It may be surprising to some that a country like Japan, a world leader in regards to producing new technology, is still deeply connected to its history and traditions. Practices that may seem antiquated to many are still very much alive and well, and can produce some of the most revered and respected wares. The idea of wabi-sabi originally came from the Buddhist teachings of impermanence, suffering and emptiness, the “three marks of existence.” But wabi-sabi is also an aesthetic or style that can be tied to some of Japan’s most popular crafts, art forms and landscapes.
What is Wabi-Sabi?
While two mass produced tea cups will likely look identical, without a flaw or individual characteristic to set them apart, hand-crafted cups are often asymmetric or imperfect, and it is these minuscule flaws make them unique, give them the character that is lacking in more standard wares.
It is a genuinely difficult concept to understand, one which people dedicate their entire life to unravelling. Picking the Japanese word apart, Wabi means refinement or appreciating simplicity, while Sabi speaks to elegance and having a classic or antique air. A simple example would be an English and Japanese garden; both are beautiful, but while an English garden may abound with colourful flowers, chirping birds and buzzing bees, a traditional Japanese garden is much more subdued, undeniably sophisticated, peaceful and graceful. To understand Wabi-Sabi, you must experience it, so below are just a few locations you can visit to try and unravel the depth of this unique style.
Where to find Wabi-Sabi
The easiest way for tourists to enjoy wabi-sabi may be for them to partake in a green tea ceremony, during which you will no doubt drink from a hand-crafted tea cup in the wabi-sabi style, it being large, uneven and uniquely decorated. Tea Ceremony Ju-an in Kyoto is particularly popular, with its tatami mat rooms, serene gardens and kimono-clad waiting staff.
If you would like to see a wabi-sabi influenced garden, Kenrokuen in Ishikawa Prefecture is widely regarded as one of the best gardens in Japan, especially as the area gets a generous amount of snowfall come winter time, making the garden even more breathtaking. Rocks, plants, streams and paths have strategically been placed throughout the garden to facilitate true harmony between the artificial gardens and nature itself. Among the sights is an ancient pine tree that is said to be over two centuries old. The tree has gigantic, exposed roots - it was planted on a mound, and the earth was carefully removed from between the roots once the tree had grown. This rugged beauty is yet another example of the wabi-sabi aesthetic.
Art lovers will adore the Adachi Museum of Art in Shimane Prefecture, which has works by renowned artist Taikan Yokoyama. But perhaps the museum's most exquisite attraction is their 165,000 square meters of Japanese gardens that surround the complex. Zenko Adachi, the late founder of the museum, referred to the gardens as “one more painting” and their seamless inclusion at the museum shows how beauty can be constructed in a variety of ways.
The Yomitan Pottery Village in Okinawa not only has exquisite wares, but they also have a pottery class where you can get some hands-on experience and make your own masterpieces. It's great to have an actual tactile object to keep your memories fresh and is a great bonus to the whole experience. Don't worry if your creation is a little wobbly; you can always claim to be a wabi-sabi expert.