The Japanese savoir vivre has a name, yet is almost impossible to define. What does it feel like? Does it live in old objects or is it intangible? Wabi-sabi is the mindful balance between treasuring simply beautiful things and relishing freedom from things.
When a piece of pottery breaks in Japan, the traditional practice is to fuse the pieces back together with gold lacquer. The Japanese word for this practice—kintsukuroi—doesn’t just refer to the method of repair, it also suggests that the tea bowl is more beautiful because of the crack. The gold is a bright line of the pottery’s imperfection. In the West, we tend to judge a repair by whether it is noticeable—the less evidence of a rip, scratch, or stain, the better. The traditional Japanese practice is the opposite. In a Japanese tea ceremony, guests are served with the most cracked and different side of the tea bowl facing toward them. The imperfections are emphasized and appreciated.
The sense that imperfection makes the tea bowl more beautiful, or at least more interesting, is known as “wabi-sabi.” Wabi-sabi is very difficult to define. Considered by many to be the aesthetic of Japan, it is a know-it-when-you-see-it kind of thing. And like most aesthetics, wabi-sabi is about more than how things look. It suggests a way to live.
“Things wabi-sabi are appreciated only during direct contact and use; they are never locked away in a museum. Things wabi-sabi have no need for the reassurance of status or the validation of market culture.” — Leonard Koren, author of Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets, and Philosophers
I missed breakfast the morning of my first tea ceremony. Only four months into my stay in Japan, I had not yet adjusted to the Japanese concept of time. When my friend said she’d pick me up at seven, she meant six forty-five: a fifteen-minute sign of respect.
My stomach growled as we drove along the Sai River toward downtown Kanazawa. Japan’s famous cherry blossoms had just reached this small city nestled between the Japanese Alps and the Sea of Japan, on their bloom north from Okinawa to Hokkaido.
To celebrate the season, the small treats, wagashi, served with tea at our ceremony that morning were pink cherry-blossom-flavored macaroonesque pastries. Unfortunately for my empty stomach, we were each given a single, tiny wagashi before our tea was served. Everyone fell silent as they focused fully on eating their treat. A tea ceremony is a cross between performance art and meditation. Each action is intentional and slow; it is a kind of spiritual exercise. The simple act of making and then drinking tea is elevated through total attention to the people and objects involved.
Once we finished our wagashi, an elderly tea master served us ceramic tea bowls full of frothy matcha that required two hands to hold. Splotches of green and black interspersed with faint gold lines covered the surface of each bowl. The rim was uneven, and small nicks lined the bottom. The tea master showed us how to examine our bowl before our first sip. This amounted to a lesson in applied wabi-sabi. We paused to find and create beauty from the simple, humble, and nonobvious—the cracks in our ceramic tea bowls. Cultivating a wabi-sabi mindset requires overriding our default responses to what qualifies as beautiful and what qualifies as ugly, what is worth paying attention to, and what is not. A tea ceremony is one way to practice this, and it is equally important (and useful) in day-to-day life.
Transforming the ordinary
For me, the most important moment of the morning happened once the tea ceremony concluded. We were directed into a drafty back room and told to wait there for lunch. A few minutes later, a teenage boy showed up and placed a stack of seven bento boxes on a table near the door. We passed the boxes around and then began to eat, still wearing the kimonos we had put on for the ceremony, seated atop overturned foam seafood crates.
One of the many sections of the bento box held kaki no ha zushi, a specialty of Kanazawa’s prefecture. Kaki no ha zushi is a square of rice topped with thin slices of fish or vegetables and then wrapped in a persimmon leaf. I eagerly tore open my leaf as I would the paper wrapping of a burger, ready to finally fill my stomach. Seated right beside me was a sixteen-year-old girl named Sui who had taken me under her wing during the ceremony. When one of the tea masters said something my limited Japanese could not decode, she would discreetly slip her iPhone from the sleeve of her kimono and type into a translator. “When you have to stir the tea, more calm”… “Bow before the step back”… I read on a screen the girl shyly turned towards me.
Sui eyed the crumpled leaf of my kaki no ha zushi with concern. Then she reached over, took it from my hands, and folded the leaf neatly around the rice, gently smoothing each corner down with her fingertips so that it matched her own. She handed it back to me, and I felt moved.
Feelings and folding
“It’s a feeling.” That’s as close as I have come to a definition of wabi-sabi from a Japanese person. It came from a thirty-something man named Kei, whom I worked beside as a line cook in a kitchen in Niseko. At the time, I had just been trying to make conversation while we chopped daikon. I didn’t know quite what he meant. “It’s a feeling.”
But months after Kei’s definition, and weeks after the tea ceremony, I kept thinking about Sui’s simple action: folding my leaf. And each time I did, I felt a particular way. I started to understand what Kei meant when he told me that wabi-sabi is a feeling.
It’s the feeling you get when you look at an old kitchen table, not the feeling you get when you look at pristine china in a cabinet. It’s a strange mix of nostalgia for an object’s past and gratitude for its present functionality—and something else, harder to define. It’s the feeling you get when you see a dead flower, or the last traces of a sunset. It is a recognition of the cycles of life and death, use and disuse. It is the feeling you get when you see the natural world reflected in material objects—a rusty patch of metal, a worn piece of wood. Asymmetry is the toll the elements take.
“Asymmetry is the toll the elements take.”
Wabi-sabi is looking at the imperfections of the world and transforming them into a kind of beauty—not by changing them, but by changing how we relate to them. Instead of trying to get away from boredom, endings, and loneliness, the feeling of wabi-sabi is what happens when you work to make those things beautiful. It is the philosophical analog of the gold line to emphasize the pottery’s crack.
The leaf that Sui folded for me was nothing if not impermanent—I’d be throwing it away in mere minutes. It was an everyday object—just a little leaf around my lunch. And nothing about our surroundings suggested that the lunch was important—we were in a tiny little room, not even sitting at real tables. But Sui slowed me down, she recognized that the leaf and moment, while imperfect, were still a site of possible beauty. She was not trying to make a point. The ceremony was over. She was just living. And that is what wabi-sabi is: the beauty of the everyday, the small, the inconspicuous. The beauty of life as it is lived.△