After a delayed flight and a long queue at the customs, I barely caught the last train, arriving at Yume Nomad some time after midnight. Opening the door was Hiro, ‘You must be Xin! Welcome!’ and gave me a big hug like an old friend. Then there was Mayumi, ‘the boss’ – as Hiro jokingly introduced (she really was the antithesis of that word, see below). In the kitchen I was offered a cup of sweet herbal tea freshly-made by Haruka, another staff member. They had all stayed up for my arrival.
Next morning, Hiro showed me around. There were three spaces: Hostel Yume Nomad (“inside dreams/dream window” in Japanese), Hostel Nakamura and the apartment project. There were scraps and tools from previous renovations and gutting out tatami rooms. My task was to make sculptures for the back room of Nakamura (a former traditional restaurant) to create an ‘unexpected space’ to hang out, and furnish the common space of the apartment project. ‘If you need help, just ask.’ When we saw ‘the boss’ at the apartment ‘worksite,’ she was sitting in the sun reading manga. She said to me: ‘Don’t work too hard – it’s important to enjoy your time here.’
I began by hanging out in the existing common spaces. There were many choices: from the dark, linear bar space of Nakamura (a handwritten sign on the wall said: ‘You are welcome to come behind the bar to read the books’) I walked around to find a half-hidden couch; to the more open spaces at Yume Nomad: a large tatami room with several low tables, a small TV with a nintendo player; next to that a cafe space with couches and chairs. There was also the balcony lined with growing mint, where you could sit above the trees overlooking the streets beyond. Plenty of handmade details dotted around the spaces: hand-picked collection of eccentric books, a sketchbook where you were invited to write local tips for future nomads, coloured pencils, photographs of local sites by staff, local maps, handwritten directions and restaurant recommendations, a swap and donation box.
At Hostel Nakamura, the quieter of the two hostels, they had an electronic tablet beside the door for guests arriving earlier than 3pm, with handwritten instructions on how to call the staff, leave their luggage, have a nap on the tatami, or help themselves for free tea and coffee. The wifi password was written on the entrance door.
When I looked back on the photos I took there, I realised they were inadequate in capturing the unique atmosphere of the Yume Nomad spaces— how it made me feel, being there. The closest reflections were in the radiant smiles of the people there. There was a great sense of conviviality and family. The older guests would guide the newly arrived, even if they only got there half an hour earlier. The presence of multiple staff also helped: with ten paid and unpaid staff living, cooking, eating, hanging out onsite (there were no uniforms nor a ‘staff kitchen’). If something needed care, there was always a potential caretaker close-by.
‘Enter your room and know how personal, how much you feel its life.’ —Louis Kahn
Of all the common spaces, I was most amazed by the kitchen at Yume Nomad. It was the smallest space (actually the smallest kitchen I’ve seen in a hostel). Yet, often after passing through the other vacant common spaces, I got to the kitchen to find a gathering of people squeezing comfortably around the tiny table. Something about that space seemed to melt away the invisible barrier between ‘strangers’ in ‘public’ spaces. Many nights I would return from Kyoto, feeling worn out by the Aikido training and the two-hour train ride with anonymous, even more worn-out fellow passengers. As I walked up the stairs I’d be thinking: ok I have just enough energy left to fill up my thermos before collapsing into bed. I’d walk into the kitchen, someone would ask what kind of tea I was preparing, then the next thing I knew we were sitting around the table laughing and sharing stories. It went on to such an extent that towards the end, while I was trying to finish the making yet kept on delaying my departure, I had to deliberately not go there just so I could get enough sleep.
Surprising since talking to people has never come naturally to me. I felt I became a different person there: making friends simply happened spontaneously, all I had to do was to be in the kitchen. I shared a few meals with Alain and Sophie, they came to Japan every second year with empty suitcases, and joked about and supported each other’s quirky collections of maneki-neko cats and graters. I heard stories of tramping in the snow mountains in the next province and an encounter with a living tanuki, and travelling from Russian to Japan by boat and special times in the oldest Zen monastery.
Man, I’ve even made friends with Alex, who said he was ‘a geek and bad at talking and making friends.’ We talked so much the other staff had to tell us to move into the lounge because it was past 11pm… (The kitchen was right next to the dorms.)
