Japan's concept of unique moments: How 'ichi-go ichi-e' changes how you think about travel

It feels a little weird to say that I learned about Zen Buddhist philosophy from an old Anthony Bourdain episode, but here we are. I learned about Zen Buddhist philosophy from an old Anthony Bourdain episode.

This was his CNN show, Parts Unknown, an episode called "Japan with Masa", in which Bourdain travels with New York-based sushi chef Masa Takayama to Kanazawa, Tokyo and beyond. In one scene, the pair join a group of Takayama's old friends in a country house in Yamanaka Onsen to grill food, drink sake, and enjoy each other's company.

And that's when Takayama introduces an ancient Japanese concept: Ichi-go ichi-e.

Though the literal translation of this phrase is "one time, one meeting", the concept is better described as "for this time only", or "once in a lifetime". It means, essentially, that this moment is unique – it will never happen again. Even if you get these same people together in this same place and do these same things, the moment will never be the same. This moment, right now, will never take place again.

And so "ichi-go ichi-e" is a concept designed to appreciate and celebrate that fact. It's a reminder that this moment, right now, is beautiful and amazing and entirely unique. It will never, ever happen again. So, you better enjoy it.

I've been thinking about that ever since. It's been days now, a week maybe, since I saw that old episode, and it's been on my mind constantly.

Maybe I'm a little late the party, but I had never heard of ichi-go ichi-e before (and this from someone who's fairly obsessed with Japan). The history of the concept can be traced back to Japanese tea ceremonies, and in particular to 16th-century tea master Sen no Rikyu, who instructed his apprentices to give respect to their hosts as though it were a meeting that could only occur once in a lifetime.

The idea was refined to become ichi-go ichi-e, and it developed links to Zen Buddhism; eventually, it was even linked to the singular mindset required for Japanese martial arts.

But why, you might think, was this so profound for me to discover, and how does it relate to travel?


Essentially, it puts a name to something I've been pursuing for a long time now. I'm a huge believer in never trying to recreate old travel experiences. You can revisit the same destinations if you love them, you can go back to the same venues, but each time you should do it afresh, because it will never be the same. It will never feel the same. The key to successful, enjoyable travel is accepting that.

I've also written before about "moments", these tiny segments of time that define our travelling lives, that become our memories, that we treasure forever. We tend not to remember whole journeys, or days or even hours, but fleeting moments of travelling perfection, when things just fall into place and you have this almost out-of-body experience and suddenly appreciate the joy and the wonder and the incredible good fortune of the thing you happen to be doing.

I travelled once with a guy who used to yell out, "I'm having a moment!" He'd do this on a hiking trail, in a bar, on a street corner. Just a recognition of perfection. Little did he know, I'm sure, that he was following an ancient Zen Buddhist practise.

There's something so profoundly beautiful about recognising 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 achieve will succeed in making this real again.

So you enjoy it. You live it and breathe it and taste it and touch it. You celebrate it for all its worth.

If you're thinking that this sounds very much like the trendy modern concept of "mindfulness", then you're probably right. And though I shudder a little as I write this, I think I agree with it.

I've made conscious attempts during my travelling life to appreciate moments, and to recognise that they will never happen again. That knowledge, I think, makes you even more aware of the amazing fortune that we travellers have to be able to see the world in a way that's designed entirely for our enjoyment.

I've always tried to accept, too, that all the friends I make when I travel will go their separate ways eventually, and these times we share will never be relived. Sure, I'll meet up with them again, in different places, under different circumstances, and that will be great too – but we will all have changed. Everything will have changed. We can never go back.

You have to celebrate the people around you and the times you share at the exact moment you have them there in front of you. That's 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 travelling life? Or to your life in general? What do you remember as the greatest moments of your travel?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

Twitter: twitter.com/bengroundwater

See also: I changed Siri to an Irish accent during COVID and I'm not changing her back

See also: The best of the best: My ultimate 11 travel bucket list experiences

LISTEN: Flight of Fancy - the Traveller.com.au podcast

To subscribe to the Traveller.com.au podcast Flight of Fancy on iTunes, click here. To listen on Spotify, click here.

Join the Flight of Fancy community on Facebook