More Than Repair: Elevating Memory with Kintsugi

Humanity can be callous and wasteful, but we often form attachments to things. Can connecting with sentimentality help encourage awareness?

In this age of technology and mass production, we are accustomed to replacing things as they age and break down. It is usually easier to buy a new item rather than repairing an old one. At the same time, who hasn’t lamented that new products are not made like they used to be, that they break down more quickly or are just plain cheap? There are also those items that have sentimental value for us: grandma’s china, a trinket from a beloved friend or spouse, a piece of art or serving ware picked up while traveling. We don’t like losing these things. Any replacement will lack resonance and memory, which lie not in the form or function of the thing, but in its symbolic value as a connection between us and another person, place, time or culture. Once that connection is broken, we slide farther away from our past and feel a little less grounded. As a person who has been through three floods in my home, I have felt that discomfort and can vouch that it has little to do with materialism. We often say that stuff is “just stuff”. That is true most of the time, but not when it has memory attached to it.


Image © Howard Freeman with CCLicense

Japanese artisans have a way of memorializing such objects when they are broken. It’s called kintsugi, the art of repairing ceramics with lacquer and gold leaf, elevating them to the level of fine art. They may or may not lose functionality in the process, but they become more precious and gain more significance as symbols. This beautiful film from the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England gives a marvelous taste of this traditional art form.

The golden connections of kintsugi remind us that relationships and connections are important, that they cannot be replaced. In our pursuit of innovation and excellence, we have to be careful to safeguard and nourish those things that make us human. The synchronicity we find there is worth the time and effort spent.

The next time you break something precious, think about making it into a piece of art. If you need help doing that, there are artisans like the makieshi and disciplines like kintsugi in many cultures. They can enrich your life with symbols, repurposing and elevating what has broken or been worn out. These artisans need the work and our global culture needs the richness they supply. What can be more excellent than honoring our experience and those who have impacted our lives?




What Lies Between: Exploring the Japanese Tea Garden

Transitioning from busy exterior lives to our private lives is difficult. How do we keep a quiet place for ourselves?

Kingston Lacy Japanese Tea  Garden, Dorset, Great Britain © Ray Beer with CCLicense

Kingston Lacy Japanese Tea Garden, Dorset, Great Britain
© Ray Beer with CCLicense

The Japanese tea ceremony, cha-no-yu, and tea garden, roji, evolved from traditions and tea from China. The Buddhist monk Eichū  was the first person acknowledged to celebrate the ceremony in Japan during the 9th Century, after returning from a trip to the mainland, where tea had been known for many centuries. It was seen as an enlightened and civilized practice and developed deep spiritual significance.

The word roji has its origin in characters that mean “path”, “ground” and “dewiness”. It came to be used as a term for the area that lies between the main house and the chashitsu, the room or house where the tea ceremony is performed. Guests do not only pass through the roji, but use the area to prepare their minds, spirits and bodies before the host invites them inside the tea house. Thus the roji is not only a physical path, but a spiritual one.

Yugao-tei  Chashitsu in Kanazawa, Japan © OpenHistory with CCLicense

Yugao-tei Chashitsu in Kanazawa, Japan
© OpenHistory with CCLicense

Green Gulch Zen Temple, San Francisco, CA, USA © kafka4prez with CCLicense

Green Gulch Zen Temple, San Francisco, CA, USA
© kafka4prez with CCLicense

Over time, the roji became a garden. Ideally, it provides an elegant and yet simple scene, a backdrop to a ceremony of solemnity and beauty. The roji includes a tsukubai, or ablution basin, where visitors wash away the dust of the outside world by performing a ritual hand washing and rinsing of the mouth.

Tsukubai at Ryōan-ji temple in Kyoto. The inscription reads, "I only know plenty." © Michael Maggs with CCLicense

Tsukubai at Ryōan-ji temple in Kyoto, Japan. The inscription reads, “I only know plenty.”
© Michael Maggs with CCLicense

Tsukubai at Tofukuji (Tofuku Temple), Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan © Totorin with CCLicense

Tsukubai at Tofukuji (Tofuku Temple), Kyoto
© Totorin with CCLicense

Tsukubai at Rengeji, Kyoto

Tsukubai at Rengeji, Kyoto
© KWR with CCLicense

tōrō, or lantern, stands in the garden. Stepping stones, tob-ishi, lead to the tea house, which is often behind a wicket gate. The stones are laid out in a simple and naturalistic manner, sometimes alternating right and left to facilitate walking.

