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.