Wabi-Sabi: Interpreting aesthetics in Japan

Wabi-Sabi: Interpreting aesthetics in Japan
Photo Credit: Outlook Traveller

Japan gave the world Wabi-Sabi--refined concepts of beauty--it--s only fair that we dig a little deeper and see what--s it all about.

Sheetal Vyas
September 07 , 2015
15 Min Read

I was confused even as I approached the concept of Japan. I strove to hold in the same mental visual the various bits of knowledge that had come my way. This was a land whose people are capable of immense subtlety in the conduct of their lives and in their manners. A spiritual people, but also warriors capable of aggression and brutality. This was the land that gave us Wabi–Sabi, concepts of beauty so refined that they evaporate if put into words. This was the land that gave us the haiku: open-stroked poetry that could conjure up world-views in their brevity. Japan, I then remember, is also obsessed with robotics and technology; its youth conflicted between its traditional ways and influences from the West. The land of sakura and yet the culture that spawned Hello Kitty. A nation that decided to grow square watermelons so that they would fit snugly in their fridges, and from where emerges the phenomenal aesthetic of anime.

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The very first day of my trip, which began in Tokushima, furthered the confusion. I stood in the Otsuka Museum—a fabulous space for displaying art, 29,412 sq m over several generous floors and corridors, lit amazingly, with fabulous mosaic on the floors, with over 1,000 works of art on its walls.... and yet—all of them are fakes. The Otsuka museum carries classic upon Western classic printed on large blocks of ceramic and fired in kilns. The scale is truly ambitious: the Sistine Chapel has been recreated almost to scale, and only here can you see two large versions of da Vinci’s The Last Supper on facing walls. A study for anyone who cares to examine exactly what the retouching of that iconic painting offered us. There is a wide outdoor space with Monet all along the walls... rippling water and fronds trailing in the water. And even with prints, I was entranced by a nook crammed with van Goghs.

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My head was reeling as we drove away, not least because, earlier, we had gotten off the flight, made straight for the Naruto Strait to be in time to see the phenomenal tidal whirlpools. As the tide gushes into the narrow channel, the differing water levels make for vortices that can be up to 20m wide. I revived myself with a shower and coffee, which infused fresh vigour and enthusiasm to the evening. We would need it. At Awa Odori hall, we saw the eponymous local folk dance performed. This delightful two-step is almost a signature move and it is performed by large lines of dancers at the annual festival in August. We tried it ourselves—not so easy after all, and after a few minutes, brutal on the calves, but so much fun!

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The next morning saw us speed across the straits into Awaji Island, where the houses turned smaller and more traditional. At Awaji-ningyô-za, a playhouse for an old form of puppet theatre, we caught a fascinating performance. The puppets are almost adult-sized (and weigh about 10kg!) and each is carried and manipulated by no fewer than three puppeteers, all hooded in black. The puppet faces are works of art, with moveable eyes, mouths, eyebrows and therefore capable of many expressions. Learning to manipulate these, we were told, meant many years of training for apprentices: seven years for just the feet alone; the right hand and head may take a lifetime. We saw a tragedy enacted, accompanied by jojuri or dramatic text recitation, and music as well.

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We came out blinking into the sun and after a spot of lunch, took ourselves off to Honpukuji, where Japanese architect Tadao Ando pays homage to the element of water with a temple that houses a Shingon Buddhist shrine. Built in blocks of concrete that the architect is known for, the temple has a gorgeous lotus pond that holds the main sanctum underneath. Interestingly our halt for the night, the spectacular Westin on Awaji Island was also designed by Ando, and we could see the distinctive elements at play again.

The Westin houses a botanical museum, which again left me bemused: how could tackiness and indeed artificiality go hand in hand with a deep, profoundly wrought sense of beauty? It wasn’t just that botanical species from all over the world were gathered and crammed higgeledy-piggledy into glass houses, it was also that they had lit trees full of fusilli and farfalle and spaghetti tied up with string. There were miniature scenes with dolls and fairies, brightly lit fountain displays, a profusion of flowers, topiaries... everything at once. And in the midst of this, a Japanese Garden section—breathtaking in its sensitivity, simplicity and its pursuit of understated perfection. And in one dimly lit corner of this section was a suikinkutsu. My heart leaped. I had read about these sound devices and had long admired the idea of gardens created for sound... falling water, trickles and gurgles... The suikinkutsu is an earthen jar buried in the earth and the echo of falling water it creates is magical. I poured from a ladle and bent to hear, and there it was—as lovely a sound you could wish for since Basho heard the frog go plop.

