Archives for posts with tag: Kyoto


I’m sitting at the airport, waiting for my flight home and (OY) to another conference, I had some time to reflect about my time in Japan.

The New York Times Magazine published an article titled “The fierce imagination of Haruki Murakami” and it begins:

“I prepared for my first-ever trip to Japan, this summer, almost entirely by immersing myself in the work of Haruki Murakami. This turned out to be a horrible idea. Under the influence of Hurakami, I arrived in Tokyo expecting Barcelona or Paris or Berlin – a cosmopolitan world capital whose straight-talking citizens were fluent not only in English but also in all the nooks and crannies of Western culture: jazz, theater, literature, sitcoms, film noir, opera, rock’n roll. But this, as really anyone else in the world could have told you, is not what Japan is like at all. Japan – real, actual, visitable Japan – turned out to be intensely, inflexibly, unapologetically Japanese.”

This was the second time in Japan for me. The first time I didn’t care for it. I stayed just in Tokyo, visited many sights, enjoyed what I saw but, in the end, it left me cold. It happens. There are many places that will leave me cold no matter what: Hannover, Dallas, Brussels. They are just names, cities, a lot to see, nothing to experience. Nothing to feel. (For me, anyway.)

Japan is a tough nut to crack. Barely anybody speaks English enough to have a real conversation (I got much luckier this time.), the restaurants can be divided into two categories: the ones with pictures/food replicas outside (signaling tourist trap) and the ones without any English anywhere. I refused to eat tourist trap food, and so you end up eating cartilage soup once in a while and your whole world is reduced to pointing at stuff. Japanese behavior and mannerisms are so different from the Western world, it’s astonishing how foreign you can feel in one of the global hubs of the world. Last year I left thinking: I might not return. One time is enough.

It was never Japan. It was always me.

I was invited to speak again at ad:tech Tokyo this year and since I could combine it with a workshop in Kyoto, I decided to head out again.

This time it was different.

I’m not sure what it was: Expecting the feeling to be a foreigner in a foreign world. Leaving the Tokyo bubble and heading out to Hiroshima and Kyoto. Having real conversations not just pointing wars. Maybe it was all of these things that allowed to look behind the mask of Japan that each foreign visitor encounters.

Coming from a different world, Japan feels very uniform and like a conformist society. I’m sure that’s true but it also is completely wrong. In many ways, Japans has many rules and everybody makes up their own. Let me give you an example: I rented a bike yesterday and visited a few places in Kyoto while enjoying a glorious 80 degree day. As you know, you have to ride on the left side. I asked the rental place about any specific rules. His answer: “There are too many. Just don’t bother.” Sounds more like Italy, not Japan.

He was right.

The sidewalks are split for pedestrian and bike usage. You see people walking on the bike lane, bikes riding on the pedestrian lane. Left, right – who cares? It was complete anarchy. My head spun. This is Japan, this is not Paris or New York where you make up rules on the fly. No, it was more chaotic without ever being chaotic. When people blocked the whole sidewalk, you just approach them slowly without any bells or cursing. Eventually, they will move to the side. Imagine that in Germany? 10 seconds in fist fights would break out. “This is my lane.” “Move to the side, f*+*&$% idiot.”

It felt so liberating to ride the bike in Kyoto. No real rules, just making sure not to hit anyone and not to be hit. Suddenly, a society filled with school kids wearing the same hats and school uniforms, where uniqueness seems to be lost in translation, suddenly that country felt more liberated and relaxed than any other place I’ve ever been before.

We make judgements way too quickly

Rob Campbell wrote a great post about the Chinese story that makes its rounds around the world: A little girl  who was run over in a Chinese city and then ignored by multiple passers-by, despite writhing in agony and suffering from obvious serious injury. Horrific behavior but as bad is our tendency to apply the judgement of a few to a whole country. Suddenly, every Chinese person is cold and heartless.

We’re so quick to judge:

Every Arab is a terrorist.