Tōrō at Shukkei-en Garden, Hiroshima Public Domain Image

Tōrō at Shukkei-en Garden, Hiroshima
Public Domain Image

Tea House at Roji at the Adachi Museum of Art, Yasugi, Japan © Bjoernord with CCLicense

Tea House and Roji at the Adachi Museum of Art, Yasugi, Japan, featuring a lovely path of tob-ishi, or floating stones and simple gate.
© Bjoernord with CCLicense

Some roji feature ginshanada, areas of gravel or white sand that, among other things, symbolize openness to experience and the changeable nature of life. These “empty” spaces may be raked into patterns made during contemplation or left pristine. Typically the tob-ishi path will cross through the ginshanada. The raked patterns often recall water ripples, just as the ginshanada are reminiscent of lakes or streams. This style is known as karesansui, or rock gardening, but many westerners refer to it as Zen gardening, pointing to its origins in Buddhist meditative practice.

Harima ankokuji, Kato, Japan  © Jnn with CCLicense

Harima ankokuji, Kato, Japan
© Jnn with CCLicense

Zuiho-in Temple, Kyoto was founded in 1535 by Otomo Sorin (Otomo Yoshishige, 1530-1587), who was later baptized and became one of a few Christian lords in Japan.

Roji at Zuiho-in Temple, Kyoto, founded 1535 by Otomo Sorin, who later converted to Christianity.
Public Domain Image

Garden plantings are simple and emphasize form and texture rather than color, most often eschewing flowers for evergreens, mosses and grasses. Ume, plum trees, and maples may be included and do provide some color. As opposed to many western gardens, where plants are trimmed to produce blooms, plants here are cultivated for healthy foliage and beautiful shape. The goal is to achieve a sculpted and yet natural look that does not draw attention to itself, but encourages the contemplation of good things.

Pureland Japanese Garden, North Clifton, UK © Richard Croft with CCLicense

Pureland Japanese Garden, North Clifton, UK
© Richard Croft with CCLicense

When I enter a space like the roji, my mind rests from “being productive” or flowering. I become aware of the invaluable beauty of health and enjoy simply being present. I can also appreciate the work that must be done to keep the space orderly and functional. We don’t all have space or time for physical gardens, but we do require some open space in ourselves for quietness and preparation in order to keep our inner selves from being suffocated. In that sense we are all gardeners. What is it that you cultivate in your life?

Signs of the Times: Isolation in Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro

Society changes constantly. How do we respond to the alienation and loneliness that result from these changes?

© Adopt a Negotiator with CCLicense

© Adopt a Negotiator with CCLicense

Kokoro, which can be translated as The Heart of Things, is a novel written by Natsume Soseki in 1914, at the end of what is known as the Meiji period in Japan. It is full of insight into how changes in culture can exacerbate rifts between family and friends while human nature remains, at the heart, the same. Emotions like jealousy, loneliness, awe and love are felt by everyone, but upbringing, personality and experience shape the expression of those emotions, sometimes rendering them unrecognizable.

Natsume Soseki Public Domain Image

Natsume Soseki
Public Domain Image

Soseki was no stranger to the cruelties of society. At the time of his birth, his mother was 40 and his father was 53, which was considered disgraceful, especially since they already had five children. His parents disowned him out of embarrassment and he was adopted by a childless couple who divorced when he was 9. He was then forced to return to a mother who pitied him and a father who found him a nuisance, something that would set the stage for both a frustrated life and a flourishing literary career.

Kokoro is in three parts. The first deals with the friendship between a student and an older man, referred to as Sensei, or elder. The second explores the relationship between this young man and his own family. The last is a flashback to Sensei’s youth and the turmoil that wounded him for life. The novel is a slow moving, understated psychological drama that builds up a surprising amount of suspense before the revelation of its last few pages and its abrupt ending. Its form perfectly reflects its subject matter.

