Wabi-sabi, Savvy?

Wabi-sabi (?) represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”” – from Wikipedia


In a previous post, I mentioned how strongly Japanese aesthetics appeal to me and affect me. One of the things I really love about it is the way it embraces imperfections and make them part of the whole – such a paradox, perfecting things by letting them remain imperfect. Turns out the Japanese have a specific word for it: Wabi-sabi. Author Andrew Juniper nails it for me:  “if an an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi.” Last December in Kyoto I again had the chance to explore this aesthetic some more.


The grand vistas of autumn giving way to winter and the magnificent architecture of the temples were too big for me to feel that vibe in though. Instead, I found my mind’s eye drawn to the smaller things, the details a traveler in a hurry – specially if with family or a tour group – might overlook. My wife Cathy and I agreed to each do our own thing at every site we visited, reuniting only at predetermined rendezvouz on our way out or for meal breaks. This way we got to enjoy the side of Kyoto we sought in our own ways, alone with our thoughts. I think it’s the best way to enjoy all those temples and shrines.


I really appreciate the organic nature of Japanese Buddhist and Shinto art, and the way it’s used in their outdoor shrines. Transience is celebrated in submitting to the rhythms of life and the seasons: stone statues losing their sharp detail as they’re gracefully eaten by moss, fallen leaves left as the are, cracks and lichen allowed to grow on inscribed stelae and give them a patina of age, an ancient pine preserved for the wonderful texture of its weathered trunk.






Even damage is accepted and becomes part of the whole, like the log column supporting a torii. Life marches on, these things seem to say. Time cannot be denied. Everything dies in its time. But in Kyoto, the inevitable comes … gracefully.



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