It wasn't until I lived in Japan that I gave much thought to the word hobby. While studying Japanese in university, we had to engage in that weekly practice that is the tedium of language students everywhere: the role play. Asked to memorize pat phrases that one is likely to never use, Japanese 101 students learned seemingly unnecessary words and phrases, such as: あなたの趣味は何ですか？[anatano shumiwa nandesuka]
What is your hobby?
Surely there could be no less useful sentence for a gaijin on the ground in Tokyo than this, right? WRONG!
When I entered Koriyama First Junior High School in 2003, I answered that question 40 times per class, seven classes per day. 280 times daily, over and over again, for weeks on end. Then, I discovered that this was a common get-to-know-you question whenever engaging a new person in conversation. That, and "Who is your favorite Disney character?"
(Answer: I didn't have one until I moved to Japan, then I quickly adopted Donald Duck to avoid the blank stares that followed from my students when I didn't have a favorite Disney character.)
The point is, it became clear that あなたの趣味は何ですか is an important question in Japan because everyone actually has a hobby. Adults included. And I LOVED this!
Even adults have a hobby. In an incredibly driven and hard-working society, people make time to value leisure pursuits! Now, THAT is a concept I can get behind.
I quickly dove into finding my hobby. In my late twenties at the time, it had been years since I reserved time for an individual interest or prioritized learning something new apart from technical aspects of my work. So I chose to select a hobby, a new pursuit uniquely "Japanese," that I could take away when I inevitably moved.
There were flower arranging (生け花 ikebana) classes at the local cultural center that a friend quickly joined, but that wasn't to my interest. I tried calligraphy (書道 shodou) with a lovely instructor, but nearly fell asleep in my inkwell after long days at work. And I enjoyed hiking on weekends anyway, so that didn't qualify as learning something new. Nor as uniquely Japanese.
Then one day at school, the students began the introductory unit in Music class on a traditional instrument called koto* (箏). I listened from the doorway before the Music teacher and Master Koto guest instructor invited me in and suggested I sit alongside seventh graders to learn about this important element of cultural patrimony.
I had found my hobby!
For the rest of my time in Japan, I took weekly koto classes from Watanabe-sensei. We went to cultural events and I hosted recitals for her and her shakuhachi-playing duet partner. And even on those nights when I was exhausted and would've fallen in the inkwell at a calligraphy class, I enjoyed learning a few awkwardly plucked traditional songs on that incredibly beautiful and haunting instrument. I had a unique connection with someone who I might otherwise never have met, and I learned the importance of shumi (a hobby).
As we get older and our lives become increasingly complex, it is all too easy to forget ourselves. I, too, wake WAY before dawn, leave before my family is out of bed, work at a rewarding (yet demanding) profession, and then come home to be a mother, a wife, and a friend.
But I've come to understand that we each must have something that is uniquely ours. We need a passion or interest to revitalize our spirits and invigorate our minds. THAT is shumi.
What's your hobby?
*Koto is in the zither family and is one of several traditional instruments along with shamisen (三味線), shakuhachi (尺八), and taiko (和太鼓), which are a stringed instrument, a bamboo flute, and a drum, respectively. Click this link to hear koto music, which sounds similar to harp, by Michio Miyagi on the traditional 13-string instrument.