The Meiji, or Enlightened Rule, era extended from 1868 to 1912. During those 44 years, Japan transformed itself from a feudal society to an industrialized one. Rather than looking to China for guidance, Japanese leaders turned their gaze to the West, adopting a Prussian style government and sending young men and women to Europe and America to learn how to be competitive. The abrupt shift from a culture derived from the Asian mainland, which relied heavily on strict Taoist and Confucian codes for behavior, to a culture influenced by Western society, at best liberating and at worst cruelly opportunist, was earth shattering. The very meaning of being civilized changed within a generation.

The New Fighting the Old Artist unknown, ca 1870 Public Domain Image

The New Fighting the Old
Artist unknown, ca 1870
Public Domain Image

Our narrator, the student, looks to Sensei for guidance, despite some serious red flags: this older gentleman has never held a job, has a strained relationship with his wife, and visits an old grave once a day which he refuses to discuss. It’s the undecipherable nature of Sensei that keeps the reader and the narrator engaged throughout the first part of the novel. There is something undeniably modern and nonconformist about him, despite his reserved exterior.

Traditional Japanese Kitchen © FlickreviewR with CCLicense

Traditional Japanese Hearth
© FlickreviewR with CCLicense

In the second part, the narrator’s father grows ill and dies, revealing conflicting visions of the future. He is pressed to go to Tokyo and get a job or to stay in the countryside and care for his aging mother. The first option is terrifying and severs his connection to his roots, while the second is stultifying and wastes the opportunities provided him by his education. This quandary is the same choice presented to Japan at the end of the Meiji Period, an ominous choice which Soseki does not attempt to answer. The novelist, a man squarely in line with Meiji thought, like Sensei himself, knows his time is passing. It is the youth who must change the paradigm.

Finally, in the third part, narrated by Sensei, we are allowed to see the emotions moving beneath the calm surface of the older man’s persona. We learn that he, too, experienced the disconnect between modern education and traditional upbringing, something which is by no means unique to early 20th century Japan. A stranger in his own home, he sought to make a new home, living as a boarder with an older woman and her daughter. After losing many of their rights during the Edo period (1615-1868), women were just beginning to own property once more. This was a new phenomenon and not socially acceptable, particularly since he was not related to these women. Things became truly uncomfortable when he invited a male friend to live with them.

Reading by Nakamura Daizaburo (1898-1947) image © Plum leaves with CCLicense

Reading by Nakamura Daizaburo (1898-1947)
image © Plum leaves with CCLicense

Sensei’s difficulties have been exacerbated by his inability to allow his wife, or anyone else, for that matter, into his thoughts. Young women of the Meiji period were encouraged to get an education, something which was, during the later Edo period, reserved for geisha, women who were unsuitable for the higher purpose of marriage and motherhood. While Sensei is not so conservative, he isn’t modern either. He’s afraid that acknowledging the ugliness he has lived through would destroy her, who is to him so spotlessly beautiful, and so he has kept her at a distance. Insulating her from the darker parts of his character costs not only her humanity and perhaps even the fulfillment as a mother that she once desired, but condemns him to a lonely existence. If there is any lesson in Sensei’s experience, it is that neither tradition nor competition will bring fulfillment in the absence of communication and empathy. The correctness of our views is far less important than how we engage others.



From the Master’s Hand: The Making of a Japanese Ichimatsu Doll

Ichimatsu dolls completed and costumed © Kenpei with CCLicense

Ichimatsu dolls completed and costumed
© Kenpei with CCLicense

Please enjoy the delightful video below showing the construction of a Japanese Ichimatsu doll. Even without the ability to read the subtitles I was moved by the process and the craftsmanship involved. Such detail! No wonder these handmade dolls, or ningyo, human forms, can be extremely expensive, especially if they were made in an earlier century. These ningyo are perfectly proportioned representations of little girls and boys, with glass eyes and beautiful skin. This skin is created by covering the clay body, which must first be molded, fired, and cooled, with layers of gofun, a paste made from powdered oyster shell and animal glue. It hardens into an incredibly smooth and white surface, which can then be worked and painted to magical effect. Ichimatsu dolls are not the only ningyo covered with gofun, which graces the faces and hands of many figures, from babies to townspeople, geishas, emperors and empresses.

Video via shibuya246com on YouTube. Stay tuned for a photoblog featuring more ethnic dolls.

