Wabisabi Onsen Small


Wabi-Sabi in everyday life

When we lived in Tokyo, we quickly grew tired of the glitzy glamour of Ginza and Harajuku’s fashionable hipsters.  Each year found us moving further westward, where the dense forests and overlapping mountains called to us. Every chance we had, we explored the lonely towns of Yamanashi, Nagano and Tochigi prefectures, off the established tourist routes.

This picture was taken at an onsen ryokan inn run by friends of friends, deep in the forest hills of Oita in Yufuin no Mori. It would be difficult to find this place again, it is so unknown even to Google. It was operated by a strong, quiet woman and her two grown daughters. She walked into the forest at dawn each morning to pick fresh flowers and herbs to make into tempura or garnish for breakfast, or to brew into potent tonics, served as aperitifs with dinner.  It was one of the most magical, memorable experiences we’ve had. When you leave the vast area called Tokyo, suddenly you find people living harmoniously with nature as they have been for centuries. Minimal intrusion creating maximum beauty.

I realized recently that what we enjoyed most about Japan was the embodiment of Wabi-Sabi, a trendy word/concept that I never really paid attention to before.

Wabi-Sabi is a term that is difficult to translate, and so if you ask any Japanese person what it means, you will hear either “there is no translation into English” or “it is very difficult to translate”. This BBC article was one of the best explanations of how we can understand Wabi-Sab and how its manifested in our lives. Here is an excerpt from the article that I really appreciated.

‘This idea brought to mind a story a Japanese colleague told me when we discussed wabi-sabi. Visiting Kyoto as a teenager, she had hurried through the grounds of Ginkakuji, a wooden Zen temple with quiet gardens, eager to see the more famous Kinkakuji, an ornate temple covered in gold leaf and perched above a reflective pond. Bright, stunning and glamorous, it lived up to her expectations, a far more impressive beauty than its traditional sister temple.

A few decades later, however, she returned to find the gold garish and, while it was certainly eye-catching, there was little beyond the immediate gratification of the gold leaf. Ginkakuji, however, offered a new fascination: the aged wood held countless hues and patterns, while the Zen moss and dry sand gardens offered a frame for nature’s many shapes. Unable to appreciate these things as a child, she had grown to see the ravages of time as a deeper source of beauty, far greater than a two-dimensional flash of gold.”’

Wabi-Sabi can only be appreciated with the passing of time, beauty that comes from being weathered and having the resilience that comes only from overcoming obstacles. That is what we find in nature, and we can find it in ourselves.

Photo Credit: Chris Zaic

Yumi Zaic

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