A weekend with a 7000 year old tree

The Jomon Sugi The Jomon Sugi, “cedar tree from the Jomon era”, is on Yakushima, a small island in Japan. When it first started to grow, human beings were still in the Stone Age.

Pictures of the forests seemed other-worldly to me. So, thanks to gracious, meticulous planning by my wife, I set off to meet a friend and hike through a magical place.

In addition to observing natural beauty, I experienced elements of a culture I'd like to see inside more corporations.

Respect for time

Before dawn & our first hike

My trip from Kobe to the Yakushima mountains and back involved trains, buses, vans, planes, and a ferry. Every single one was on time - to the minute. And it wasn’t just the vehicles, but the people in them. Though we had to leave our hotel at 4am, our guide was on time as were the 2 other hikers in our tour as was every one of the 50+ people who had reserved a seat on our bus.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but things are less rushed, less stressful, when everyone and everything is on time. And when you don’t waste your time waiting for things, both your mood and and your productivity improves.

Respect for the environment

Mindful of where you've been & where you're going

After our first meal, I asked our guide “Where do we put our garbage?” “Motte kite,” he said. “You bring it with you.” The idea was to leave the mountain as untouched as possible. Extra miso soup? Drink it or carry it. Need to use a toilet after you’ve past the last one? Bag it and bring it back down. It’s why the small island is so pristine despite  300,000 visitors a year.

We showed respect for the inside environment, too, by removing our shoes and putting on slippers before we entered the hotel or onsen. Even before using a toilet, we’d remove our slippers and put on yet another pair of shoes.

Besides the hygienic benefits, these simple actions made you more mindful about where you are and where you’ve been.

Respect for people

Polite, respectful..."Konnichiwa!"

Throughout the trip, I noticed how everyone was so polite and helpful, mindful of how their actions might affect others. We never once worried about our things being safe. There was never jostling in line to get a ticket or to take a photo at a particularly beautiful spot.

One sign of respect I found particularly charming was how hikers acknowledged each other up and down the trail. I must have heard and said “Konnichiwa” a thousand times. A smile, eye contact, and that simple verbal handshake contributed to an atmosphere of good will, reminding us of our shared purpose and shared humanity.

Leading with generosity

Our guide for our 2nd hike

There isn’t any tipping in Japan. We paid the listed price for the tour and didn’t have to think about money for the rest of the trip.

So when a guide offered us snacks (like the surprisingly delicious salted seaweed “shio kombu”) I was able to accept them more readily. When they provided advice on things to wear or other trekking options, I wasn’t wondering “Is she trying to sell me something?” Since extra money wasn’t a motivation, I was able to appreciate and respect their contributions all the more.

Planning for good fortune

Deer in a clearing

After about 7 hours of walking, our guide asked us, “Are you up for taking a different route that’s a bit longer and more difficult?” The honest answer was “No.” But each of us was a bit too embarrassed to say so, and we agreed to take the other path.

Off the main trail, there were no other hikers and the forest seemed even more mysterious. After a steep climb, we entered a small clearing where some deer were grazing. Everything was so quiet. We sat with them for fifteen minutes or so, hushed, simply enjoying being present, being happy.

It wasn’t just luck, of course. The guide knew the spot well. And everyone in our group was in good shape and, aside from me, well-equipped. (Thankfully, my friend made up for my unpreparedness.) I noticed how the planning and preparation wasn’t just for efficiency, it was for agility, allowing us to take advantage of opportunities we’d have otherwise missed.

Constancy of purpose

A once-cleared forest is alive again

The forest is rich in cedar trees, ideal for making shingles. For hundreds of years, logging was the primary economic activity and whole areas were cleared. But in the late 1960s, around the time they re-discovered the Jomon-sugi, they stopped logging and began reforesting and reseeding the mountains.

Now, almost 50 years later, the once-cleared valley in this photo is full of trees. Now, a sizable part of the mountains is a World Heritage Site, and tourism comprises 50% of the economic activity on the island.

Could your corporate culture be like this?

How does everyone seem to share these values? There weren’t posters at the elevator telling you to have respect for time and for people. Instead, those behaviors were embedded and reinforced by how people spoke to each other. By actions large and small like when they showed up on time. By visual cues and shared rituals, like the slippers at your door, reminding you. And by social support, like having parents, teachers, and guides who share their knowledge and traditions.

Now, think about where you work.

Do people meet their commitments, including being on time for meetings? 

What’s the condition of the pantry, restrooms, and other shared spaces?

Do people greet each other and smile in the elevator?

Do you question people’s motivations for even simple gestures?

Does all your planning result in bureaucracy or allow you to be opportunistic?

Is all the work focused on just the next 6 or 12 months?

What struck me over this weekend in Yakushima was how simple and universal the positive cultural elements seemed to be. And how difficult it was to achieve anything nearly so positive inside big firms even when they had more resources.

If you have a corporate culture program at work, are you relying on just words to change things? Or are you doing much, much more to shape behavior in a positive way?