Friday, July 31, 2015

The Art Of Impermanence: A Journey to the Heart of Old Japan

The Japanese view of life embraced a simple aesthetic that grew stronger as inessentials were eliminated and trimmed away. ~ Takao Ando, architect

Ikebana: beauty pared down to its essence

Pared to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection, impermanence and incompleteness, a deep reverence for authenticity, austere simplicity and the gift of time that blooms with each passing moment. 

Perfect beauty with just the right touch of imperfection reflects handmade craftsmanship that endows an object with deep meditative value as we observe how it changes with the passage of time. Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. This ideal of harmony and balance is the essence of Japanese culture.

Japanese Garden Entrance

In search of the spirit of old Japan, I embarked for Kanazawa from Tokyo, a four hour ride reduced to two-and-a-half hours on the latest bullet train. Traveling on an aerodynamic speeding train from the urban city to the rural countryside was a journey from the future back into the past.

I found the real Japan outside Tokyo, picturesque rice terraces, salt farms, fishing villages, and UNESCO World Heritage sites with 250-400 year old gassho-zukuri houses (traditional homes built with steep thatched roofs that resemble two hands joined in prayer to let heavy snow slide off easily). Reaching places where sake is brewed by 14th generation artisans and families produced soy sauce for 140 years provides a glimpse into the past where the spirit of wabi sabi is rooted. 

Japan is a place where a sake master maintains the mysterious power of nature in his brew, a paper maker produces washi the slowest way in order not to lose the integrity of nature, and a master wood turner expresses his reverence for nature in the variety of indigenous trees he uses.

Wood Turned Bowls

"Washoku," Japanese cuisine recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, is the essential spirit of respect for nature that relates to sustainable use of natural resources. This spirit of "washoku" in Japanese cuisine continues with a ryokan owner whose father was one of two famous "ishiri" masters (ishiri is a fish sauce made of fermented squid intestines and salt), and evolves with innovators like a gelato maker using ingredients like sake, beer, salt, soy sauce, matcha, adzuki red beans, to create award winning flavors. 

In a world where modern Japanese have abandoned hand turned lacquerware for easy wash plastic faux lacquer, prefer imported whiskey to artisanal sakes, and no longer value the difference between soba made the traditional way and fast food noodles, these master craftsmen and artisans are slowly disappearing. Yet their appreciation for the beauty of simple things and their connection to nature is preserved in the aesthetic of wabi sabi. 

Toko Shinoda's sumi-e ink painting

The art of finding beauty in impermanence and imperfection, of revering authenticity above all is difficult to translate into words. A story that illustrates this purity of authenticity is related in the origins of the tea ceremony.

According to Japanese legend, a young man named Sen no Rikyu sought to learn the elaborate set of customs known as the Way of Tea. He went to tea-master Takeeno Joo, who tested the aspiring apprentice by asking him to tend the garden. Rikyu cleaned up debris and raked the ground until it was perfect, then scrutinized the immaculate garden. Before presenting his work to the master, he shook a cherry tree, causing a few flowers to spill randomly onto the ground. 

Japanese Tea Ceremony "The Way of Tea"

This philosophy of seeing beauty in simple things: the fading of autumn leaves, the chip in our favorite ceramic bowl, the random patterns of fallen petals on the ground, changes our perception of the world. 

Bringing wabi-sabi into our life doesn’t require anything but a quiet mind to appreciate muted beauty, courage not to fear bareness, willingness to accept things as they are—without ornamentation. It depends on the ability to slow down, to shift from doing to being, to appreciating rather than perfecting, creating balance and harmony from this place of spiritual longing for solitude, stillness and tranquility.

Transcendence to a simpler life is the ability to make do with less. Inscribed in calligraphy on a stone basin for ritual hand washing at the entrance of the Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto are the words: "I am content with what I lack." Practicing to make do with less ultimately reveals the still center within that manifests when we can live fully with what we lack.

Leonard Cohen, a singer who was also a Zen monk for some time, wrote these lyrics which express the beauty of imperfection: 
           Forget your perfect opening
           There's a crack in everything
           That's how the light gets in. 

Light from cracks within: read the full story here

Paige Bradley's Expansion (the image pictured here) celebrates the Japanese philosophy of kintsugi, "the art of healing broken pieces" by incorporating damaged parts. The aesthetic of making it part of the object's history results in something more beautiful than the original.