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Wabi-Sabi: An Imperfect Guide to Japan

Design, Architecture, Guide

Words Vidula KotianDate 23 September 2020

As we assess all that we’ve taken for granted this year, we found that travel is high on that list. We are dreaming about traveling through Japan but find that  it’s also become important to ask how and why. Inspired by the unique Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, we decided to peer into this captivating land through this special lens.

But first, what does wabi-sabi mean? Leonard Koren’s Wabi-Sabi: Further Thoughts defines it as “something that happens when conditioned and habituated ways of looking at things fall away, when things are defamiliarized.

“The beauty of wabi-sabi involves perceiving something extraordinary in something that might otherwise be regarded as quite ordinary, undistinguished, or barely there. It is often represented by the entropic processes of nature made visible.”

In order to perceive this “beauty of things modest and humble, imperfect and impermanent,” slow travel, not just as a particular mode of transportation but  as a mindset, seemed apt. Japan is incredibly easy to get around: The shinkansen (bullet train)—whose ergonomic front was inspired by the  kingfisher’s bill—runs all the way from the southern tip of Kyūshū (the southernmost of Japan’s major islands) up to Hokkaidō (its northernmost). Like the shinkansen, all routes lead to and out from Tokyo.

200910 Japan Map 1234@2X

Know your Shinkasen

——  It’s economical to get tickets online before you get to Japan.
——  The ticket offices are called the Midori no Madoguchi.
——  Two tickets are necessary to take the shinkansen: a basic fare and an express ticket.
——  With the Japan Rail Pass, you can take all trains, including local, shinkansen, and other special trains.
——  Reserve a seat by the window to have access to an electrical outlet. The seats rotate.
——  The trains run at more than 200 km per hour.
——  An ekiben is a lunchbox available for purchase at stations and onboard. Some major stations offer incredible regional specialties.


Modern constructs, ancient methods: nothing is perfect nor fully complete

Nowhere is Japan’s ability to fuse ancient traditions with modern life more natural than in this dazzling city. Embodying this spirit is K5, set near the former Stock Exchange and serving as the connecting point between the traditional area of Imperial Palace and hip Eastern Tokyo. A former bank from the 1920s converted into a 20-room Swedish-minimalism-meets-Japanese-heritage hotel, K5 presents a subtle elegance that invites one to sit back and slowly take in the details. From here, you can take off to wander city streets that have more architectural gems than perhaps anywhere else in the world.

Built in 1972 in just 30 days by Kisho Kurakawa, the Nakagin Capsule Tower is a prime example of the metabolist movement, which revolved around ideas of impermanence and change as in nature. The building looks like a stack of laundry machines, comprised of prefabricated “removeable” cubes that were then attached to two concrete cores. The capsules, planned for a 25-year lifespan, proved too costly to replace. Instead, Nakagin Capsule Tower became a utopia never realized. It is also a reminder of paths not taken and a future that never arrived.

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DH Japan Bullet Train 01 CThe building is attached with 140 removable capsules

Not far from the hip Trunk Hotel Cat Street where Japanese craftmanship abounds, there’s another masterpiece—Tadao Ando’s 21_21 Design Sight gallery for Issey Miyake—an art bunker sliced up with lines of light. Ando is fastidious about fabrication: his concrete is created using plastic-coated plywood so that it is entirely smooth, but its surface is punctuated by the holes left by the cones that keep his form-ties in place while the concrete sets. Here is industrial wabi-sabi at its best.

Our last pitstop in the city is a rare breed of shop, Pigment, which stocks over 4,200 colors of pigments, more than 200 antique ink sticks, inkstones, and washi paper, making it as much a museum as a retail store. The gorgeous art supply store has been designed by Kengo Kuma who paneled the ceiling with an organic, undulating design comprised of bamboo slats. Pigment positions itself as a repository for knowledge and tradition to be passed on to younger generations.

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Pigment store Kengo Kuma's design features an undulating ceiling

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Nature takes over art

Hakone’s Yumoto Station is a short hour-and-a-half train ride from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station. Known for its spectacular mountain scenery crowned by Mt Fuji, Hakone makes for a blissful escape, especially at the otherworldly gem Hakone Retreat by Onko Chishin in Fuji-hakone-izu National Park. Each villa at the retreat is made from local trees with large windows to draw one’s attention to the surrounding forest in various stages of growth and decomposition, reminding us of the transience of life—an important element of wabi-sabi.

Hakone also offers visitors world-class cultural outposts, such as the 70,000-square-meter Hakone Open-Air Museum. The expansive sculpture garden tenders surprises around every corner, with pieces that portray both profound philosophical truths and whimsical flights of fancy, all set against a mountainous landscape. Among featured works are a diverse Picasso collection and the arresting 1986 sculpture La Pleureuse (meaning the mourner) by Francois-Xavier and Claude Lalanne that has only gotten more beautiful with age. Tezuka Architects’ permanent pavilion Woods of Net features artist Toshiko Horiuchi Macadam’s knitted piece that lets young visitors discover just how much fun art can be by inviting them to crawl, roll, and jump on it.