Moments from Other Lives: Thoughts on Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore

Are you attracted to characters and story lines that surprise you? Life doesn’t always make sense and neither does art.

© semihundido with CCLicense

© semihundido with CCLicense

Many literary works are peopled with stereotypes and follow formulae which have been set down by tradition. We are used to villains, jilted lovers, clever servants, even flawed heroes, and we know how they should behave and how their actions should be rewarded. Sometimes it is fulfilling to see our sensibilities validated, especially if we live in a world that does not often recognize those sensibilities, but, as a steady diet, this becomes boring and can even discourage empathy in our daily lives.

Dalí Atomicus by Philippe Halsman

Dalí Atomicus by Philippe Halsman

Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore presents us with characters and a chain of events that are on the other side of the spectrum: illogical, inconsistent, sometimes inexplicable. It often seems as if Murakami himself wasn’t fully aware of the directions his characters were taking. Yet, when looked at in retrospect, there are forces here that can be recognized, providing a sense of cause and effect that is full of synchronicity while avoiding rational sense. Marukami leaves plenty of things below the surface for the reader to find without spelling them out or providing a map.

Two main narratives are woven together: that of a fifteen year old runaway calling himself “Kafka” Tamura and that of Satoru Nakata, an old man who lost his capacity for coherent thought as a result of a mysterious accident in his youth during World War II. These two characters interact without ever coming into direct contact with each other, tied together by a murder which never quite makes sense. Unexpectedly, simple Nakata, who cannot read and spends his days hunting for lost cats, is often an inspiring and even powerful figure, while Tamura does as he pleases and is drawn into a trap which he perceives but cannot avoid.

Colonel Sanders, KFC Japan © Alvin Lee with CCLicense

Colonel Sanders, KFC Japan
© Alvin Lee with CCLicense

Each character they interact with has his or her own story, equally fascinating, but peripheral. We may wonder about the lonely and beautiful Miss Saeki, enshrined in a library dedicated to the family of her dead lover; about Sakura, the quirky hairdresser who remains obliging but somehow distant; or about Oshima, the library assistant, a gender ambiguous hemophiliac possessed of deep wisdom and compassion, but these characters are only granted meaning and interest by their relationship with Tamura. The world of Nakata is even stranger, inhabited by talking cats, spirit-concepts masquerading as popular culture icons such as Johnnie Walker and Colonel Sanders, and one friend, a young truck driver named Hoshino, who becomes Nakata’s disciple.

Every one of us is losing something precious to us. Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again. That’s part of what it means to be alive. But inside our heads–at least that’s where I imagine it–there’s a little room where we store those memories. A room like the stacks in this library. And to understand the workings of our own heart we have to keep on making new reference cards. We have to dust things off every once in a while, let in fresh air, change the water in the flower vases. In other words, you’ll live forever in your own private library.


Tape Library of CERN, Geneva  © gruntzooki with CCLicense

Tape Library of CERN, Geneva
© gruntzooki with CCLicense

One of the central metaphors of Kafka on the Shore is that of the mind as a library, a place where our lives and memories exist. Like the novel itself, this library is populated by strange visions of the self and other people. Here are a couple of candles or flashlights that you might find useful if you want to go exploring. I highly recommend you crawl into this novel, get dirty, and see what you can find.

The Larger Mind: The Collective Unconscious Construct

Imagine our world as a library. You and I and everyone else we know are books that stand next to each other on a shelf, supported by other shelves and surrounded by volumes we will never see, let alone read. Each book, from tome to graphic novel, is unique and individual and centers on a main character. Can you imagine that, lying close to each other on the shelves, we might occasionally and inexplicably intermingle our stories? Like Nakata and Tamura, we are partners in something beyond ourselves. What if something that happened to you happened to me instead?

Bookshelves in Urbanian Pavilion, World Expo 2010, Shanghai, China © Lucia Wang with CCLicense

Bookshelves in Urbanian Pavilion, World Expo 2010, Shanghai, China
© Lucia Wang with CCLicense

In dreams and fantasies, moments of synchronicity or surrealism, we sometimes get a glimpse of this immense library of human experience. These visions are often celebrated and shared through the arts. The earth moves. The dead show us things and our struggles get confused with theirs. Miss Saeki, a mother figure to Kafka, is known to him in a in very shocking way as he identifies with her dead lover. The Oedipal complex revealed here is one of the most uncomfortable features of the novel and screams to be dealt with in a non-literal fashion.

