Wabi Sabi – Beauty in the Imperfect

I lived in Japan from 1990 to 1993, in Kyoto and Osaka. I have a master’s degree in Japanese studies from the University of Washington in Seattle, and initially went to Japan on an 18-month Japanese Ministry of Education fellowship to study. I extended that stay for another 18 months, because I fell so completely in love with the country and its culture.

The Japanese have a concept called wabi sabi. It refers to beauty that is imperfect, unfinished, and fleeting. Much of what we think of as the Japanese aesthetic (ikebana or flower arranging, the tea ceremony, the Zen sand gardens, the style of some of the most famous temples and shrines) reflect wabi sabi. It is exemplified by everything that is simple, modest, intimate, asymmetrical, and prone to the influences of nature through aging, rusting, disintegrating.

There are two other Japanese words that are applicable here: hade and jimi. Hade refers to things which are brilliant and ostentatious, big and bold. Jimi refers to that which is muted, natural, rustic, understated.

The Japanese love to give gifts, on almost any occasion; whether they are bringing you an omiyage (souvenir) from a trip they just went on, paying New Year’s respects, or simply sharing a meal with you, they never arrive empty handed. Through this practice of gift giving, my large circle of Japanese friends soon realized that I delighted in the aspects of their country that were jimi – and, to my surprise, they received me with greater intimacy after that, feeling I was accepting of the “original” Japan, with its vast history and ages-old traditions. I was honored that they were willing to teach me, month after month, by introducing me to all that was essentially Japanese, from sumo wrestling to koto playing, from the art of kimono to seasonal rituals at nearby temples and shrines.

A perfect example of the contrast between hade and jimi is two famous Zen temples in Kyoto, the Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) and the Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion). The Golden Pavilion is actually covered in gold leaf. It towers three stories tall above a stupendous reflective pond. It takes your breath away with its splendor. The Silver Pavilion is something very different. Although it was originally intended to be covered in silver foil, that never happened. The temple has been allowed to stay the way it was then, five hundred years ago, a modest wooden structure weathered by the rain and the snows, surrounded on one side by a beautiful pond, nested into the trees. It also is the site of the very famous sand garden that has a miniature Mt. Fuji at its center. Ginkakuji is known as one of the premiere examples of the wabi sabi aesthetic.

I went to The Golden Pavilion only twice during my stay, once on my own, and once with visiting family. But Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion – I went there as often as I could, to walk through the quiet gardens, to touch the weathered wood, to let the beauty sink into my soul. When I am homesick for Japan, this is what I think of: monks raking the sand garden at Ginkakuji, with the rippling reflection of rocks and twisted pines in the background, and the aging temple rising gently above it all.

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  1. Hmmmm a typo in my last comment, should be ‘ecstasy’ We like wabi sabi too, or its American equivalent –– always have I was so sorry to see my grandparents toss old old oak kitchen furniture & replace it w/ plastic & chrome

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