We spent some time the following day in Kobe. On the way, I marvelled at a fully automated vending machine, where for ¥200 I had the pleasure of ordering a hot coffee with milk and sugar and see it being prepared on a video accompanied by a two-minute countdown. The counter went ‘0’ and my beverage emerged neatly in the slot. Much magic. I didn’t enjoy the city shopping too much, although I did open my eyes wide at a whole mall devoted to a cartoon character called Anpanman—a superhero, I now learn, who lets people eat his head. For the rest, I couldn’t afford the things I wanted to buy and didn’t want the stuff I could, so that was that.

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I was really looking forward to Koyasan. But I had reconciled myself to two disappointments. It wasn’t the right season to see sakura or the cherry blossoms that bloom a riot over Japan in the spring, and, second, Kyoto wasn’t on the itinerary. But Koyasan went a long way towards fulfilling my yearning to experience classical Japan. It is a Unesco heritage town, and a seat of Shingon Buddhism established by the monk Kukai in 816 CE. Once home to over 2,000 temples, halls and cloisters, it today has 117 temples, roughly half of which offer lodgings.

On the train up to Mt Koya from Namba, we fell into conversation with an elderly gentleman. His name was Toru Kurosawa and he had been a correspondent, working for many years in London. He spoke fluent English and seemed pleased to have come across us. I have been deeply in love with haiku for decades now, so imagine my delight when he told me that he belonged to a Renku group that met regularly in Tokyo. This is a form of collaborative linked verse poetry that haiku grew out of. Describing more traditional settings for Renku, Kurosawa-san told me of poetry sessions held on the banks of meandering streams, where parchment is sent floating on to the next participant. “How utterly elegant!” I murmured. “Ah, you see the beauty of it!” he bowed. We were bonded in our love of the graciousness of it all.

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Koyasan was cold, and gave me a chance to air some newly acquired Japanese: “Totemo samui desu!” I said to anyone who’d listen. We turned into Henjokoin, the shukubo or temple-inn we were staying at, and moved back a few centuries. We discarded our shoes and donned the red slip-ons the monastery provided. Skidding on the slick wooden floors, my gait began to resemble the short-paced, inward-toed shuffle so quintessentially old-world Japanese, or so I fancied. We were made welcome in a beautiful room with an altar: matted floor, low seating, there was too much to take in at once, but I was taken by the panels of dull gold that walled the whole room...etchings in the Kano style. My room for the night was a neat, spare space with sliding shoji doors and a tatami mat and mattress. However, there was also a heater (a blessing) and a television (out of place).

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As dusk fell, we gathered again in the long chamber with places set out for dinner. This was Shojin Ryori—devotional food—and I was looking forward to this. This is a type of cuisine that is very much in sync with the earth—made with reverence, involving fresh seasonal produce. Food that nourishes the body without making it sluggish, food that aids meditation, alertness and inwardness.

Even the arrangement was pleasing. Three trays of varying heights lay at every place, bearing about 17 bowls (I counted). Miso soup, goma tofu (that’s made with sesame) accompanied by wasabi, a confection with oba leaf and seaweed, vegetable stew, a bowl of rice, tempura of vegetables and lotus stem, a jelly and slices of Aomori apple. We began, a touch cautious. I found the seaweed difficult, as I always do, but the rest of it was delicious. Okamoto-san, who had accompanied us through our sojourn in Kansai, sat next to me, guiding me through the dishes. Then, with the pickled ginger, I found something vinegary and salty. “Umeboshi!” I exclaimed—in recognition of the pickled plums, whose reputation had preceded them in my world through evocative poetry. “You know umeboshi, uh?” Okamoto-san asked me. I nodded, quite unable to explain why I had greeted it with as much joy as I might have the sight of Mt Fuji.