The Smaller Mind: The Self Construct

Alchemist, Jaume Plensa  image © Ezequiel Zwik with CCLicense

Alchemist, Jaume Plensa
image © Ezequiel Zwik with CCLicense

Imagine yourself as a library of memories and experiences, illogical and wonderful. Can you see within yourself separate characters–the child, the fifteen year old, the newlywed? Some of these selves seem to be from different stories, even different genres. Where do these people go as we age and how do they interact within our own being to make us the people we are right now?  

Perhaps all of the characters in Kafka on the Shore are archetypal elements of one person: the absent mother, the oppressive father, the runaway, the wise and holy old fool. This raises another question. Which character is the true main character? This story could be about an old man dealing with the loss of his wife, or a woman coming to terms with her estrangement and separation from her lover and family. It could be about a fifteen year old boy who sees himself repeating the mistakes of his parents. Perhaps it is an allegory about modern Japan itself, still reeling from damage done in World War II. In overlaying a world not so different from our own with visions from the subconscious mind, Murakami has created a library full of stories in one book, which can be reread time and time again from a different viewpoint. Genius!

Time to Play With Your Food: The Art of Bento

©Raphaël Labbé with CCLicense

©Raphaël Labbé with CCLicense

What happens where creativity, status, and practicality meet? In this case, lunch! Bento encourages you to play with your food.

Bento is a homemade or takeout meal common in Japan. Traditionally packed into boxes, some of which are very elegant, basic bento consists of rice with fish or meat and vegetables. The bento has been around for centuries, much longer than the western lunch box, but recently parents and artists in Japan and around the globe have elevated the art of bento food preparation to new heights. Using the natural texture, color and structure of food, along with modern accessories and food coloring, people are making pictures.

Video via Harley Anderegg on YouTube.

Some Bento are called kyaraben or character bento. They often depict popular characters, such as these from Miyazaki’s film My Neighbor, Totoro. Amusing and cute as they are, I would be torn between eating and admiring them. What’s it like to take a bite of your favorite cartoon personality or celebrity figure?

© Héctor García with CCLicense

© Héctor García with CCLicense

© Mokiko - Bohnenhase with CCLicense

© Mokiko – Bohnenhase with CCLicense

Another form of Bento is the oekakiben or picture bento. These can be nature scenes like the one below:

© Sakurako Kitsa with CCLicense

Canada Geese © Sakurako Kitsa with CCLicense

closeup © Sakurako Kitsa with CCLicense

closeup © Sakurako Kitsa with CCLicense

or cityscapes like this one. You can devour Berlin!!

Berlin Skyline © Mokiko - Bohnenhouse with CCLicense

Berlin Skyline © Mokiko – Bohnenhase with CCLicense

Bento began in the 12th Century out of practicality. Rice was cooked, dried, and placed in a bag for later. Brown bag lunch, anyone? By the end of the 16th century it became fashionable to place foodstuffs into beautiful lacquered boxes to be used at tea parties. Travelers carried bento boxes made from bamboo on the road, and bento was served between acts at theatrical performances of Noh and Kabuki plays as well as on holidays. Bento is entwined with Japanese culture and symbolism.

The offering below is more than gorgeous, but at some point you are cutting into a pretty neck. Sadistic? No. Just don’t think about it. No one complains when we cut up Oscar the Grouch for a birthday party.


Geisha © Sakurako Kitsa with CCLicense

During the 20th century the bento box fell into disfavor, especially in school, because it clearly revealed the status of the student and brought economic disparity into focus in the classroom. A child was judged by his peers for what was in the bento box, and would be envied or ridiculed accordingly. After World War II, with Japan’s economy in shambles, there were no longer the resources for such luxuries anyway. Children and teachers were provided simple and uniform school lunches by the public school. But who could resist something so beautiful for long?

