Beauty in Simplicity

Dur­ing my time abroad in Japan, I took a sem­i­nar called “Philoso­phies of Well­ness: Holis­tic Heal­ing In Japan”. While I was less than enthused with the idea of tak­ing a holis­tic heal­ing course, I was hap­py just to be vis­it­ing Japan—something I’ve always want­ed to do.

The truth is, I’ve been fac­sin­cat­ed by Japan­ese cul­ture my whole life. Grow­ing up, I watched ani­me like Poke­mon and was always explor­ing new things from karate and bon­sai to sushi and origa­mi. In fact, I think a lot of my art and design sense comes from grow­ing up with Japan­ese influ­ences and aes­thet­ics.

To help describe what I’ve learned and expe­ri­enced in Japan in terms of art and design, I’ve cre­at­ed a series of 9 pho­tographs. These images are direct exam­ples of Japan­ese aes­thet­ics and “beau­ty in sim­plic­i­ty”.

How­ev­er, I think in order to appre­ci­ate these pho­tos, a basic under­stad­ing of Japan­ese aes­thet­ics is help­ful. So below I’ll brei­fly describe a few key con­cepts as out­lined in Gra­ham Parkes’ “Japan­ese Aes­thet­ics”.

Mono no Aware

Sim­ply described as the “pathos of things”, mono no aware places empha­sis on liv­ing in and appre­ci­at­ing the present. A pop­u­lar exam­ple of mono no aware is the spring cher­ry blos­soms. Although they only bloom for a cou­ple of weeks, it is impor­tant to acknowl­edge and appre­ci­at­ed them while they are around and then con­tin­ue on, rather than dwelling on them.


Wabi is “sim­ple, aus­tere beau­ty”. It is all about find­ing beau­ty in sim­plic­i­ty rather than extrav­a­gance.


Sabi is best described as a “rus­tic pati­na”. For exam­ple a sil­ver tea set that is left to pati­na and age is more desir­able than a sil­ver tea set that has been metic­u­lous­ly pol­ished. Sabi is about beau­ty in implied his­to­ry.


Yugen is the idea of com­plex­i­ty through mys­tery. For exam­ple a miso soup is much dif­fer­ent served in a black bowl than a white bowl. The black adds mys­tery and intrigue to the soup because the view­er can’t see all of it.


Iki is described as “refined style”. In terms of design it is rep­re­sent­ed as straight, par­al­lel lines rather than curvy, organ­ic lines.


Kire is the art of cut­ting. A good exam­ple of kire is ike­bana, where flow­ers are delib­er­ate­ly cut in cer­tain ways to help arrange and pre­serve them.


Do is about focus­ing on the process of doing some­thing rather than on the final prod­uct. It places empha­sis on the rit­u­al like a tea cer­e­mo­ny or a mar­tial art like judo.

These aes­thet­ics play a huge role in all aspects of Japan­ese cul­ture: art, design, archi­tec­ture, even music and film. In fact, their beau­ty can be eas­i­ly seen in every­day life and the series of pho­tos above show them in action.

Beauty in the Fleeting Moments

Dur­ing my trav­els, it was impor­tant for me to under­stand the mean­ing of mono no aware, because how­ev­er much I tried to doc­u­ment every­thing I was see­ing and expirenc­ing, ulti­mate­ly I knew I would nev­er be able to cap­ture these moments per­ma­nent­ly. While these images may help in con­vey­ing the beau­ty of Japan, they are in no way a sub­si­tiute for the acu­tal expe­ri­ence.

From the spring maple leaves to the blos­som­ing iris­es, I expirenced the beau­ty of mono no aware every­where I went. Some of the most mag­i­cal moments I expe­ri­enced were spe­cial because they were so fleeting—like pracitic­ing zen med­i­ta­tion dur­ing a thun­der­storm or see­ing flash­es of the beau­ti­ful Japan­ese land­scape on the bul­let train to Kyoto.