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Woods of Net featuring net artist Macadam Image © 2020 FOTOTECA Ltd

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The inevitable mortality embound in nature A key to a true understanding of wabi-sabi

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La Pleureuse sculpture


Witness the beauty of age

A three-hour-ride away from Odawara Station, Kyoto shines a light on old Japan with its atmospheric temples, sublime gardens, traditional teahouses, and geishas hurrying down the streets. While most visitors flock to the more famous Kinkakuji, an ornate temple covered in gold leaf, they miss the traditional Ginkakuji, a wooden Zen temple with quiet gardens on the same grounds. Its aged wood holds countless hues and patterns, while the Zen moss and dry sand gardens offer a frame for nature’s many shapes. 

Another overlooked site are the moss-covered guardians of the Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Buddhist temple. When the original 8th-century temple was destroyed by a typhoon, the priests decided to rebuild it piece by piece in a safer location. One of the priests added Buddhist stone carvings to the property, in turn teaching it to the townspeople whose work is mixed in with his own. The 1,200 stone statues spill down the hillside and gazing into their serene faces is an almost meditative experience.

In the center of the city, Node Kyoto’s soothing gray palette is designed to quiet the mind of visitors as they transition from the busy streets to the hotel. Here, a sublimely tranquil living room and library is adorned with a world-class collection of modern art.

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Ginkakuji wooden Zen temple

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Otagi Nenbutsu-ji's guardians


Appreciate where you are and enjoy the journey

If Kyoto was the city of the courtly nobility and Tokyo the city of the samurai, then Osaka was the city of the merchant class. Less than an hour from Kyoto by train, Osaka has been known for its Onsen since AD 700. Onsen bathing has long been appreciated for its meditative quality and due to the city’s high concentration of hot springs, even royalty have passed through to soak in the geothermal baths.

Rumored to be the oldest Onsen in Japan and a day trip from Osaka, Saki-no-Yu offers rotenburo (open-air bathing) overlooking the grandeur of the Pacific Ocean. In the city, Naniwa no Yu is one of the finest for a relaxing evening under the stars with six open-air baths encased in a peaceful rooftop garden. 

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“The beauty of things modest and humble, imperfect and impermanent.”

Leonard Koren

Okayama and the Art Islands

It’s all about repurposing

Situated in the southern corner of the Okayama prefecture, Kurashiki has a Venice-like air with a canal running through the city, Edo-era architecture, and abundant natural beauty. Off the coast of Okayama are the art islands of Inujima and Naoshima in the Seto Inland Sea. Naoshima is the best known of the islands with several major museums, including the Ando Tadao designed Benesse House Museum and the remarkable Chichu Art Museum.

Not to be outdone, Inujima boasts one of the more dramatic and thought-provoking museums in all of Japan. Breathing new life into the ruins of a former copper refinery, Inujima Seirensho Art Museum was built around the idea of “using what exists to create what is to be”. By utlizing the existing smokestacks and karami bricks from the refinery, as well as solar, geothermal, and other natural energies, the architectural design minimizes the construction’s environmental impact. 

From Naoshima, take the train to Matsuyama and a short car ride to another stunning Tadao Ando masterpiece—Setouchi Retreat by Onko Chishin, with its high dose of Zen-inflected minimalism. The seven-suite wonder rises up like a dreamscape from the coastal vegetation on Japan’s smallest island, Shikoku. 

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Kurashiki's Edo-era architecture

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A Venice-like city A canal runs through Kurashiki

Hiroshima and Miyajima

Marrying spirituality to the metaphysics of nature

From Matsuyama, Hiroshima is a ferry and train ride away. It is home to two of Japan’s most famous UNESCO World Heritage sites: the somber A-Bomb Dome of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and Itsukushima Shrine, the only Shinto shrine in Japan that floats on the sea. The very short cruise to Miyajima Island is not only worth it to visit the 18-meter-high red Torii Gate but a hike to Mount Misen affords a 360-degree panorama view of the island and the surrounding Seto Inland Sea. 

Fukuoka and Iki Island

Cherish the old and the transient nature of things

From Hiroshima, take the train to Fukuoka, a breezy coastal city that comes alive at sunset when dozens of yatai food stands start sizzling. While these open-air market stalls used to be popular across Japan, they’ve disappeared pretty much everywhere except Fukuoka, making them one of Kyūshū’s most unique cultural drawcards. Don’t miss the top local specialty here, Hakata reman—thin noodles in a rich pork bone broth named after the ancient half of the city that now forms half of modern Fukuoka.

A little over an hour’s ferry ride away, the Iki Island is known as “A Sanctuary of Gods”, thanks to its 1,000-plus shrines and natural allure fostered by the ocean. Lending itself naturally to a wellness and spiritual escape, Iki Retreat by Onko Chishin, the last stop on this mind-altering journey, is the place to contemplate wabi-sabi’s central conceit: that of accepting and being open to embracing the beauty of flaws and nature’s rawness.

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The shrine's bamboo passage

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The 18-meter Torii shrine

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A Yatai stand in Fukuoka Popular in Japan since late 1800s

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