Fields of trees filled with pink and white blossoms lined the walkways through Sakuragaoka Park, which is like Central Park for Tokyo. Massive crowds of people treated blossoming cherry trees like movie stars, flooding around to take photos and selfies. Women were wearing colorful spring kimonos; it’s a tradition around graduation time to be photographed with the legendary blossoms, and in some areas men too were dressed in traditional robes. It was like a scene out of a movie.

Unfortunately, the blossoms had not reached their peak, and our group of 35 artists hit them a little early, so the trees that were in blossom got more attention than those that were still bare. A return to the same park on our last day was a different story. Everything was in full bloom, and the scene was one of the most beautiful I have ever encountered. It was what I imagine a walk through heaven to be … walls of color against flowing streams and beautiful temples. 


We went to see Japan to visit its temples, see its iconic sign-filled streets, and experience the colorful scenery, but we left transformed, and mesmerized by the culture.

Before going, everyone I met who had been there before said, “It’s indescribable, but I’d live there if I could.” It seemed odd to me, but now I understand.

I’ll not tell the story of our trip now (you can read it here), but I fell in love with the culture and the people.

But why? What was it that was so different from other beautiful places I’ve visited?

Big and Clean

The metropolitan area of Tokyo is home to 41 million people, larger than the population of the entire state of California, yet there are no visible social problems. Most big cities struggle with the sheer size of the population and are prone to chaos and filth. Yet during my visit, I did not see a single piece of trash, nor did I see a beggar or a homeless person. We ended up in some areas and neighborhoods one might think could be dangerous, yet not once did we feel unsafe. Though I suppose dangerous areas exist, I never saw evidence, even outside the tourism bubble.

Though I’ve not researched this, I’m told there is simply almost no crime. And that is rooted in how the Japanese raise their young, and in their immigration policies, which make it difficult and sometimes impossible for non-Japanese to move there. 


The first thing I noticed is that there are no trash cans. We went to a local food market, filled with thousands of hungry people, yet when I had a paper plate left over, I walked up and down the street to find a trash can. There was none. When I asked, I learned that everyone is responsible for their own trash. You stick it in your pocket and take it home to throw it away. 

Though rooted in a 1995 incident when a terrorist hid a bomb in a trash can, resulting in a new policy on trash management, most of the cleanliness is based on societal responsibility. It would simply be rude to ask someone else to deal with your trash problem. 

What I loved most about Japan was its respectful culture. 


I’m walking down the hall in my hotel when the maid at her cart stops, steps out, and fully bows to me. I in turn stopped and bowed to her. After picking something up in my room, when I encountered her a few minutes later, we both bowed again. And subsequently dozens of times over the course of our stay.

Everyone bows to everyone. Everyone is respectful to everyone, to the point that you actually look forward to encountering someone you can help.

And there is no tipping in Japan. The one time we attempted to tip someone for helping us in a difficult situation, that person refused to accept it.


Precision is another part of the culture. It’s not enough to put things away; the people focus on doing things properly. For instance, lining up all the shoes on the floor so they look perfect. If giving a gift (a major part of the culture), they are interested in the aesthetic of precision and beautiful wrapping. Every shelf in every store is pristine and perfect, and the package design of most products is done with excellence. People in our group were taking pictures of candy and cake boxes because they were so beautiful.

I’ve come to understand that Japan’s lack of crime or dirt comes from the idea of honoring others, feeling the need to be obligated and responsible to others, and going out of one’s way to be helpful. 

What if we were more like that?

What if we took more personal responsibility to go out of our way to help others? 

What if we showed our respect for others?

What if we made sure everything was pristine because we wanted to please others?

During part of our tour we visited the Holbein paint company factory where they make all their water-based products like watercolor, gouache, acrylic, and water-soluble oil paints. They took us through the entire factory, showed us how the paint was made, and even ran a line of paint for us to experience it firsthand. Not only was the experience eye-opening, the experience was about precision and cleanliness. In other factories I’ve visited I’ve seen rusty old machinery and trash on the floor, but at Holbein things were perfectly maintained, well painted, clean, and operated with perfection. 

Can You Say Kodawari?

Steve Jobs used to talk about a Japanese term that was about making things beautiful and perfect, inside and out, even the inside of the machine that no one ever sees.

I’ve since learned there is a concept called kodawari, which sums up Japanese culture. I found this definition online.

Kodawari ( こだわり in Japanese) means the pursuit of perfection. It is passion, persistence, commitment, and attention to detail. It is so beautiful because, once you have truly connected to it, one word can be a placeholder for an entire world view.

The key to kodawari is that it is personal in nature. It is partially rooted in pride, but not the petty kind. It is the kind of personal pride that you feel when you are alone and you know that you did your best. It comes from that deeper presence inside your head that watches you and knows when you are cutting corners. Whenever you ignore this discipline, you feel weaker, and when you engage with it, you feel stronger.

Such discipline is not rooted in some grandiose scheme to impress others or to achieve external validation. It is your personal standard, and it is how you foster self-respect. While you appreciate the beauty it creates along the way, you also realize that you never fully arrive anywhere. You can always be better. 

I’m sure there are lots of invisible problems or issues I did not see in Japan, but I love this idea of doing things well, being the best you can be …  just because. Knowing perfection isn’t possible, but striving for it in everything you do brings you closer to it.

I experienced this everywhere in Japan. Even public restrooms had automated electric heated toilet seats, and the stores had more variety and excellence than any stores I’ve ever experienced. 

From what I can tell, it starts with respect for others, which drives us to do the best possible for everyone we encounter. Not because they can do something for us, not because they are more important than we are, but because all humans deserve our respect and our best.

That’s why I encourage you to take a bow.

Eric Rhoads

PS: One my first day back doing my daily YouTube show, Art School Live, someone wrote in the comments, “You look 10 years younger.” I joked that I’d really slipped away for plastic surgery, but my more youthful look was rooted in getting away from stress and gaining a new perspective by visiting a new place. I recommend it.

At the end of our trip, I asked our attendees to tell me the best part, and everyone said it was the people they met on the trip and spent the time with. I love seeing people connecting and making friends through the things we offer. I agree that the people were the best part.

I love meeting new people and being thrown into a situation where we are together 12 hours a day for a week and a half. You can’t help but make friends. And I love when artists meet artists. I live to help others make these kinds of connections. The next chance to experience this is at our Plein Air Convention this May, which is down to less than 40 seats left.

My next international trip with a group is the Fine Art Connoisseur Behind the Scenes art collector trip this fall to Venice and Verona, but I’ve not yet decided where my next international painting trip will be.

Another place to get to know people is at Paint the Adirondacks (17 seats left), my spring painting retreat this June, and at Fall Color Week (27 seats left) this September.

You deserve to reward yourself with something to look forward to … a trip, a workshop, or an event!