‘In a small room one does not say what one would in a large room.’ —Louis Kahn
Let me describe it physically:
It was about 3x3m. Dwelling in it were two fridges, a microwave, two toaster ovens, a large cabinet for crockery, a gas stove, one kitchen sink, lots of pots and pans, free tea, coffee, jam and seasoning, a square table that was designed to seat four but often sat seven or eight, a stack of stools in the corner, handmade signs and hanging decorations. There were two doors, the outer one opens to the smoking couch and laundry area. That left just enough space for humans to manoeuvre through it carefully.
It was not a kitchen a ‘designer’ would have planned for a hostel with at least twenty beds (I never knew and kept on discovering new parts of it. I do know, however, every day one of the staff would make a big dinner for the rest of the staff). It was neither ‘efficient’ nor ‘convenient’ (yet somehow I had not seen anyone fighting over the stovetops).
In fact, it didn’t even have an electric kettle!
Often, a conversation would start with someone asking me how the stove worked, since it only had Japanese labels. While waiting for the kettle to boil, you might as well offer someone some of the free tea and coffee, or try some bamboo tea you’ve gathered from the nearby mountains. Because the kitchen sink was so small, you wouldn’t want to leave your dirty dishes around; since you needed to manoeuvre around the other humans present, you inevitably start talking to them; because they are sitting close by, like a dear friend, you naturally start treating them like one.
You feel a bit like you are staying at your grandma’s kitchen: cosy, handmade, familiar- except it is more porous: shared with everyone who happened to be there, passing through.
I feel it was the slowness, the inconvenience and the soft, knobbly edges (rather than streamlined spaciousness) that contributed to the cosy, hygge1 atmosphere.
‘To be in the place where you are close enough to help.’2
I often witnessed and experienced, how one guest would ask another for help. It felt like a place where anyone could be a caretaker, anyone could be a host and share something, simply by being there.
I used to earn money by providing ‘customer service’- informing different people about the library I worked for. At Yume Nomad, even though my ‘task’ was not to help guests, I had often been asked and was always glad to share my knowledge about the place. It felt different—the encounters were the door knobs to a myriad of realities, the start of sharing, even if for a brief moment before our paths diverge again.
I feel Yume Nomad was a place where McCann’s idea of Garaíocht was present:
‘…a particular quality of relationship, a particular tone, atmosphere, disposition, or texture of relationship in which the most helpful aspects of the he(art) of being human are most likely to happen. Kindness, caring, generosity, gentleness, trust, nurturing, sharing, gratitude, honesty, creativity, gentle humour. All of these feel more appropriate in an environment of garaíocht. When garaíocht is present, they tend to simply happen. It’s a quality of being human.’3
‘A place not only for many, but also for one.’4
There was a lot of care, love and feeling that went into the making of the kitchen (the whole space, really). I was not there to see it in the making, but knew from the way Mayumi asked me to work on the common space of their new project. The first time we met, I tried to gauge what kind of brief she was giving me. She said, ‘This is your project—please do whatever you feel is right.’ When I was given that much trust, that much sense of ownership… rather than ‘working for someone else,’ it felt only natural to put my heart and soul into it.5
How often have you been given so much trust, from a ‘stranger’? How often would you give out so much trust, to someone you’ve just met?
I spent a sunny April day walking around Kobe with Ryan, another nomad passing through Yume Nomad. As he smiled and waved to some people across the road, he said to me, ‘Those are all my friends, we just haven’t met yet.’
Thanks to the New Zealand Japan Exchange Programme (NZJEP). Your support for Xin (and Chris’s) “research and doing” tour in Japan is greatly appreciated.
1 Hygge (“heu-gah”). The art of building sanctuary and community, of inviting closeness and paying attention to what makes us feel open hearted and alive. To create well-being, connection and warmth. A feeling of belonging to the moment and to each other. Celebrating the everyday. http://hygge.co
4 From the Yume Nomad staff introduction sheet
5 It was not just for me, either. On the staff introduction sheet was a note: ‘If you have suggestions and ideas about this place, please tell us.’