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Spring Cleaning and My Experience with the KonMari Method

End of January. Finals week. If you’re a student, you know what the house looks like: five loads of laundry (two of them already clogging the machine), unwashed dishes heaped in the sink, unswept floors, crumpled clothes lounging on the bed, a mini-library forming over the desk and a fridge with only a few eggs, some onions, leftover rice and a carton of expired milk.

In between writing final reports, studying for exams and eating too much egg fried rice, I was reading a self-help cleaning guide titled ‘The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up’ by the internationally acclaimed organizing consultant and expert Marie Kondo. Though famous (and infamous) world over for many of her philosophies regarding tidying, materialism and home maintenance, I found her writing voice refreshing yet compassionate as she pointed out every cleaning ‘sin’ I was inadvertently committing (keeping items in bulk, ignoring growing piles, using the bed as a makeshift closet, etc) but also while offering tips, solutions and non-judgmental suggestions. Glancing around my room as she spoke about objects sparking joy, creating a de-cluttered space for personal inspiration, and coming down to the basics to live life to the fullest, I realized that I needed help. 


Via Pinterest  


Though a relatively tidy person with a strong inclination to keep things ordered (yes, I’m that girl who straightens bottles at the supermarket and winces at hair strands in public bathroom sinks) I found my frequent cleaning rituals were a waste of time at best and exhausting at worst. I thought I was lazy and untidy.

The problem, according to Ms. Marie Kondo? I had too many things. After a cursory look, I had to agree and decided to listen to someone else’s advice for about the first time in my life. 

I blasted through the book, turned over the last page and surging with new determination, I decided to de-clutter my 20 square meter apartment and completely turn my life around, maybe become a minimalist and even solve some world problems in the process with all my newfound energy and willpower. So I put up with the chaos until finals ended and once spring began, I canceled all appointments and social meetings for a week and blockaded myself at home to carry out a deep cleaning session at one unbroken shot, just as the expert suggested. 


Via konmari.com


The KonMari method is generally considered a kind of minimalism, since its main objective is to discard and then organize the remaining things which are naturally in significantly smaller numbers. Minimalism and the general concept of cleaning up one’s house by discarding a large percentage of personal belongings has been praised but in recent times, also brutally criticized as an act that signifies excess privilege since it demands financial affluence in order to be assured of the fact that anything accidentally thrown out can instantly be replaced. According to many people against minimalism, ‘filled-up’ homes with spares and extras of day-to-day materials is more the norm for lower to middle-income households. I had to agree (throw out 80% of your still functional things and replace them with designer piece to live up to some sort of rich Spartan aesthetic? Umm, no thanks). As a University student, I found myself falling into the same habit but soon realized that having so many objects surrounding my physical person didn’t really soothe me as I had expected it would, but just made me more anxious and irritable. The fact that I would one day have to drag all of my accumulated stuff back home over the sea and pay for shipping and boxing and postage just made me more agitated and eager to set myself free. 

As a third-year studying abroad in Tokyo and living alone in a twenty square meter apartment, I wanted to try a small experiment and see if Marie Kondo's style of minimalism could be applied on a student’s budget, so I started keeping track of my costs of cleaning (the list is at the bottom of this post) and decided to give it a go in the name of journalistic investigation.  As a disclaimer here, I should mention that a lot of the steps I took and decisions I made might not be possible for those who aren’t able-bodied, or readers who have underlying medical conditions, or even people who live with roommates, family members or look after young children. This post is not in any way a 'self-help' guide or motivational message, but a simple record of my personal experience and a way to share the strategy which worked for me. 

So here it goes…

Marie Kondo has clear directions for revitalizing one’s home and I kept the e-book guide right next to me as I worked diligently under her virtual supervision. (I'm not rich or messy enough to be able to afford one of her private consultations, though she does share interesting stories from her former clients' homes.)


Via the writer's personal collection


First of all, Marie Kondo rejects notions such as cleaning by room, spreading the activity over many days or even making rational choices as opposed to emotional ones. Her method involves cleaning by category (clothes, books, papers, miscellaneous items, sentimental items), spreading out everything in one place for inspection and then taking each item by hand to see if it ‘sparks joy’ and making one’s choices to keep the item based on the feelings it elicits, rather than a logical response.

As whimsical as it sounded, I made a gigantic pile with all my freshly laundered clothes, some of which I had been using since 2013, and began the process.

