How ‘ichi-go ichi-e’ is changing the way you think about travel
It’s a little weird to say that I learned Zen Buddhist philosophy from an old episode of Anthony Bourdain, but here we are. I discovered Zen Buddhist philosophy thanks to an old episode of Anthony Bourdain.
It was his show on CNN, Unknown parts, an episode titled “Japan with Masa”, in which Bourdain travels with New York sushi chef Masa Takayama to Kanazawa, Tokyo and beyond. In one scene, the pair join a group of old friends from Takayama at a country house in Yamanaka Onsen to grill food, drink sake, and enjoy each other’s company.
And that’s when Takayama introduces an old Japanese concept: Ichi-go ichi-e.
Although the literal translation of this phrase is “once, a meeting”, the concept is best described as “for this once only” or “once in a lifetime”. It means, essentially, that this moment is unique – it will never happen again. Even if you gather these same people in the same place and do these same things, the time will never be the same. This moment, in this moment, will never happen again.
And so “ichi-go ichi-e” is a concept designed to appreciate and celebrate that fact. It’s a reminder that this moment, in this moment, is beautiful and amazing and utterly unique. This will never happen again. So better take advantage of it.
I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It’s been days now, maybe a week, since I saw that old episode, and it constantly worries me.
I may be a little late to the party, but I had never heard of ichi-go ichi-e before (and this from someone who is quite obsessed with Japan). The concept’s history goes back to Japanese tea ceremonies, and in particular to the 16th century tea master Sen no Rikyu, who asked his apprentices to respect their hosts as if it were a meeting that could not have occur only once in a lifetime.
The idea was refined into ichi-go ichi-e, and it developed ties to Zen Buddhism; eventually, it was even related to the singular mindset required for Japanese martial arts.
But why, you might think, was this so profound for me to find out, and how does this relate to the journey?
Essentially, it puts a name to something I’ve been pursuing for a long time now. I am a firm believer in never trying to recreate old travel experiences. You can revisit the same destinations if you like them, you can come back to the same places, but each time you should do it again, because it will never be the same again. It will never be the same again. The key to a successful and enjoyable trip is to accept this.
I’ve also written before about “moments”, those little segments of time that define our travel lives, that become our memories, that we cherish forever. We tend not to remember whole journeys, days or even hours, but fleeting moments of journey perfection, when things fall into place and you have that almost out of body experience and enjoy suddenly joy, wonder and incredible good. fortune of the thing you are doing.
I once traveled with a guy who used to yell, “I got a moment!” He did that on a hiking trail, in a bar, on a street corner. Just an acknowledgment of perfection. He did not know, I am sure, that he was following an ancient practice of Zen Buddhism.
There is something so deeply beautiful about acknowledging perfection, and acknowledging and accepting that it will never happen again. This moment will never happen again. Nothing you can ever do or attempt to do will ever make it real again.
So you take advantage of it. You live it, breathe it, taste it and touch it. You celebrate it at its true value.
If you think that sounds a lot like the trendy modern concept of “mindfulness,” then you’re probably right. And even though I shiver a little while writing this, I think I’m okay with that.
I have made conscious attempts in my life as a traveler to appreciate the moments and recognize that they will never happen again. This knowledge, I think, makes you even more aware of how incredibly lucky we travelers are to be able to see the world in a way that is entirely designed for our enjoyment.
I’ve always tried to accept, too, that any friends I make when I travel will eventually break up, and those times we share will never be relived. Of course, I will find them again, in different places, in different circumstances, and that will be great too – but we will all have changed. Everything will have changed. We can never go back.
You need to celebrate the people around you and the moments you share right in front of you. This is the key to travel.
Ichi-go ichi-e. Once in a lifetime. Never again.
What do you think of this concept? Is it something you apply to your life as a traveler? Or your life in general? What do you remember as the greatest moments of your trip?
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