Wabi-sabi: The Japanese Ideal That Changes Everything

The trickling of fresh water and the smoothness of a river stone, the smell of fresh herbs or the steam off a hot cut of tea, the crackling paint on the side of an old building or the harsh lines of a contemporary skyscraper – the daily sights, smells, sounds, tastes and textures that we take in around us, are all part of wabi-sabi.

You may be wondering what wabi-sabi is?

Pottery Explains it All

I remember visiting a pottery kiln in Southern Japan in a mountain town called Okawachiyama. I walked through the old warehouse where they showed me the complex process of their family-owned business, known to produce high quality pieces.

The floor was dirt. The original structure, not rebuilt nor modified in centuries, had drying pieces of pottery lifted up on 2×4 wood slats that were hoisted onto the beams, which ran across the warehouse. The clay was mixed by hand and then sat to age for some time in the corner. Men were at the pottery wheels and woman at painting stations, highly concentrated on their tasks as I passed by. The detail of their work was astonishing!

But that was not what surprised me most. I walked into the firing room where a huge oven was erected, able to fit at least 10 grown men inside. It was crafted out of stone and bricks and rose up past the rafters, to create a chimney out of the roof. It was also original to the founders. There were several guys chipping away at single bricks near the front of the kiln with what seemed to original tools as well… I asked what they were doing? They responded that it was “part of the process.”

What I came to learn is that each time a group of pottery is fired, they walk inside the oven and arrange the pieces inside special containers. Then they close it up in this manual fashion – stacking bricks one by one to seal the door… each and every time.

But that’s not all.  They feed the fire of this original oven with wood. And to keep it at the precise temperature, they feed one kindling in at a time through a tiny hole…for 13 hours straight, every 3 minutes. Insanity?…or wabi-sabi?

I looked at them with confusion as the owner explained. My efficient, American training was disgusted at first thought of how crazy it was to never upgrade a centuries-old oven or the process.

Yet, I started to change my views as he spoke on. “We do it as a form of a wabi-sabi,” he said gently. “We do it to respect the tradition…we are artists. The process is a part of the art.”

What he said was extremely profound at that moment as I started to understand the rest of the “artists” I had encountered during my trip in Japan thus far.  Every Japanese was to themselves an artist, and the work that they chose in life was either passed down from generations or chosen out of passion. The process was revered. From the fisherman, to the sushi chef, to the inn-keeper, to the waitress – they were all practicing the traditions of their art form with the utmost respect.

This respect  for the small details in Japan leads even further, as wabi-sabi becomes about honoring the small “ugly” parts of life, or the simple memories that so many of us take for granted. It is a reminder to cherish every opportunity to enjoy good company with friends and honored guests. It is from peace and fellowship that the true idea of wabi-sabi flows.

Seeing With New Eyes

It’s hard for me to comprehend how this passion and reverence for the small details of life can be bred into its people, generation after generation. It’s certainly not something I take for granted as an American where speed is king. And, where less than ideal occupations, such as working in a noodle shop, are not seen as “art.”

However, I am absolutely blessed to have had a lesson in gratitude at that pottery kiln that day in Okawachiyama, and a new outlook on the rest of my journey through Japan. From the sticky rise in the sushi, to the packed train in Tokyo, to the strange smells, sights and sounds that were less than pleasing at times – they were all art because they were part of people’s lives. Suddenly the calligraphy writer and the sake bottlers on a warehouse floor were all much more fascinating to learn about, once I traveled with new open eyes

My hope for all of us today is to stop and be present as we carry on our days. How does the light crack in through your windows in the morning? What interesting activity do you pass on your way to work? No matter what your day looks like, how can you see your tasks today as a form of art?

It may not be glamorous today, but it’s the sounds, sights and experiences of your life. Even more importantly it’s the fellowship you have with friends and family – and that’s worth being thankful for. Let’s make our interactions with those around us full of intention and detail today.


Feature Photo Credit: Thinkstock/iStock/cococinema

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