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Life in Japan - Minimalist Zen Living Spaces

Being American living a minimalist "Zen" lifestyle is not something that comes naturally to me.  I'm used to ample space, spacious lawns and backyards, and a commodious garage packed full with crap I barely ever use.  Over the years Japan has worked wonders on me.  Its overpriced cramped living spaces have afforded me the privilege of aggressively implementing a minimalist Zen lifestyle.  Thank you, Japan.  You can be a pain in the ass sometimes, but I still love you.

I'd like to share some things I've learned along the way that have both allowed for space maximization, as well as life simplification.  Because face it--at least half the stuff you own could probably be thrown away with minimal impact to your quality of daily life.  And life simplification is like a breath of fresh air inhaled into lungs you never knew you had.

I'm writing this not to serve as any professorial lecture or authoritative "how to," but merely as a list of things that have worked for me thus far.  I still am, after all, a consumerist American living in consumerist Japan--an American boy that struggles constantly with reducing the amount of crap he owns.

Get Rid of All Physical Media
In this day and age, this is actually possible.  Here's what I did.

* I bought an ebook reader and exclusively read ebooks.  I own almost zero paper books.
* I ripped my rarely-watched DVD collection to digital files.
* I digitized all my old VHS tapes.  I've just aged myself by writing that.
* I scan mildly-important to semi-important documents to PDF, then trash them.
* I use a home NAS for all my data storage, then back that up multiple ways.
* I think before I print.  Doesn't everyone?
* Why write that down on paper?  Just type it into your smartphone or take a picture of it.

You would be amazed at how much space is freed by these simple measures.  Digital files take up much less physical space than CDs, DVDs, VHS tapes, floppies, books, etc.

Get Rid of Stuff

This sounds obvious, but it's unexpectedly challenging at times.  I feel some uncanny attachment to an aloha shirt I never wear.  There may one day arise an occasion that calls for an aloha shirt.  If I get rid of it, I'll regret it someday.

If space allows, then keep the goddamn aloha shirt; if not, then get rid of that crap.  If you just can't (and I sympathize--I really do), then put it in an archive box for a year.  If it's still there untouched a year later, then flush that archive box out.  This junk is unnecessarily complicating your life.  You're better off without it.

This is why Yahoo Auctions is one of my best friends.  True--it's more effort to go through, but I like the feeling of recovering at least some of my original financial investment.  I constantly chip away at my junk problems thanks to auction sites.  While it may not help me sell off a used aloha shirt, it certainly comes in handy when getting rid of countless gadgets I no longer use.

Minimalize Your Tech Life
I struggle with this one because I'm a hopeless IT geek.  I'm always tinkering with PC gear, toying with server equipment, and surfing the Internet looking for more gadgets to play with.  I do the same with electronic music toys.  Although I'm a poor choice of prophet for digital life minimalization, here are some things I've done that allow me to run a home data &  media creation center without packing my house with ridiculous loads of equipment.

* I buy and/or build only compact, power-efficient machines--a 13" laptop, a mini-ITX server, a HP Microserver NAS, etc.  I try to avoid physically large equipment.  It's harder to move, harder to find a place for, and (sometimes) harder to sell off.
* I favor virtualization technologies (like KVM & Virtual Box) over physical machines.
* I put most all IT equipment into a compact metal bookshelf (from Muji) in the corner of my room.  This allows for very short, clean cable runs neatly hidden in the rack.  Only 2 cables emerge from the rack--power and Internet.
* I use a remote access device if/when I ever need to access the console.  I use one from a company known as Lantronix.  This removes the need to keep an extra monitor around and run messy cables.
* I hung a thin cloth over the exposed side of the shelving unit to further hide the equipment.  Known in Japan as a "box curtain," it makes my home data center even more Zen.
* I sold my insanely large 10" Yamaha studio monitors in favor of 5" JBLs.  They now fit on my desk, and I also managed to sell off the monitor stands the Yamahas required, freeing up even more space.
* I got a compact guitar rack that holds 3 guitars, getting rid of the space-inefficient single guitar stands.  I thought of hanging them on the walls, but I feared the permanence of this idea.
* Next I'm considering selling off my PC monitor and just using the built-in laptop display.  I'm hesitant to do this since I may miss the screen real estate.

I went from a room with LAN and power cables running all over the place to a room with essentially all my hobby clutter tidily organized in one corner of the room.

I know.  My case is excessive and atypical.  My overall point is to look at your living space and try to find ways to minimalize it and/or tidy it up.

* Put electronic gear in one consolidated place so that cables don't run all over the room.  Look at where long cable runs are and relocate that stuff closer to where it needs to connect to.
* Use power strips to tidy up power cable runs.  I even attached one to the far end of my desk to allow for quick ad-hoc connections, USB charging, etc.
* What's taking up all the space?  Focus on that and you could free-up a significant amount of room real estate.  In my case it was those massive Yamaha monitors and a MacPro workstation.  Reducing my gear to compact monitors and a 13" MacBook Pro was my salvation.

Kick-knacks Not Welcome Here
Dust collectors and kick-knacks are the bitter enemy of Zen.  Everything you own should serve an important function, and dust collection is not a critical function in this world.  I exclusively decorate with the following:

* Plants.  Plants are awesome, and circulate the Zen aura wherever they are.  Unfortunately, I'm cursed with a brown thumb, so I have one unworldly cactus adorning my veranda.
* Mirrors.  Mirrors aren't as awesome as plants, but they serve a function.  They give the appearance of more space, and allow you to see how awesome you look today.  Most can also hang on walls, so they're out of the way.
* Pictures and other stuff that hangs on walls.  Again, these things are out of the way.  Just don't overcrowd your wall space.

I even hung tissue boxes on my walls using sleek holders, freeing valuable surface space.  How's that for functional art?

Shop at Minimalist Zen Stores
For me this is Muji (無印).   For others this may be Ikea, but personally I find Muji more compatible with Japanese living spaces.  I like to look at their in-store and online displays to see how they're tackling minimalization and consolidation challenges.  Muji is classically unadorned, simple, and relatively compact; which is not surprising considering their name means "No Brand."

Ikea makes larger, more colorful stuff than Muji; and their stuff often includes integrated cable management.  I wanted a simple, but sizable desk for my IT and music equipment, so I went with Ikea (Muji's were just too small).  I also got a spacious Ikea media cabinet that keeps everything hidden and tidy.  Generally speaking, Muji's stuff encourages minimalization; while Ikea's stuff encourages organization.

I hope you've enjoyed my ramblings about minimalist Zen living.  Now get to it, grasshopper!

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  • Guest - ria

    thanks for sharing it is very nice post.