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  • Shelley Dark

Telling Your Wabi from Your Sabi

If you came to Paris with me in May, you may remember that my travel writing tutors Heather and Bryan both advised me that Shelley Dark Travel should have a blog. So have several other people who know what they are talking about. Seven months later I still don't have one. I have an excuse. I hate the word blog. It sounds like a combination of bleah (meaning yuck, ugh) and stinky bog. But there it is up at the top of this page, in the menu. BLOG. Offends my aesthetic sense. But it's a start, and I finally know what my first post will be about. Aesthetics.

​Because our next trip is to Japan, I've been thinking and reading about the Japanese perception of beauty. The term wabi-sabi pops up willy-nilly in design magazines and on design websites and if you're not a wabi-sabi groupie it seems you're passé or even worse, outré. ​

But how to tell you wabi from your sabi????

I've been casting about the house finding things that might fit the wabi-sabi aesthetic. Wabi-sabi is actually not a proper phrase, but two words which have quite different meanings.

Wabi means the beauty of the simple, honest, plain, unadorned and rustic, often associated with poverty as against great wealth.

This tea cup, with its plain, basic, unfussy, utilitarian shape has wabi. It's anything but fancy. There is sabi in its crazed glaze and colour mottled with age.

It belonged to my husband John's mother who was almost Japanese in her aesthetic appreciation, with an innate sense of keeping things spare and sparse. I think it stemmed from her childhood during the depression and her mother's emphasis on the virtue of self-deprivation which she herself learned during childhood days in a boarding school run by a strict order of nuns.

I wonder if my own penchant for a bit of oak parquetry, fancy-pants panelling, baroque carving and a little silver gilt stems from a correspondingly over-indulged infancy.

This mortar from an old mortar and pestle stops short of wabi because its shape is perhaps a little too perfect. But I've given it the nod anyway.

Sabi means the beauty of impermanence, fading, patina and ageing. An object having sabi becomes infinitely more beautiful in the process.

There is no inference of perfection except in the imperfect.

Sabi I feel in my soul. I love the beauty of age. The more so as I age myself it seems. I treasure its fleeting about-to-be-lost impermanence. Apart from cutting edge modern design which relies to a large extent on its glossy unmarked brand-new-ness, most things improve in appearance with age. Layers of wax on wood, beautiful fabric. Things mended and re-mended like the Asian sideboard above.

A copper bowl like this one, although perhaps without the decorative pattern on the rim. A pair of torn jeans, provided they aged by themselves and not with the help of a pair of scissors, could fit the bill. I don't have any of those.

Some things have wabi, some have sabi. Some have wabi-sabi.

There is so much more to wabi and sabi than I can understand or express. Wabi is inward, sabi is outward. Wabi is spiritual, sabi is physical. Whole books have been written about it.

Wabi-sabi has its roots in Zen buddhism and was a reaction to the extravagant, highly designed and almost nouveau-riche Chinese decoration of the 16th century. Sen No Ryku was a Japanese master of the tea ceremony at that time, and he made the movement popular incorporating it into the tea ceremony by valuing crudely made vessels in primitive tea rooms on a par with fine artisan-signed Chinese specimens in rooms of gilt.


These two Japanese symbols mean wabi-sabi. They're a little block-headed, having been typed by a computer and probably sadly lacking in wabi.

In contrast, these characters stacked one on top of the other say exactly the same thing, but they've been done by a freehand brush and their combination is one of a kind and far more beautiful.

Modern is smooth, glossy, sharp, without joins or cracks, indestructible. Wabi-sabi is old, cracked, joined, irregular, decaying and of the earth. The more perfect the modern object the better. The more imperfect, the more likely it is to be wabi-sabi.

For me, this is another example of wabi sabi - a quite old handmade paper pad full of black ink writing. I don't remember where I bought it, but it was at an antique shop. The owner felt it was Japanese writing, but an archaic version. She hadn't been able to have it identified or translated. If it really is Japanese, I hope I am able to have that done in Japan.

The more I read, the less I know and understand.

Until next time, buddies,

This silver filigree work on an antique French button hook is a little too fancy to be wabi, but with perhaps a little sabi. I bought it an antique fair in the town of Beaune in Burgundy last year. When I touch it, I feel aichaku. But that's a word for another blog.

If you'd like to join me on the Japan trip, just click below. And please do comment underneath - I'd love to hear your opinions and thoughts, and welcome ideas for what you'd like to see on the blog.

shelley dark, writer 

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