How to Experience Wabi-Sabi in Kyoto

Ask a Japanese person to explain the concept of wabi-sabi and you'll be meet with a pained looked of apprehension, confusion, and maybe a little bit of fear. It's not an easy concept to talk about, and I've had more than a few Japanese guides defer to me when it comes to talking about wabi-sabi in English. I'm definitely NOT an expert on the subject, but here goes:

At its simplest, wabi-sabi is an aesthetic design ideal that stresses the authentic over the artificial, the worn over the new, and the imperfect over the ideal. Wabi (侘) can refer to the imperfections of objects, the simplicity of everyday items that fulfill a function rather than a form. Sabi (寂) brings to mind wear and tear that reminds us that nothing last forever and that signs of age on an object might actually help us appreciate its value that much more. After all, nothing lasts forever, and items - both natural and man-made - experience their own lives as they are created and fall into decay. Appreciating this natural process that confirms the authenticity of existence is what wabi-sabi is all about. In short: imperfection, authenticity, and impermanence are qualities to be valued in traditional Japanese aesthetics.

Zen Buddhists use a round symbol called enso (円相) to express their version of wabi-sabi. A perfect circle is made of infinite motion: always moving, never standing still. But the open version of an enso to the left has both an end and beginning, reminding us that all things have a start and finish. The incomplete circle points out the imperfections in existence, and how we should strive to appreciate and understand things for the brief moment in time they exist, however imperfect they may be. To a Zen priest, this life is but a brief spark in a grand timeline of many lifetimes. Still, they strive to find their inner self to better understand the true nature of their place in the universe, imperfections and all. The enso remains an important teaching tool for Buddhist monks, and help us better understand the practical application of wabi-sabi philosophy.

Deep stuff, huh? It takes a while to wrap your head around this difficult concept, and I believe it's impossible to begin to grasp it without some hands on experience. But the moment when you sip tea from a chipped, uneven earthenware teacup, or gaze upon a weathered calligraphy scroll hanging in a darkened alcove of a temple, it all starts to click and you see the world through a new lens. That wabi-sabi enlightenment moment - if it can be called that - is elusive, but KyoTours Japan has come up with some suggestions for how to jumpstart this profound sense of understanding.


Imperfection: Enjoy a Cup of Tea

Perhaps the very best place to look for wabi-sabi is in a cup of tea. Not the tea itself, but the actual cup. The rugged Japanese tea cup has become perhaps the most well known example of wabi-sabi as a design motif, and can teach us some important lessons about the philosophy of wabi-sabi itself.

For a tea cup to be a tea cup, it needs to hold tea. What else does it have to do? The answer is deceptively simple: Nothing. Even the shape of a tea cup is up to the personal taste of the craftsman. Should it be deep and straight, or shallow and lumpy? Do all the sides have to be smooth, or can it have some roughness to it. What about a chip on the rim? If you're not going to drink from that side, maybe it doesn't matter?

The imperfections of a wabi-sabi teacup are immediately apparent, but it still remains a perfectly good teacup capable of serving its intended purpose. This is a key point in the wabi-sabi aesthetic (at least as I understand it): function over form. Western art and design since the ancient Greeks has praised perfection and imitation, but for the Japanese that sort of style matters little. A teacup is a teacup is a teacup.

Yet it still remains a unique teacup. Hold the teacup in your hands and feel the work that the craftsman put into it, how their hands shaped the clay and made this unique object of which there is no other. Close your eyes and drink from it. It's still a teacup without the visual identity that's attached it it. Realize that you can drink tea from this cup another day in the same spot if you choose to do so, but it will never be the same moment as it is right now. The cup's wear and tear is increasing every time someone drinks from it. It will never be the same tea cup, and you will never be the same person. The realization that time is passing and objects (and experiences) can be appreciated as they change... THAT'S wabi-sabi.

A stop for a cup of matcha tea at once of Kyoto's oldest tea houses that allows for a great discussion on wabi-sabi and tea culture can be included in our half day Kyoto Highlights Tour for a small additional fee.


