There’s something about Kyoto that pleases me. There are grand castles and breathtaking gardens. The people are kind and the food is great. There are more places in Japan like that but Kyoto is special. The lamp glow is soft, the paper screens crisp, the incense seductive. It can’t all be a coincidence. I suspect there may be something called the Kyoto aesthetic. But how to define it?
For example, take a look at this rain chain or kusari-doi (鎖樋). Its function is to divert water from the roof into a rain barrel or drain. Lots of water, say, from a snowpack or torrential rain. In the West, we’d opt for something fast, easy, and above all, cheap. In Japan, even everyday objects like a rain chain deserve to be made beautiful.
Here, in Kyoto, I see that in the way a bamboo water ladle is positioned on a well and how delicately maple trees are pruned. There must be some underlying aesthetic principle that guides all these hands. I’ve heard the term wabi sabi but what exactly does it mean? And how, if at all, is it related to Kyoto?
Once upon a time, wabi was a pejorative term to describe a cheerless, miserable outcast. Someone like a lowly court official during the Heian period (794-1125 AD) whose greatest desire in life is to fill himself with yam gruel.
I would specify his name, but unfortunately it is not recorded in the ancient chronicles. Probably he was so ordinary a man as to be unworthy […]Akutagawa Ryunosuke, “Yam Gruel” in Rashomon and Other Stories (Tuttle Publishing 1952)
When Zen Buddhism came to Japan in the 14th century, wabi became a descriptor for a respected, even revered state of mind.
Wabi is “the joy of the little monk in his wind-torn robe,” a man content with very little, free from greed, indolence, and anger.Robyn Griggs Lawrence, Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House (New Society Publishers 2011)
Today, in the Raku Museum in Kyoto, you‘ll find wabi used to describe the making of tea bowls. For 15 generations, the Raku family has built bowls using nothing more than the warmth of their hand. For them, wabi is:
a humble simplicity of being natural, unostentatious and modest in opposite to being artificial, over-decorative and flamboyant.
The meaning of sabi has also evolved over time. The original meaning was “to be desolate.” Later, sabi became associated with the Buddhist concept of impermanence. Nothing and no one remains unchanged. A screen comes unraveled, an obi frays. Moss on a stone lantern is a form of sabi.
[Sabi] connotes natural progression—tarnish, hoariness, rust—the extinguished gloss of what once sparkled.Robyn Griggs Lawrence
Another word for sabi might be grime, as defined by the Japanese novelist Tanizaki Jun’ichirō. He was at his most prolific while living in Kyoto from the 1930s onwards, producing classics like The Makioka Sisters and a contemporary version of The Tale of the Genji.
At that time, Japan was modernizing at an incredible pace. For Tanizaki, modernization meant Westernization and thus the destruction of thousands of years of Japanese culture. He published an essay, In Praise of Shadows, to plea for preserving the patina of unpolished silver, the depths of lacquerware seen only in dim half-light, the glow of grime.
A polish that comes of being touched over and over again, a sheen produced by the oils that naturally permeate an object over long years of handling.Tanizaki Jun’ichirō, In Praise of Shadows (Leete’s Island Books 1977)
Diane Durston is a Kyoto aficionado. Her book helped me navigate Kyoto on my first trip and has remained my trusty companion on this return visit. She uses the term miyabi.
the elusive element of refinement and elegance that characterizes even the most common of everyday objects in the ancient capital city.Diane Durston, Old Kyoto: A Guide to Traditional Shops, Restaurants, and Inns (Kodansha 2005)
The wooden bucket, the bamboo shade, the indigo dyed fabric: these were once everyday objects in Kyoto. The men and women who made these things used the best ingredients and materials they could afford.
One craftsman would come into your home to build a tokonoma, an alcove reserved for the sole purpose of admiring art. Another would weave the silk for the single scroll and a third would carve the wooden vase to hold a simple flower arrangement. These craftsmen made products to last generations.
Today the craftsman decorates where once he filled a daily need; his products are costly where once they were commonplace; he has become an artist where once he was a nameless craftsman. There was no word for ‘art’ in the Japanese language until the nineteenth century.Diane Durston
Tanizaki Jun’ichirō would probably object to a Kyoto guidebook like Durston’s. He was opposed to the idea of masters of the tea ceremony, the flower arrangement or calligraphy. He did not want to freeze these ancient Japanese arts into some artificial form but see them grow and flourish.
The appreciation of any art or craft lies foremost in being alive to its beauty. In that respect, the Japanese aesthetic cannot differ so much from Western concepts. To sense beauty is to experience it. Call it, if you will, a form of mindfulness.
Yet there is a fundamental difference in the nature of beauty sought. AC Grayling compares Tanizaki’s notions of beauty with those of Walter Pater. The former seeks tranquility while the latter desires arousal: To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy.
I’m wondering how wabi sabi might apply to a trip like mine: a 7 month journey around the world. Today is day 100 and I realize that I’ve treated my trip like an extended holiday. I go out each day in the hope of discovering something spectacular. When I return at night, I feel empty and bored. It seems that I’ve been looking for a Pater kind of beauty. Perhaps what I need is the Tanizaki sort.
Incense is one of those Kyoto crafts you can find in both a temple and an art gallery. It, too, has a long history with a vocabulary all its own. For example, the Japanese do not use the verb kagu, to smell, in relation to incense. The correct term is kiku, to listen.
The dying stick of incense defines an interval of silence, the composure of meditation, the moments that are, as the saying goes, “so quiet you can hear the powdered ash of incense fall.”Diane Durston