© Megan with CCLicense

© Megan with CCLicense

In the 1980s, thanks to the microwave oven, the convenience store and ingenious marketing, bento made a comeback. It was seen as a clever way to get children interested in eating, and, sometimes, to encourage them to eat healthy food rather than processed goods. Many parents of Asian school children labor over these elaborate lunches, some of which take hours to prepare and mere minutes for a hungry child to devour. Once again bento is at the intersection of status, practicality, and creativity, and it is set to conquer the world.

Here’s some more pictures by some of the best bento artists on the web. Pi, anyone? Wait, something is wrong here…


© Sheri Chen with CCLicense


Goyza Girls © Sakurako Kitsa with CCLicense

© Megan with CCLicense

© Megan with CCLicense


© Wendy Copley with CCLicense

© Vingt Deux with CCLicense

© vingt-deux with CCLicense

© Vingt Deux with CCLicense

© vingt-deux with CCLicense

© Megan with CCLicense© Megan with CCLicense

© Sakurako Kitsa with CCLicense

© Sakurako Kitsa with CCLicense

© Thomas Bertrand with CCLicense

© Thomas Bertrand with CCLicense

with CCLicense

Mock Lobster © Sakurako Kitsa with CCLicense

Skill and Confidence: Dragon Painting from Nikko, Japan

Two Dragons in Clouds by Kanō Hōgai

Two Dragons in Clouds by Kanō Hōgai

In the Japanese town of Nikko, which lies to the north of Tokyo, there is a shop famous for paintings of dragons. Below you can watch an artist from that shop freehand a fantastic dragon right before your eyes using traditional techniques passed down from one generation of artists to the next for centuries. The use of pressure on the large brush to create the illusion of scales is mind-blowing, as are the vivid hand mixed colors and the complete assurance and steady hand of the painter. It’s both enchanting and relaxing to see such skill. I’d tell you more, but I don’t even know the artist’s name.

Japanese dragons, like those of the Chinese, are usually water spirits that depict either rainfall or a body of water such as a lake, river or ocean. As such, they are typically wingless, snakelike beings with taloned feet, as opposed to the heavyset, winged dragons from the European imagination.

Video via MonkandTemples on Youtube.

Coming of Age in Red and White: Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s Furisodeshon

Happy Valentine’s Day 2013 to everyone! Here’s a little eye candy and ear worm.

In Japan there is a holiday called Seijin no Hi, or Coming of Age Day, celebrated in January. Girls who have reached the age of twenty in the past year are dressed in elaborate, long-sleeved kimonos known as furisodes, signifying their entry into adulthood and availability for marriage. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu turned twenty at the end of last month. Here she wonders what growing up will be like and imagines herself celebrating in the “adult” way, a child’s vision of smoking and drinking (and getting sick). The title of this song is Furisodeshon, or Furisode-tion. Kyary doesn’t wear the furisode here and seems somewhat loathe to grow up. She fears she will lose her dreams, although she is excited about the future. Red and white are considered an auspicious color combination in Japan, reflecting both maturity and purity.

Video via warnermusicjapan on Youtube.

Rough translation from
20 20 20 20
I’m I’m 20 years old furisode~tion
I’m just 20 20 20 years old
Isn’t that right? I’m 20 years old furisode~tion

Hello, this kind of anniversary
I’m able to say “thank you” from my heart
Usually it’s embarrassing, but
It’s a once in a life time special day

Chocolate’s bitter parts
Are you an adult? Are you a child?
Because I want to have dreams forever
Go along with this rhythm

20 20 20 20
I’m I’m 20 years old furisode~tion
I’m just 20 20 20 years old
Isn’t that right? I’m 20 years old furisode~tion

What am I going as far as saying “thank you” for?
I had various experiences
It’ll be good if this year is like that too
I won’t forget this excitement

To you who is always falling in love
Like the sour filling inside a shortcake
Let’s turn off the lights and light candles

20 20 20 20
I’m I’m 20 years old furisode~tion
I’m just 20 20 20 years old
Isn’t that right? I’m 20 years old frisked~tion

When I become an adult, will I be happy?
When I become an adult, will I be sad?
What will I do? What will I be able to do?
Will I be unable to do more than now?

20 20 20 20
I’m I’m 20 years old furisode~tion
I’m just 20 20 20 years old
Isn’t that right? I’m 20 years old furisode~tion

We’ve featured Kyary before here.