As the pandemic wears on, so do our digital lives. Screens have become an integral feature of daily life, facilitating how we work, connect with loved ones, shop, order food and find entertainment.
While various lockdowns and states of emergency have become the “new normal” around the world, we have all retreated into our digital devices. Perhaps too eagerly: Numerous empirical studies have recorded a growing trend of screen time during COVID-19 — and the Apple Screen Time function has left many shocked at the amount of time they have racked up on their devices. The hours spent bingeing TV series, doomscrolling, election-watching, Zooming friends and family and watching endless TikTok videos add up.
Surely all of that screen time can’t be good for us. Studies show that heavy use of electronic devices before bed suppresses melatonin production, a hormone that helps balance the sleep cycle, and negatively impacts our sleeping patterns. A separate study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania provides evidence that using social media can also increase depression, anxiety and loneliness.
With the second state of emergency still in effect in numerous cities in Japan, for the time being there’s no escaping our smartphones or laptops. And while it’s easy to recommend ways to reduce digital diets by, say, keeping technology out of the bedroom, that’s not always simple if, like many people in Japan, you live in a studio apartment.
A more realistic option is setting a limit to the amount of time spent online. Doing a “digital detox” might not be easy, but to make it less punishing, here’s an array of analog activities you could try out instead. Maybe it’s time to put down the phone and pick up a new skill.
Become a shogi grandmaster
Interest in chess has skyrocketed thanks to the millions of viewers who streamed Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit.” Originating in India as chaturanga, the checkered board game evolved into different variants around the world, and the Japanese version is called shogi. While in Russia you might find groups of older guys playing chess in parks, green spaces in Japan are occasionally frequented with men of the same ilk crowding around shogi games.
Written with characters that mean “general’s board game,” shogi sets can be picked up for around ¥1,400 from big department stores such as Aeon Style or specialized gaming stores. Don’t be daunted by the kanji on the pieces — they quickly become easy to recognize, and learning how to play is all part of the fun. Free online courses and videos (yes, it’s more upfront digital learning, but for a good analog cause), such as the popular “How to Play Shogi” YouTube series from Hidechi, can help. Who knows, before long you might even find yourself joining in at an appropriate distance with the geezers in the park.
Elevate your handwriting
With all that time spent tapping on keyboards, relying on autocorrect and selecting the appropriate emoji, handwriting has really taken a hit. Since merely writing lines is no fun, perhaps you can level up your hand-eye coordination by trying out Japanese calligraphy.
An integral part in the development of the Japanese writing system, shodō (“way of writing”) was first introduced to Japan via China in the sixth century, but its roots in Chinese calligraphy go back centuries further.
“Under the guise of a paintbrush, the streets become a pictorial show. The Japanese written language transforms daily life into a series of pictures, an imaged vocabulary,” muses the narrator of a 1950s documentary about Japanese calligraphy. “Through calligraphy, writing has remained a work of art.”
There are a number of different tools used to create modern calligraphy, but the basics are essentially the same. Books such as “An Introduction to Japanese Calligraphy” (2016) by Yuuko Suzuki lead learners through the “four treasures of the study” (brush, ink, inkstone and paper). The artist has only one chance to draw a character, so in essence each one should show confidence and fluidity — a sure challenge for a brain used to tapping the delete button to correct mistakes. You can pick up the basic shodo trappings — fude (brushes), sumi, suzuri (inkstone) and washi paper — from just about any 100-yen store.
Patch things up
When the world feels like it’s falling apart at the seams, taking some time to repair something can be cathartic. Translating as “golden joinery,” kintsugi is the perfect way to turn your broken or chipped crockery into beautiful pieces of art by using lacquer and metallic powder. The philosophy behind kintsugi is one of finding meaning in broken things, the visible cracks becoming part of the object’s story.
Luckily, learning the art of kintsugi is fairly straightforward with at-home kits available from the likes of Tokyu Hands and online at Mejiro Japan. Marketed for beginners, the kits come with all of the essential items needed to fix chips and cracks including urushi (lacquer), brushes, polishing materials and gold powder; some will include English instructions.
It’s a chance to think about the very Zen notion of seeing beauty in the imperfect. At the very least it will always be a conversation starter: “That old bowl I fixed with gold? Oh, that’s just something I learned to do in the pandemic.”
But wait, there’s more
Perhaps a more inexpensive Japanese skill might pique your fancy. Traditional sashiko embroidery techniques offer the chance to jazz up plain fabrics; there are plenty of publications dedicated to sashiko. You could also opt to keep it relatively simple by picking up a packet of origami paper: Now is as good a time as any to attempt the senbazuru — stringing together 1,000 folded cranes for extra luck in 2021.
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