For a cul­ture that is so capa­ble of cre­at­ing amaz­ing­ly intri­cate and elab­o­rate works, I find it fas­ci­nat­ing that beau­ty is found in sim­plic­i­ty. Sabi is an aes­thet­ic you see every­where from the black and white cal­lig­ra­phy to the archi­tec­ture in the city sky­scrap­ers.

Beauty in Nature

When walk­ing through a Japan­ese gar­den, Japan­ese aes­thet­ics are vis­i­ble every­where. The dark depths of the ponds and the wind­ing paths allow vis­tors to get lost in the land­scape, to explore and con­tem­plate. In con­trast to many west­ern gar­dens, where all the flow­ers and plant­ed in rows and pots, Japan­ese gar­dens are meant to reflect a nat­ur­al set­ting.

Kire, the art of cut­ting, is uti­lized not to make trees shaped like swans, but to guide the trees and plants into a their most pleas­ing forms. Over time, the thick branch­es of the man­i­cured trees resem­ble the strokes of Japan­ese calig­ra­phy, sweep­ing through­out the gar­den. They stretch out over the ponds, sup­port­ed by long sticks, and guide vis­tors as the mean­der.

Beauty in Time

When vis­it­ing the tem­ples and shrines of Japan, you are con­stant­ly amazed by the mon­u­men­tal amount of time these struc­tures have existed—amazed by the tra­di­tion and his­to­ry.

Every­thing seems to have a cer­tain age and pati­na to it. From the moss cov­ered roofs to the worn stone steps, the sabi expirenced through­out Japan is breath­tak­ing.
This aged pati­na makes the mod­ern addi­tions to the shrines and tem­ples instant­ly rec­og­niz­able. The gut­ters and wiring placed on the aging struc­tures seem awk­ward and out of place.

How­ev­er, on the whole, the Japan­ese seem to jug­gle these con­flict­ing ideas of tra­di­tion and moder­ni­ty very well. Sky­scrap­ers and Cas­tles coex­ist in the same land­scape. Ben­to box­es have been adapt­ed for mass pro­duc­tion while main­tain­ing the orig­i­nal charm. Even the tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese gar­ments like the kimono and yuka­ta are seen every­where.

Beauty in the Process

Arguably one of the most beau­ti­ful aspects of Japan­ese cul­ture is an empha­sis on the process rather than the fin­ished prod­uct. Many Japan­ese process­es are art forms in them­selves that take many years to mas­ter. Some exam­ples are the tea cer­e­mo­ny, ike­bana, cal­lig­ra­phy, and cook­ing. This empha­sis on the process, in turn, is vis­i­bile in the fin­ished prod­ucts. From the metic­u­lous­ly gath­er, cut, and placed straw roofs, to the cut and arranged food in ben­tos, to the beau­ti­ful­ly main­tained and man­i­cured bon­sai, you can see beau­ty in the care and atten­tion that every­thing is giv­en.

Do is an aes­thet­ic that is con­stant­ly seen dai­ly life, from the respect­ful wel­come and bow of a shop keep­er to the per­son­al­ized songs for every train sta­tion in Tokyo. Every­thing has a spe­cif­ic rit­u­al that comes from the core of Japan­ese tra­di­tions. It is amaz­ing to wit­ness such ded­i­ca­tion and dis­ci­pline.

Beauty in Simplicity

As you can see from the pho­tos above, Japan is filled with amaz­ing beau­ty. And as much as I tried, my pho­tographs will nev­er be able to cap­ture the beau­ty that comes from aes­thet­ics and prac­tices that were formed over hun­dreds of years. From the wind­ing and mys­te­ri­ous Japan­ese gar­dens to the pati­na of the shrines and tem­ples, Japan is filled with sim­ple beau­ty.

Since the Japan­ese favor sim­plic­i­ty over com­plex­i­ty, pati­na over shine, and process over prod­uct, they can cre­ate things that no one else can. This is not to say that Japan­ese aes­thet­ics favor things that are bor­ing and point­less, but that are gen­uine and pure.

This is what I mean when I say “beau­ty in sim­plic­ty” find­ing beau­ty in the pure and sim­ple.