I took up a slightly stained white shirt with gold sequins in my hand. “Does this spark joy?”

I searched myself hard but the only reaction I could dredge from my soulless, cold and unfeeling inside was a slight pang of hunger. The lifeless cotton shirt flopped in my hands, waiting to be judged. It was a well worn article that had lost most of its pristine original color and to top it off, the side seams were starting to split. And yet, I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away. I’d bought the shirt during a family vacation to Europe over five years previously and just touching it reminded me of walking through the sleek Geneva mall on a chilly afternoon with a camera slung around my wrist, chatting with my mother, trying on stylish tops with my sister and remembering how my dad didn’t even bother to look at the price when it was something one of his children chose but just pulled out his card to pay. Indecisive, I sent a photo to my mother, asking what she thought of the shirt’s condition and secretly hoping she’d choose for me. The reply came: “You still have that old thing? It’s completely lost color, throw it away!”

I couldn’t consign it to the trash bag that was waiting even after that verdict, so I tried applying another of Marie Kondo’s tricks as a last resort: thanking the item for what it had done for me in order to severe sentimental ties with it. 

“Thank you, Swiss shirt,” I ventured, feeling immensely grateful that I lived alone, “you saved my unfashionable ass and made me look actually decent when I went out to see cool people and I really appreciate the five years of hard work you’ve put in even though I clearly spilled something yellow and oily on you while we were eating out together. Um…please take care of yourself and goodbye.” As ridiculous as it sounds, I felt a lot more at peace then and in less excruciating pain as I gently folded the garment and placed it away for recycling. I had attained closure. 


Via the writer's personal collection


Still, my middle-class tendencies rebelled against the idea of throwing out…well, anything really. After much struggling, I had five bags of clothes in good, usable condition to donate. Studying them for a moment and then glancing back at the things I had decided to keep, I saw the clear divide of what ‘sparked joy’ and what hadn’t. The articles I’d chosen for myself, usually loose, androgynous, comfortable and in neutral shades of black, cream and white were more often than not the ones that I saved. Meanwhile, the items that went out for disposal were tight, form-fitting and revealing; they were gifts from others who hadn’t really understood my style, or in colors I hated like magenta, scarlet, brown, pink and yellow. I resolved then to be a more conscious shopper, considering that I now had a better understanding of my own preferences. In case you're wondering how I disposed off my clothes without guilt, you can learn more here

Books were easier, I’ll admit. As a study abroad student, I was strict about keeping my collection small and even now, I read mostly off my laptop or on a Kindle. I kept 90% of the books pictured in the pile with the exception of a few old guidebooks, magazines and manuals that I’d forgotten about at the back of my closet and tied them up for recycling.


Via the writer's personal collection


The next day, my entire floor was painted white from the scattered papers and documents I was trying to sort, though I didn’t really bother to thank any of them, instead ripping up the more personal documents and shoving them into separate bags with a hissed ‘screw you’. I’d been keeping paid bills from over two years previously and it was pleasant to see them all go for the last time. 


Via the writer's personal collection


Before I could move onto the next step, however, all my grand plans came to a halt. I fell sick from the exertion of cleaning for hours on end without a break and the amount of dust raining down from all my excavating.

For close to a week I lay in bed, barely able to move a muscle and yet stuck with nothing to do but exult in the most hideous room of my life. Every object was out of its place, closets spilled their innards to the floor, garbage bags were blockading the hallway and balcony, there was dust and spiders everywhere and I was unable to even cook myself a decent meal. It was an added psychological burden to feeling sick and I stared around, just nauseated by all the things around me, seemingly watching me suffer. Suddenly enraged, I wanted everything to go and forced myself to keep cleaning through the sickness, a tissue box constantly by my side. People around me were convinced that I’d lost my mind. 

Looking back on it now, being sick was a valuable addition to my cleaning journey because it made me realize how little I truly needed to survive. I washed the same four or five dishes again and again to prepare my meals instead of the twenty to thirty cooking utensils I had stored in cupboards. And when I was marginally better, I took a good look at my dusty futon (the real Japanese-style one that separates the sleeper from the floor by barely an inch) and decided to get rid of the entire thing altogether in favor of a straw tatatmi mat. Because let’s be real, who really takes their futon out to the balcony and beats it up once a month? (Or was that once a week? I forget.) 

