Ampersand's Travels...

Musing upon the Japanese art of wabi-sabi‏

Ampersand’s Japan specialist David Wall explores the uniquely Japanese concept of wabi-sabi

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Two birds on a branch, painted sparingly on a sliding wooden door; sunset-red maple leaves strewn in the corner of an ornamental pond; an old wooden washing bowl enveloped in rising steam from a hot spring bath.

All these are examples of wabi-sabi, a distinctively Japanese aesthetic that has the transience of nature at its heart. It romanticises a rural good life in which people are materially impoverished but spiritually enriched, appreciating beauty and at ease with the impermanence of everything from falling leaves to time-worn utensils. Japan might seem like another planet sometimes, but it is more often a magic mirror reflecting English culture. The notions of wabi-sabi bear some comparison to the aesthetic of our Romantic poets. Where Wordsworth and Coleridge glimpsed hermits in the woods, the Japanese see the essence of wabi in ‘the little monk with his wind-torn robe.’ As the Romantics imagined the rustic hermitage, the timeworn essence of sabi is evoked by coarse Bizen pottery cups in a rough-hewn teahouse in the woods.

In a society seemingly obsessed with new novelties and fashion, collapsing under the weight of its own consumer output, wabi-sabi provides a great antidote to cluttered modern living and the bright, sparkly iPhone culture. It can be experienced most famously in cherry blossom season, when fallen petals on the concrete boulevards amongst the shiny skyscrapers are more poignant than before they fell. It can be found in austere zen rock gardens like Ryoanji in Kyoto, where the weathered rocks are isolated from nature as a whole and placed in raked gravel so that we can contemplate their impermanent beauty. The great mystery of our fleeting lives is in these little details. As Van Gogh said, the Japanese artist ‘studies a single blade of grass’, unlike the western artists who prefer grand landscape vistas.

If this all seems rather ephemeral and elusive, wabi-sabi can be tangibly experienced at a traditional Japanese inn or ‘ryokan’, and the best of them are doing great business off the back of the general yearning for it. Each apparently spartan tatami-mat room has a tokunoma, an alcove where a simple ‘ikebana’ flower arrangement and a sparingly painted ‘kakemono’ scroll complement each other. Little details like the slight warping of the wood in the old sliding doors or a solitary branch outside the window are all cause for contemplation. Their kaiseki dinners consist of artfully arranged small dishes that reflect the tones of each season, and are examples of wabi-sabi in themselves. A stay in Japan wouldn’t be complete without the ryokan experience.

At Beniya Mukayu, one of our favourites, a rickety old teahouse nestles in the semi-wild garden whilst inside an ingenious modern sculpture focuses the eye on the beauty of water droplets. The juxtaposition sounds jarring on paper, but wabi-sabi is the magic ingredient that makes it work. If there is one aesthetic that shows beauty is in the eye of the beholder then it’s wabi-sabi, in which even a few rocks and moss can transform into something profound despite seeming rather plain and simple at first glance. We invite you to delve into Japan yourself and experience it with your own eyes.

Get in touch with David at +44 (0) 207 819 8900 or email david@ampersandtravel.com to start planning your tailormade luxury holiday to Japan.