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  • Shelley Dark

5. before we go....

Himeji Castle

The Japanese concept of beauty is about the imperfect, subtle, transient, simple and understated.

There was a little about Japanese aesthetics in my first two posts, about wabi and sabi and the idea of perfection only being found in the imperfect and impermanent. But there are other concepts that I'd love you to hear about before we go. We may even recognise them on this trip.They overlap and enfold each other, and underpin much of what the Japanese believe defines beauty.

the perfection of hotate nigiri sushi made from a scallop

takumi: this means artisan or fine craftsmanship, and is tied up with a pride in what you make, a striving for perfection in your creation, knowledge that for every single thing you make you have done the best you can. It's an attitude engendered in Japanese children from a young age.

yūgen: this implies that the power of suggestion is more appealing than a full reveal and is at the core of appreciation of art and beauty. It's about the subtle and profound rather than the superficially beautiful - it's the spiritual feeling evoked by knowing and feeling more about the object than simply what you see. A lone misshapen tree can be beautiful, but its beauty is also in its history, in the fact that it came from a small seed, went through hardships, now provides shade, and will eventually die. All of that comes into your appreciation of the tree as a thing of beauty in the universe.

mono aware: literally 'the pathos of things' or the awareness of the transience of things - it's an empathy, the bittersweet knowledge that everything is ageing, gentle sadness at their passing as well as a deeper wistful sadness that this is the reality of life.

aichaku: a deeper sort of attachment or affection than one usually feels for an object. It’s a symbiotic relationship which deepens over time and use, and is felt not for what the object does, but for what it is. When we use something we love, we imprint something of ourselves on to the object. Things with a history, a patina, that have been made with care or precision, with lovely proportions, or that indefinable simplicity or elegance, have aichaku. Aichaku inspires design of objects which will be loved for a lifetime.

miyabi: this means elegance or refinement which presents as a heart-breaking beauty. It's a polished appearance, with the rough or crude or vulgar eliminated, and applies to people of good manners and good taste as well. Things in decline can show wonderful miyabi.

a much-loved and mended prayer book carried by my mother-in-law as a nurse during World War II, first at Goldalming in England, and then through action in the Middle East and heavy bombing in Alexandria.

wabi-sabi: there are 7 necessary qualities

fukinsei: asymmetric and irregular

kanso: simplicity and elimination of clutter

koko: basic, weathered

shizen: without pretence, natural

yugen: subtly profound grace, not glaringly obvious

datsuzoku: unbounded by convention, free, unexpected, a break from the routine

seijaku: tranquility - this leads to creative energy

shibui (adjective) shibumi (noun), or shibusa (noun) are Japanese words which refer to simple, subtle, unobtrusive, minimalist and even austere beauty.

iki is an expression of simplicity, sophistication, spontaneity, and originality, usually in people not things. (pity it sounds like icky!) It is straightforward, measured, and unselfconscious, not overly refined, pretentious or complicated. Tasteful sensuality can be iki. I think of Audrey Hepburn as iki.

jo-ha-kyū is a concept to describe movement in traditional Japanese arts. It implies a tempo that begins slowly, accelerates, and then ends swiftly. This concept is applied to elements of the Japanese tea ceremony, to theatre, ikebana, and to verse forms.

by Kanjuro Shibata from personal collection of Jordan Langelier via wikimedia commons

ensō means circle, symbolising enlightenment, strength, elegance and the Japanese aesthetic itself. It's a sacred symbol in Zen Buddhism and calligraphers believe that only a person who is mentally and spiritually complete can draw a circle. Enso shows that that form and void are interdependent and, in fact, define each other. It's painted with a single brush stroke. So when we see circles on our travels in Japan, we know it's a powerful symbol.

kawaii: meaning cute - a modern (1970's onwards) phenomenon is the cute cult. A stranger part of the Japanese aesthetic, kawaii is copied in popular entertainment (like anime), clothes, makeup, toys, personal appearance and behaviour. Big companies have mascots which look like stuffed toys. Young girls dress like kewpie dolls, with whole industries servicing cute-worship.

chi-go ichi-e: this one I particularly love. Literally, it means 'once in a lifetime'. It's why the Japanese believe that it's so important to pay attention to beautiful detail, because this second will never come again so is worth taking trouble over. A good reason that you and I are going to soak up this Japanese experience and remember it.

There's one more word I'd like to mention. Omotenashi is the word for sincerely generous hospitality. It means sensitivity and attentiveness to the needs of others. This hospitality is not offered to give satisfaction to the entertainer but to the guest. It means observing needs, desires, and mood, and fulfilling them with care and warmth. The Japanese are famous for it.

You know this beautiful apartment in Tokyo I found and booked last week? After I had booked it, and written that post for you, I suddenly woke up in the middle of the night and wondered why such a beautiful apartment was vacant at such short notice. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. It was highly unlikely. Why hadn't I thought of that at the time? Had I booked it for the right dates? I've been doing bookings for Africa in August as well.....

I leapt out of bed and raced downstairs. Checked the booking on the computer. 18-25 August. AUGUST! Not April. I wrote immediately explaining the situation to Jay, the owner. He very kindly allowed me to cancel.

New York Grill, photo courtesy Park Hyatt Tokyo

Fortunately, I hadn't cancelled my booking at the Park Hyatt, setting for the movie Lost in Translation, in the suburb of Shinjuku.

With only 3 days to go before we leave, it's time to start ticking off the jobs on my checklist. To open it, just click on the grey rectangle above. If you'd like to keep it, once it's open, right click on it and save it to your computer for the next time you travel. Add to it or delete as appropriate - please let me know if I've missed anything!

Cherry blossoms by Tanaka Juuyoh via Wikimedia Commons

We have friends who are in Japan at the moment. They've been many times, and this time went especially for sakura, or cherry blossom. I had an email from Deborah last night to say that it's about a week late this year, so although there are celebrating crowds out picnicking in droves already in Tokyo, we may yet be lucky. Mono aware?

the famous wave by Katsushika Hokusai via Wikimedia Commons

IF YOU ARE NOT RECEIVING MY EMAIL LINKS: Just a little housekeeping before I go. Further investigation in every case has shown they're in junk or spam. Not necessarily junk or spam on your computer mail application. They may not even be getting that far. Go to your provider's website on your browser instead, eg. and sign into your email account (you'll need to remember your email password). You will probably find them in the spam or junk there. Then you can mark them as not spam, and add me to your safe senders list. I'll try to mix up the email addresses I'm sending from as that may help. If worse comes to worst, then just come here each day and the latest post should be here. And don't forget the password, arigato. The links I send though, won't need a password - they'll take you straight to the actual page.

OK travellers. It's time I actually worked through that list up there and packed my bag. I'm looking forward to doing my first post from Japan, and to having you with me. You've no idea how much I love taking you. It absolutely makes my trip!

There's an expression I use when I'm ending a post, which originated on our first website trip to Europe, which I'd like to explain for those who weren't yet on board. We were going to catch one of those hop-on hop-off buses in Istanbul, but we hadn't had lunch.

I went to this young man who was standing at the door of the bus, and asked him how long it would be before the bus departed, as we wanted to buy some food at one of the nearby stalls. He smiled at me and said in a heavy accent 'Don't worry, I wait you'.

We arrive in Tokyo on Sunday night so I'll do my first post on Monday night and you should receive the email link on Tuesday morning. Until then, buddies, I wait you!

shelley dark, writer 

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