Sunday, September 6, 2015

Wabi-Sabi Lessons for Imperfect Journeys

"Wabi-sabi represents the exact opposite of the Western ideal of great beauty as something monumental, spectacular, and enduring. Wabi-sabi is not found in nature at moments of bloom and lushness, but at moments of inception or subsiding. Wabi-sabi is not about gorgeous flowers, majestic trees, or bold landscapes. Wabi-sabi is about the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral: things so subtle and evanescent they are invisible to vulgar eyes." [Source]
I love to hike up Japan's mountains, but I will never climb Mount Fuji. I love the trails of New Zealand, but I'll never walk the Milford Trail.

I'm unimpressed by brochure-speak and heavily saturated travel photographs. I don't have a bucket list, I generally avoid over-loved A-list destinations.

I don't seek "the perfect trip."

I made my living from imperfection. Imperfection drives iterative processesagile development, and six sigma. In the 1980's I worked for companies shaken by the advances of Japanese manufacturing. Imperfect Japanese products were better quality than imperfect American products. I happily drove a Honda although I had to pay a premium. I put up with the rust.

Wabi-sabi is a core Japanese aesthetic valuing the beauty of things that are...
...imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete
...modest and humble
...unconventional [source]
This underpins some of the most satisfying moments of my journeys.

Wabi and sabi are not easily defined. Their meanings merge: they convey concepts that are hard to pin down. Despite that, I've crudely pulled out some terms from different sources [particularly here and here] to help orient my mind:

Things that are fresh and simple
Things whose beauty stems from age
Austere Desolate Emotionally warm Fresh Hidden Humble Inconspicuous Lonely Melancholic Modest Natural Not ostentatious Overlooked Quiet Refined Restrained Rustic Serene Simple Solitary Unencumbered Vague
Age Artful mending Asymmetric Careful damage
Patina Roughness Small flaw
Unconventional Unrefined Weathered

Although I find it difficult to pin down wabi-sabi, I'll try with some of my own experiences.

A Zen Garden
You're looking at a corner of Ryoan-ji, considered the finest Zen garden on the planet. Raked gravel, carefully positioned rocks, linseed oil leaching from a clay wall. A perfect example of wabi-sabi design.

What you do not see in the above photograph are the loudspeakers broadcasting loud commentaries, and loud groups rushing through on their way to the next Kyoto A-list sight.

Concrete Tunnels
I wandered through a warren of concrete tunnels. Stains on the walls were reminiscent of the clay wall of Ryoan-ji. Unlike Ryoan-ji I walked alone, silently, the only observer. I love old concrete and rusty steel, characteristics that could be considered a wabi-sabi asethetic.

August 9, 1945, Nagasaki city officials were conducting a meeting in this bomb shelter when they heard an explosion. They first thought it had been a conventional bomb, but when they walked outside, they saw a man, in flames, fall from a utility pole.

The historical context and terrible mental images made it impossible to have a warm emotional connection with the tunnels.

A Lake High in the Andes
No pictures or words can do justice to the experience as the sun rose above the cliffs and pierced the darkness. My partner and I, alone by a lake, high in the Andes near Argentina's border with Chile.

As we walked down towards another lake, a man dressed in business attire climbed towards us, breathing heavily, fresh off the first excursion boat of the day. "Is it worth it?" he asked.

I'm left wondering if wabi-sabi only exists in relation to the observer. And perhaps the experience, albeit transient, was too grand for wabi-sabi, anyway.

A Glass House

In Glass Houses and Buried Museums I posted about visits to two beautiful, minimally structured glass houses.

At the Philip Johnson Glass House, I heard how Frank Lloyd Wright moved a statue on a table to off-center. When Johnson moved the statue back to center, Wright exploded: "Leave perfect symmetry to God."

Wright had worked in Japan, doubtlessly incorporating wabi-sabi sensibilities into his "organic architecture." Modernism is not wabi-sabi, and that is neither a good nor a bad thing.

A Walk Through Cedar

I feel my Walking Through Cedar post is the closest I've been to describing a wabi-sabi experience. Alone in an old-growth forest, my mind floated off to nothingness. I had to backtrack, but that did not feel like an imposition. I found myself appreciating the beauty of single drops of water falling from ancient cedar roots.


Arguably, wabi-sabi does not exist without some kind of imperfection and an observer with an open mind. The same goes for good travel. Travel is imperfect, and I get to choose how to experience or possibly avoid imperfection.

Imperfection is rich. I still remember an unplanned landing at Newcastle upon Tyne, England (NCL) with fire trucks in hot pursuit. I have no recollection of a thousand routine landings.

Note: I took the picture at the top of this post in northeast Minneapolis. 

Mossy lid, Patterdale, English Lake District

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