A dip in the shukubo’s onsen was on the cards and I immersed myself in the hot waters blissfully. Half an hour of swirling water, and sleep was suddenly the most attractive thing in the world. I slipped on the yukata (‘bathing clothes’) provided and called it a day.

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The last day of the trip went in a swirl—literally because, well, Universal Studios! I’m a Potterhead and the Harry Potter section was—how they say—#outofthisworld. The shops of Hogsmeade, the puffing engine of Hogwarts Express, the spires of the magical castle...everything! I didn’t understand a word of the backstory to a ride called ‘The Forbidden Journey,’ but as fires, dragons, curses and hippogriffs rushed at us, I squealed as much as anyone else. Maybe more.

On the Japan Airlines flight back, we got bumped up to Business Class. If ever there was a seal on a good time, this was it. I watched episodes of a Japanese TV series called Tokyo Detective Duo, drank some fine sake and then some cherry wine, and then some sake...and tumbled out, tottering, onto the Delhi tarmac.

The information

Getting there: Japan Airlines flies Delhi-Tokyo non-stop daily; the Economy Super Flex Saver lets you make the round trip from Rs 42,772 (economy). JAL also connects via Tokyo to Osaka.

Visa: Apply to the Japan Embassy; No 4 & 5, 50G, Shantipath, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi; +91-11-26876581; www.jpembjic@nd.mofa.go.jp) or its consulates in Kolkata, Chennai, Mumbai and Bengaluru. Visa fees: Rs 460 for single and multiple entry.

Currency: Re1 = about ¥1.9

Where to stay:

TOKUSHIMA: We stayed at the rather nice Awa Kanko (from ¥7,200 single; 088-622-516).

AWAJI ISLAND: We stayed at the very striking Westin (from ¥16,668).

KOYASAN: Many temples offer lodging for pilgrims, known as shukubo (between ¥9,000 and ¥20,000 per night; includes two meals). Join the lovely morning-prayer sessions, involving sutra chanting.

OSAKA: We stayed at Hotel Nikko (from ¥9,259; 06-6244-1111) on the famous tree-lined Mido-suji Avenue.

Things to see & do:

TOKUSHIMA: The Naruto Strait has some amazing tidal whirlpools caused by tides rushing in and out of the narrow strait. The difference in the water levels makes for awesome vortices that can go up to 20m in diameter. The Otsuka Museum of Art (Entry: ¥3,240, student discounts available) is a fascinating half-day stop. The native Awa Odori dance is a deceptively simple two-step, but it is exhilarating to learn and perform. Dance shows are put up every day at the Awa Odori Hall in Tokushima city.

AWAJI ISLAND: Puppet theatre or Awaji Ningyo Joruri is an old and treasured aspect of Awaji folk culture; catch a show at Awaji-ningyô-za. The Honpukuji is celebrated architect Tadao Ando’s Temple of Water and it is a marvellous structure. His use of concrete slabs to conceive a temple that inverses every notion of the traditional Buddhist monastery is www.remarkable.hyogotourism.jp/english/

KOYASAN: Koyasan is a basin at 800m altitude surrounded by eight lofty mountains.A sacred centre of Shingon Buddhism, the World Heritage Site has a university dedicated to religious studies, and over 100 temples. Mount Koya is accessible by the Nankai Electric Railway from Namba Station in Osaka, which connects to Gokurakubashi at the base of the mountain.

Make sure to include the head temple Kongobuji, the Danjo Garan temple complex and Okunoin, a sylvan cemetery housing the mausoleum of Kukai, the founder of the school of Shingon Buddhism here.

OSAKA: The Kaiyukan Aquarium, with its otters, prized whale sharks and a special interactive exhibition that lets you touch and feel a few marine creatures, is well worth a few hours. Universal Studios; day pass for adults: ¥7,200; children: ¥4,980), with its Spidey and Harry Potter rides, is worth an entire day. www.osaka-info.jp/en/. Do visit restaurant Kushiya Monogatari for kushiyage or skewer food, where you have a choice of meat, fish and vegetables that you deep-fry in hot oil provided at every table. Dinner is about ¥2,625, plus an extra ¥1,000 for all you can drink within 60 minutes.


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