I never found the concept of beauty particularly fascinating before I came to Japan.
There is a general acceptance that surface perfection can be described as beautiful in the West which is perhaps why I sometimes find myself worrying about the appearance of fine lines. But here, the idea of beauty leads you down a different path that is much more intriguing and infinitely more satisfying. Beauty in Japan goes deeper.
Of course, there are the cute and adorable cartoon characters, the manga characters with their big eyes and long legs, the gravity defying futuristic architecture, the slick and space age bullet trains. All beautiful in their own way but fairly one dimensional. What you see is what you get. But there is another aesthetic here that is infinitely more intriguing.
It’s referred to as Wabi-Sabi.
In Japan, Wabi-sabi is famously impossible to put into words which stops me in my tracks somewhat but I’m going to scratch the surface and have a crack anyway.
Wabi-Sabi is about seeing beauty in simplicity and imperfection. Flawed beauty I suppose if you look at it from a Western perspective. While Wabi can be loosely interpreted as simplicity. Sabi is a little more challenging. Sabi relates to an appreciation of the passing of time. The transience of life. Change and decay. This is where the imperfection comes in.
Critically, it is not just how something looks, it is more universal, more spiritual. It is the whole manner of your being. Wabi-Sabi is a feeling. It is in the soul.
The best way to bring it to life is to start with the tea ceremony. The host and the guests share the feeling of beauty from the simplicity of their surroundings – the tatami mats on the floor, the simple but artistic ikebana flower arrangement, the ritual and etiquette of appreciation and attentiveness. The Wagashi (sweets) in the shape of flowers or leaves that represent the seasonal transience of time passing. All things during the tea ceremony are carried out mindfully, carefully and attentively with a strict adherence to rules and etiquette.
Hearing this, it is no surprise then to learn that the tea ceremony origins are interwoven with Zen Buddhism. The goals of the tea ceremony and Zen are the same – an appreciation of what is important in life in order to find internal peace.
OK, so while that was possibly the most whistle stop explanation you could find, I may have at least given you the smallest sense of what Wabi-Sabi is about. Just bear in mind that a Zen monk would tell you that if it could be defined then it would not be Wabi-Sabi.
Still, I do think there is some merit in just having a go as it starts to open your eyes to some of what you see in Japan.
Since discovering this concept, I feel I have a better understanding of the pottery I see that looks misshapen and flawed but costs a small fortune. The ancient trees that are lovingly propped up with bamboo so their aging beauty can be appreciated. The respect and appreciation given to the elderly. The fascination with the cherry blossom, not just the full bloom, but the falling of the petals. Equally, the fascination with the autumn leaves.
Yeah, ok, they are pretty Instagrammable too but I think it is more than this. One leading professor in Japan says that while people in the West also appreciate the seasons, it is more a celebration of the harvest and a hope for rebirth in the spring. In Japan, it is more a recognition of the inevitability of change, the impossibility of enduring perfection and the futility of existence.
Pretty deep right? I guess the big take away for me from all this is that imperfection can actually be the most beautiful thing of all. When you tap into the Wabi-Sabi vibe, you start to see beauty in things you never appreciated. So, those smile lines around your eyes you are worried make you look old become a happy and symbolic reminder of all life’s memories you are creating.
Frankly, I am taking it a step further and using it as an excuse for my slightly wonky birthday cakes, messy playroom and bad hair days. I appreciate this is perhaps something of a stretch on a concept.But hey, it’s all about not sweating the small stuff right?