That Japanese Aesthetic

Willow leaves blown on the wind frame verses cut in stone at the Aasakusa Shinto shrine.

There’s just something about the way the Japanese put their traditional arts together that’s instantly recognizable. Simple. Bold. Balanced. Nuanced. A very strong sense of identity confidently permeates every work. I just can’t get enough of it. I spent quite a bit of my time in Tokyo trying to record, and maybe internalize, that essential Japaneseness, trying to wrap my head around what makes this unique aesthetic work.

A decorative sign over the Nakamise-dori done in ukiyo-e style.

Pine plaques inscribed with visitor's wishes and prayers at the Meiji Jingu Shinto shrine.

Fanciful animal, character and mythological creature masks found in a shop along the Nakamise-dori, Asakusa.

I mean, even the fish have it. And yes, in a way that’s art too, since these koi were bred to have such color patterns. No, the Japanese didn’t know exactly what patterns would turn up, but they did have that sense to pick that roulette game and let it ride until something really pleasing came out. It’s the same thing, I think, with the way Japanese potters often allow glaze to run in random streaks across a bowl or teacup, so each one comes out unique after firing.

Prize koi fill the artificial stream running through the garden beside Sensoji Temple.

It’s interesting how Japanese art can at times be very formal and structured, and at other times embrace the happy accident the way it does. Was that aesthetic there even before Zen Buddhism became popular? I’m guessing it’s rooted deeply in the Japanese love for nature that permeates even that definitive megacity, Tokyo.

Ferns, fallen leaves and fungi come together in a balanced still life. How much was the work of the gardener, and how much random chance?

As my wife Cathy checked out Kiyomasa’s Well in the Meiji Jingu forest park, I turned around – simply to check out the surroundings for more possible photographs – and found this arrangement of ferns, fallen leaves, fungi and mosses on an embankment of cut logs. How much was the gardener’s work, and how much random chance?  Quite a bit of the latter, it seems – I can’t imagine a gardener stopping to rearrange those brown leaves just so every few minutes, and I’ve seen enough dead logs to know those mushrooms just pop out spontaneously. But it comes together beautifully.

The Japanese traditionally believe that spirits, the kami, are everywhere in nature. It seems here, the kami are artists too.


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