prez performance and I brought my eldest son Twezo with me. He was about ten or eleven at the time and was a huge manga fan aspiring to become an illustrator. Let me tell you as a father, I was so grateful to bring him with me so we could both experience Japan together.
On my first morning in the Land of the Rising Sun, I rose at the crack of dawn for my daily cardio fix. Twezo was fast asleep under a sprawl of manga books, drawing pads and markers all around him, as I got dressed and dashed out quietly to explore the scene.
I had barely made it to the first intersection, not even a block away from where we were staying, before I noticed the cleanliness of Tokyo’s streets. It was remarkable. Unbelievable to a brother like me who lived in New York City years ago where you get used to seeing rats rummaging through overflowing garbage cans at every turn. These pristine Tokyo streets were an impressive contrast. There was no trash on the sidewalks, either. You couldn’t even spot a cigarette butt on the ground—anywhere. The absence of litter and debris completely blew me away, but I wasn’t totally surprised.
I’ve always had a great interest and deep respect for the traditional Zen aesthetic that permeates Japan’s history and culture. I admire the way Japan reveres the wisdom of nature, the iconic contributions Japan has made in martial arts and the legendary Japanese craftsmanship that is considered to be some of the very best in the world. Being on the streets of Japan for the first time felt surreal.
As I jogged my way through the relatively uncrowded streets, glancing in between steps to marvel at the ancient accents of the local architecture, the sun began its rise over the mountainous horizon contrasting the ultra modern skyscrapers. It was breathtaking.
But then this foul stench took me back.
This smell was more rotten than anything I’ve ever smelled. And that’s saying a lot having lived in New York City for ten years. It was bad, bad. It felt wrong like-- spiritually. It could have been coming from the nearby Shinagawa Thermal Power Station where propane gas is produced but my thoughts instantly jumped to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant meltdown that happened in 2011. I was over three hours away by car from there, but I wondered how my health might be affected if I was there running around breathing in lungs full of the radioactive odors. The malfunction, which was caused by the 9.0 earthquake, led to a dangerous radioactive leak in the surrounding area and waters, killing and doing who knows what else to the local marine life and ecosystem. Incidents like these affect us all. Unfortunately though as history has shown us, devastation by nuclear energy is nothing new for the people of Japan.
Trekking through Tokyo, you can't help but respect the resilience of the Japanese people who are the only nation that an atom bomb has been directly dropped on— twice--at Hiroshima and Nagasaki--courtesy of the United States of America during World War II— and they survived it. Not only did they survive to rebuild, but they have thrived. Think about that. To go from experiencing nuclear devastation to becoming a technological and economic powerhouse where the Japanese Yin is now one of the strongest currencies in the world--that’s gangsta!
‘Nana korobi, ya oki —Fall seven times, get up eight’
- Japanese proverb
My run that day took me past an interesting artisan shop where a tailor was hard at work creating women’s clothing out of various colors of beautiful leather scraps— cute tops, shorts and skirts. They were all really nice and handmade right on the spot. His work was so well crafted that I decided to have a skirt made for Afya, my wife, as a gift and souvenir out of a piece of muted purple leather that I thought she’d dig.
You should’ve seen this cat at work. Standing there watching him go into the zone--surrounded by mounds of scrap materials, vintage sewing machine parts, and kanji scribbled notes, I was fascinated by the creativity, speed and quality of his craftsmanship.
This devotion to excellence is a principle the Japanese call Kodawari.
Dr. Martin Luther King perfectly echoed the sentiment of Kodawari when he famously said,
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well’.”
Kodawari refers to the uncompromising, relentless devotion to one’s art, pursuit, profession, or activity. Being true to who you are and striving for excellence in whatever it is that you do, is of course not limited to Japanese culture but this concept is pervasive throughout daily life in Japan. From the subway cleaning teams “Shinkansen” that meticulously tidy each car during the short station stops, to the conscientious crafting of Japanese artisans in creating pottery, tea kettles, cooking knives and swords. Everything from tattooing to orchestral Kodo drumming to hand made furniture and flower arrangements. All with the humble sincere attention to the tiniest detail.
Appreciation of quality workmanship is universal. I strive to apply kodawari in my own life, career and work ethic, as does my partner in this blog series, Diadora--a proud Italian heritage company who are legendary for their world class athletic footwear. Examples abound in Japan, from the multi-generational sushi chefs and ramen soup masters, to the impeccable street sweepers whose devotion to detail had me in a state of ‘wow’ on every step of my run.
Now the whole Japanese Manga obsession hasn’t hit our youngest son, Kosi just yet, but being the born adventurer that he is, he absolutely loves sushi. He digs nigiri and maki in particular so we’re always finding new Japanese spots around town that are well reputed because he enjoys it so much.
Wagaya is one of our go-to spots. There are a couple locations around the city I’ve discovered on my running routes, one in Emory Village by Emory University and one on the WestSide of Downtown off of 14th Street. I like to kick it there with my wife for cozy work lunches or when I've got some extra leisure time, I might post up with a good book and enjoy a nourishing bite.
Wagaya means ‘Our Home’ in Japanese. It was named after the owner's passion to introduce to Atlanta the authentic Japanese food he grew up eating. The ambience is a dimly-lit, chill vibe with Japanese crafted solid wooden benches and tables with dark-stained bamboo columns lining the walls.
The music selection adds a nice touch, too. I’ve heard them play everything from reggae to yacht rock and the volume is just loud enough where you can still have an inside voice conversation with your meal. I find the space to be subtly romantic yet casual and relaxed.
The young team of trained chefs at the full sushi bar at Wagaya rock traditional Japanese headbands and seem to be having fun while they skillfully work their craft. They place thin dark-green sheets of nori seaweed on bamboo mats called makisu, add sticky rice and crisp cuts of veggies (or various raw fish selections if that’s your thing). It’s then skillfully formed into a roll and then cut into 6-8 bite sized pieces. The plating is equally artful, understated and charming.
There’s nothing like finishing up a nice run in the city and stepping foot in the door at Wagaya just as Toto’s ‘Africa; or Bob Marley’s ‘Could You Be Loved’ thumps in the background.
My typical order: Hot Green Tea, Miso Soup with a side of rice. Good eats. Good vibes.
When it comes to healthy living and longevity, the Japanese are doing lots of things well. In the book ‘The Blue Zones - 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest’ by Dan Buettner, it talks about the farming and fishing communities of Okinawa, Japan and how this whole area is documented as a centenarian hot-spot with some of the longest living people in the world. Definitely a worthy read that I highly recommend.
I'm inspired by the resilience, the reverence for nature, and the commitment to excellence that makes Japan's culture so unique. But no matter where we are on the planet, Tokyo, Atlanta or elsewhere, no matter the circumstance--kodawari is a call for us all to rise like the sun and exercise our greatness.
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