The Cult of Japanese Aesthetics
A Relevant History Told in Wood
Today Japanese aesthetics have achieved an almost mythical status—if not unjustly, perhaps uncritically. In most cases when this designation (Japanese aesthetics) is used casually it refers the the quality of wabi and sabi that is found in gardens, teahouses and temples, a quality which is, behind anime and the automobile, likely the most exported element of Japanese culture. People are not mistaken when they respond so strongly to this particular quality. It is powerful. When I first wandered the historic districts of Kyoto I was altogether unprepared. Often I caught myself lost in thought, mesmerized by the cherry petals and the moss, transfixed by stonework beneath my feet. For minutes I could stand motionless.
However, it should be noted briefly but emphatically: although this quality is unique to Japan it is not ubiquitous; though endemic, it is somewhat scarce. Japan’s cities reflect the haste with which they were re-built following the war. The architectural landscape, dominated by dense monolithic structures and webs of electrical wires, far more often than not reflects the values of efficiency and practicality rather than beauty.
But this "Japanese" beauty: neither ubiquitous, nor uncommon, exists, like nothing I have known before. Down narrow alleys that seem to have escaped the electric surge of time, and in tiny walled gardens behind tea shops, like a secret, it exists. In the depth of a glaze and in its patterned cracks, or in tiny bubbles suspended in a glass, it exists. It is in the softly cupped granite stairs worn down by millions of feet, and it can even be found in the lacquer of a chopstick or the flecks of fiber in a shoji panel—but most of all, it is in the wood. In the unmistakeable patina of wood the mythic quality of “Japanese” aesthetics is showcased exquisitely.
Whether it is for the living tree or the toko-bashira, the special post in the special part of the special room in a Japanese house, there is no reverence in Japan like the reverence for wood. I am not sure why this is so, but I speculate that the reason is intrinsic to the quality of the medium: soft enough to receive the patterned imprint of time, touch and weather, while durable enough to bear these marks into the future, wood is perfectly suited to the task. It receives and stores the information of human existence in a meaningful way. Both in its first life, rooted in the earth, and in its second as part of a building, the tree captures history on a scale that is most relevant to the human being: measured in centuries, reaching into the past while promising a future beyond our own. On its surface in unscripted language it bears this cultural record, a great witness and emissary both.
And thus confronted with this record would I stand transfixed: by the extraordinary attention to detail in craft, the patience in preservation and the great restraint of expression. The embodied emotional energy was real. The values that went into the work were communicated through it and it is this integrity of transmission that characterizes the unique experience of Japanese aesthetics, to me, more than any discreet formal quality ever could. It is a reverence that emanates. One could read volumes about wabi-sabi, but if you have ever found peace in a Japanese garden — a peace and a clarity that you wished to bring with you to other aspects of your life — or gazed deeply into the soul of a board, if you have ever gotten lost in a chopstick, then I would say it has already worked its magic. You have found it.