Authenticity: Visit a Temple Garden

Japanese gardens are an excellent way to get in touch with the more natural side of wabi-sabi and offer something a little different than when the aesthetic is applied to manmade objects. Just as there a variety of styles of traditional gardens, there are a multitude of ways to observe wabi-sabi in these settings.

The collection of gardens at Kenninji Zen temple is fantastic. The main dry rock garden curves around the corner of the inner hall with such grace and understated elegance that immediately overwhelms the viewer, and then continues to work its magic on subtler levers. Examine the finely raked patterns in the white gravel, all evenly spaced and flowing gently like waves in the sea. Islands are present in this ocean as well, with several stones surrounded by moss standing in isolation throughout this landscape. The hedges and boulders that make up the background are all perfectly clipped and aligned in rows and groups that please the eye. Everything is perfect.

Or is it?

Look closer. Some of the pattern in the gravel has been disturbed by last night's rainfall, or perhaps a cat wandered through the garden and flattened that other part of the pattern. Is that a weed growing in a distressingly visible spot right in the center of the garden? I think the moss is starting to grow a little further away from the rock island than it's supposed to, creating an unsightly trail of mini moss clumps in the sand. And now that I look at it more, the rocks that make up the background are all out of proportion and the bushes are kind of lopsided. Wait a sec, this garden is FAR from perfect. And that's where wabi-sabi comes in.

One major point of wabi-sabi is authenticity. Things can't appear too perfect or too well maintained, lest they appear artificial and too well card for. A hint of natural decay reminds us of the fleeting nature of time and our own existence in this world. Once we accept this, we can better appreciate each moment as we pass through it.

A famous story to illustrate this point: Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) is considered to be the master who perfected the formal tea ceremony. Early on in his training, his teacher asked him to tidy up the garden before a tea service one spring afternoon. Rikyu clipped each hedge, weeded the moss patch, washed the stones, and swept the dry rock garden with a perfection left every surface spotless. But he also understood what gave a garden its attractive look. At the end of his cleaning, he shook the cherry blossom tree, haphazardly scattering a fresh carpet of cherry petals onto the stone and moss courtyard. His master emerged from the tea house and marveled at Rikyu's work. The juxtaposition of the finely manicured garden with a covering of fallen blossoms brought it all full circle. Nothing exists in a perfect state, everything must be accepted as it truly is, flaws and all.

A big part of a temple gardener's job is deciding what weed to pull and what to leave alone. Only in this careful balance of the maintained and the wild can we sense the true power of authenticity that wabi-sabi attempts to communicate to help us appreciate things in their most purest, raw form.

Visit the dry garden at Kenninji as well as other gardens that rely on this element of authenticity as part of our half day Higashiyama Culture Tour and examine the details of these magnificent gardens for yourself.


Impermanence: Observe Historic Architecture

Like the perfect circle of a Zen enso, everything is in motion. All objects are either being born or dying, from everyday items to humans themselves. This is a key part of Zen philosophy, but it also plays a big role in wabi-sabi aesthetics as well. A sense of impermanence flows throughout wabi-sabi, forcing us to reflect upon the transitory and fleeting nature of objects and life in this world. A great way to observe this is by contemplating Kyoto's traditional architecture.

Let's go back to tea for a minute. Not just tea, but the buildings and rooms that it's served in. The history and culture behind tea houses is rich and nuanced, and I'm not going to get into that here, but even without a background in tea architecture, the average tourist can still find wabi-sabi in Kyoto's classic tea houses.

I think a lot of visitors are surprised when they first see some tea rooms in temples and villas. They often expect bright, airy places that exude a feeling of relaxation. Tea rooms are usually the complete opposite! Look at the famous room below built by Sen no Rikyu in the Daitokuji Zen temple complex. No windows, minimal decoration, dark and shadowy, and very simple architecture. Walls have faded, wood is tarnished, and stains have appeared from the natural materials seeping through the painted surfaces. But in this decay, a student of wabi-sabi would find sublime beauty.

The age and ageing process of this room has become just as much a part of its charm as the original design. Nothing lasts forever, and here we are seeing decomposition in action. In a few more hundred years, the paint will peel off and wood will rot away, so wabi-sabi challenges us to appreciate the structure - whatever state it might be in - in the here and now.