So in came the minimalistic bed. The tatami is wonderful, I like the fresh scent of the reeds, and wake up in the mornings without a stiff back. However, I’d like to note here that I personally have considerable experience sleeping on everything from hard sofas to outdoor ground, so the switch was easier but it’s not something I’d recommend for everyone.


Via the writer's personal collection


Once I recovered, I moved onto miscellaneous items, getting rid of everything from expired medicine and used shampoo cartons to mouldy Tupperware and event freebies.

Finally, came the sentimental items: photos, letters, cards and notes. I thought I would struggle again, but I’d lost most of my humanity back while sorting clothes (the exact reason Marie Kondo suggests doing personal items last) and it was easy for me to gracefully acknowledge and then put away casual letters I no longer needed and dispose of old film negatives, photos with people I no longer spoke to, cheap gifts, empty postcards, and handmade bookmarks. The most precious things, however, I still keep in a memory box and now, my esteem for them has grown greater.

My neighbors continue to be horrified by the amount of garbage one small human girl can manage to generate and really, so am I. However, after hitting rock bottom, my house is slowly starting to come together in what constitutes my ideal living space. The closets need rearranging and I do need to get rid of a few last bags of non-burnable trash but I see more of the floor than I ever did, there’s considerably less dust everywhere and my closets have never been so open and inviting before. Remembering the effort it took to bring my apartment to that stage, I’m not at all tempted to run out shopping again any time soon. My wallet sighs in relief and it’s no longer choking on dozens of receipts and bills. 

Cleaning the things I kept out of guilt (poorly chosen gifts, foods I didn’t like) or compulsion (old textbooks, music notes) helped me appreciate my real hobbies and now on my dresser, instead of a school mascot I’d gotten for free and a stack of messy assignment sheets, I display my favorite photographs and small collection of vintage cameras and film rolls that beg me to pick them up whenever I walk past, instead of having to dig them out of a box somewhere. My desk space now only contains the essentials and when I sit down each morning, I'm ready to work instead of trying to cajole myself into conjuring up more empty space. 


Via the writer's personal collection


Overall, I feel calmer now. It dawned on me that as an introvert, I tend to pull inward and do most of my thinking and strategizing on a personal level rather than discussing ideas with others or drawing up physical plans. In other to balance that intense level of internal concentration, a canvas-like and empty external space without too much stimuli is best for me to de-stress after university or other commitments. This is the same reason I avoid working in cafés, libraries or public study rooms: there’s just too much around me. 

The KonMari method (named after author Marie Kondo) is definitely not perfect: I still find myself unable to throw away perfectly usable things like spare pens, folders, formal shirts and shoes even if they don’t please me 100%. (Honestly, I wouldn’t own a single t-shirt bra if I followed her ‘spark joy’ principle without exception.) Also, I realize that having a less-than-enthusiastic roommate, partner or even children would have complicated the clean-up process greatly. Finally, I will continue to tie my socks into a ball because folding them into self-standing squares is asking a little too much of my patience. 

Overall, by taking ownership of the minimalism concept and tailoring it to my own needs and abilities in combination with 'Kondo-ing' my home, I was definitely able to raise my standard of living and create a better working space for the rest of my time in college. I also came to a number of surprising conclusions about my own personality and preferences. If you’re interested, I definitely suggest giving the KonMari method a try, just for the sake of changing up your tidying routine and meditating on your lifestyle choices, if not anything more.

Happy spring cleaning to all of you!


Shopping List:

  1. Twenty sheets of 45 litre garbage bags: 260 JPY
  2. A pack of rubber bands: 200 JPY
  3. Cleaning spray: 320 JPY
  4. Disinfectant Tissues: 269 JPY
  5. Cost of disposing oversized garbage: 800 JPY
  6. Rope coil: 350 JPY
  7. Tatami mat: 2800 JPY


Photo credits: Cover Image via Flickr

22, INFJ, Sahana is an aspiring investigative journalist and writer studying at Waseda University. She loves reading, film photography, martial arts, writing fiction, debating, vanishing on unplanned hikes, listening to music and planning day trips. When she's not scribbling away, you'll find her searching Tokyo for the perfect cup of coffee, haunting the darkest part of a forest removed from humanity, or lost on the University campus and imploring seniors to decipher kanji for her. The average person has a 10/10 chance of getting into an argument with her.
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