While visiting an architect’s house in Nagasaki, I noticed that the kitchen was very small in relation to the much-larger living room.
“Why is the kitchen so small, Koji?”
“I believe that beauty only comes when there is some imperfection.”
“Sooo, are you saying that the rest of your house is the perfection and your cramped little kitchen is the beautiful imperfection?’
To be honest, this philosophy is a lot to get my head around. In the west, we tend to believe that symmetry is beautiful. We also believe that more is always better. Can you imagine an American architect purposely building inconvenience into his house? I guess that’s what the Japanese concept of “wabi-sabi” is all about: appreciating beauty that is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.
My visit to my architect friend’s home in Nagasaki floats through my head as I laboriously climb the 1,368 steps from the foot of Konpira-san shrine to the temple complex at the top. WHY would anyone build a temple at the peak of a mountain and then ask devotees to climb all these darn stairs every time they want to pray?!! Could it be another case of wabi sabi? Is the whole point of the location the beautiful inconvenience?
Climbing Konpira-san is apparently a big rite of passage of sorts for the locals on Shikoku, Japan’s 4th largest island. Making it to the dop demonstrates your devotion – and your fitness. It’s an exercise in grit, in “toushi” (fighting spirit). It’s also a diverse and interesting journey. Every hundred steps or so, you come across a shop, a small eatery or a shrine. There is even, to my amazement, a horse stable. (I assume there is a backroad access to the stable!) As I make my way to the top, I can’t help thinking, “This IS pretty inconvenient. It’s certainly tiring. But I’m glad I’m doing this.” The view at the apex, with my back to the main temple, looking out at the beautiful, Shikoku countryside, makes it all worthwhile. “I made it! Take that, wabi sabi!”
(Are you a perfectionist? Does it drive you crazy when something in your home is out of place? Or when a job is done in a half-hearted way? Or when you fail at something? What would your life look like if you built in a little wabi sabi? Perhaps you let one book in your bookcase stick out a little bit and savor the slight discomfort it gives you, like looking at a piece of art that makes you feel odd and strange. Perhaps you let your own imperfections be your wabi sabi, rendering your mistakes and errors as something beautiful and precious. How about entertaining the idea that it’s your imperfections that make you lovely?)