I'm convinced that the tea masters who built these tea houses out of delicate natural material were thinking about the future. Knowing that their structure would last longer than their lifetimes, but not forever, only adds to the beauty of the tea ceremony when held in such a building.

When glimpsing the inside of a tea room, look carefully at the unfinished wooden beams often used near the tokonoma alcove on the wall. These rough pieces of wood just ooze imperfection, and are meant to keep us grounded by reminding us of our place in the natural, flawed world.

Also, look carefully at the surfaces of walls. Some might be covered with paper and painted, but many will be made from a rough adobe-like mud. You might even still see bits of straw set in the wall, or the harsh lines from wiry brushes as the wall was smoothed into place to dry. For me, these rough, rustic walls are the very pinnacle of wabi-sabi architecture: imperfect, authentic, and always crumbling towards impermanence.

There is much to be said of the balance between restoration and preservation in Japan. The photo on the left is a restored room (click to see a larger version). The walls have been replaced while keeping the wooden beams, and the paintings on cupboard panels have been placed behind glass. It's beautiful, but in a very museum-like way. having tea in this room would be nice, but from the ideal setting that allows you to focus on the authenticity and skill of the ceremony.

To the right is a set of preserved rooms in a tea house structure in Daitokuji Zen temple. The rough walls are faded and crumbling. Touching them leaves a fine layer of grit on your fingers. Light sections on the walls mark where older decorations and paneling once hung. Even the vertical wooden beams are worn away at certain spots from centuries of hands places on their surfaces to appreciate their smoothness. A tea ceremony held here relies heavily on the history of the room, as well as the perfect sense of timelessness in the moment through the realization of worldly impermanence.

There are some wonderful restored temples and historical sites in Kyoto, but the true gems are ones that have been preserved. But even preservation is done with a nod towards the fact that it can't go on forever. One of my favorite preserved buildings is the lower memorial hall at Kodaiji Temple in Higashiyama. The ceiling paintings are still vibrant and the carvings remain bursting with depth and color, but you can see time taking its toll as well. You can't help but appreciate the decay that will one day consume the entire building, making your time spent gazing at the ceiling that much more special. Kodaiji is also home to several original tea houses from the late 1500s, as well as a magnificent golden memorial hall that still manages to capture some rather melancholy wabi-sabi in the way that its one marvelous gold decorations are now fading. These might not be traditional wabi-sabi designs, but they certainly capture the idea of transient existence that helps us see things in a new perspective.

Searching for wabi-sabi in Japanese architecture is all about appreciating decay, even embracing it. Try to spot - and feel - the differences between preservation and restoration. There is something special in a weathered, faded room that you just can't feel in even the most elegant modern reconstruction. Maybe it's the history flowing through the faded walls, or maybe it's simply the wabi-sabi?

Customize a private tour to include a visit to the tea rooms and temples of Daitokuji Zen temple complex with Kyotours and experience these amazing spaces firsthand.

Look for Wabi-Sabi All Around You in Your Life

Wabi-sabi began as a design principle, but now it's found new life in the West as sort of a philosophy or lifestyle. A google search will show you vegan hippies living "wabi-sabi" lives in rustic homes made of natural materials with no running water. This may not follow the classic ideas of wabi-sabi, but everyone is open to interpret it in their own way.

Yet these key concepts of imperfection, authenticity, and impermanence can be applied to your everyday life and become an interesting lens through which to view the world. Accepting decay and limited existence isn't defeatist, it's practical in the sense that it allows you to focus on the here and now in new ways. Applying the embrace of imperfection to yourself on a personal level can be liberating when you shed all the importance that modern life attaches to image and social expectation. Focus on what you can appreciate now in this moment, without getting caught up in things that will only crumble later on down the road. To a true adherent to wabi-sabi, a teacup is a teacup is a teacup, and life is life is life. Accept it - flaws and all - and simply appreciate the moments as they come.

And don't worry if wabi-sabi is too elusive of a concept for you! Most Japanese people aren't even clear on what it means! Just enjoy your time in Kyoto in your own way, and KyoTours Japan will do our best to share a bit of our imperfect wisdom about the culture of the old capital and its wabi-sabi heritage with you.