Every German is either a Nazi or an engineer.

Every person from the South is a hick.

Every Greek is a tax evader.

Every banker is an unethical pig.

Every unemployed person is lazy.

I know, we need to make quick judgments to survive in this world. But we owe it to ourselves to keep our minds open. All the time. People evolve. People change. And our opinions of them should, too.


While hosting a brand session in Kyoto, I was able to visit the Ryoanji Temple. Just like millions others, I didn’t come for the temple, I came for The Rock Garden. Built in the 15th century, the garden consists of raked gravel and fifteen moss-covered boulders, which are placed so that, when looking at the garden from any angle (other than from above) only fourteen of the boulders are visible at one time.  It is traditionally said that only through attaining enlightenment would one be able to view the fifteenth boulder.

No trees are to be seen; only fifteen rocks and white gravel are used in the garden. It is up to each visitor to find out for himself what this unique garden signifies. The longer you gaze at it, the more varied your imagination becomes. Some consider the garden as the quintessence of Zen art.

What do you see in the garden?

Some people see hills with their peaks poking above the clouds.

Some people see tigers crossing a river.

Some people see islands rising from the sea.

Some see a lake. Some see heaven itself.

Some people only see rocks.

What do you see in the garden?

What do you see in a brand?

Some people see a product.

Some people see a dream.

Some people see a bigger thought.

Some people see a passion.

What do you see in a brand?

Focus and simplicity.

Modern life is full of distractions. Our minds weren’t built to all the information coming at us constantly. Even when these temples and gardens were built, the outside city life was busy and full of entertaining distractions. Visiting a garden with a few rocks in it gives our mind just enough information to feel comfortable. It calms the mind, like calming water, allows the dirt to settle, and the water to clear.

Modern marketing and branding is full of distractions. We tend to to stray from the brand core, brand vision and mission – focus on diversions, things that have nothing to do with brand. The ever-changing marketing and technology landscape forces us to keep up, open new channels, engage and connect. Nothing wrong with that. But, once in a while, we have to go to back to the brand garden and calm the brand, like calming water, allow the diversions to settle, and the water to clear.

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Perception is not reality.

Why is our thought deluded? Why can’t we perceive reality correctly? One reason is that we are usually limited to a single, subjective view. Our deluded perception constantly deceives us into making bad decisions. As mentioned above, at The Rock Garden 15 stones are arranged so that from any point, only 14 are visible. So how many stones are there? Like the stones, we can’t see everything all the time.

Why is our perception of brands deluded? Why can’t we perceive reality correctly? This is especially true when you are working every day on a brand. Because we’re so close, we’re becoming deluded. We’re projecting our own goals and objectives to our point of view. You might think you know your brand. Most likely, you’re just overlooking the blind spots.

There’s no “average”.

All things have an ultimate nature. A real existence that ordinary people’s minds are unprepared to see. When people see something, they immediately classify and label it. They are unable to make sense of reality without this process. This conceptualization process is based on our subjective experiences and always causes gross distortions.

Let’s say a new creature just arrived on earth. The creature doesn’t understand male and female, so you explain to the creature that women are on average shorter than men. The creature doesn’t understand subtleties like “on average” and will assume from now on that any shorter person is a woman. We’re all as stupid as the creature, constantly making incorrect assumptions about the world because of our limited system of thought.

All your focus groups, brand research and data analytics give you a “general” idea or an “on average” perception of your brand. You make assumptions about a brand based on subjective experiences working on it, and it will always cause gross distortions. When working on a brand, always assume you are as stupid as everyone, constantly making incorrect assumptions about the world because of your limited system of thought.

When facing a single tree, if you look at a single one of its red leaves, you will not see all the others. When the eye is not set on one leaf, and you face the tree with nothing at all in mind, any number of leaves are visible to the eye without limit. But if a single leaf holds the eye, it will be as if the remaining leaves were not there. – Takuan Soto

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