A part of traditional Japanese aesthetics, in the last few decades this discipline has made its way over to the west, where it offers a fresh contrast to our ideals.

We could all do with a bit more asymmetry in our lives. Many things pretend to be perfect. It removes you from reality when something is too impeccable.

“Wabi-sabi” is a concept from Japanese aesthetics and a long held philosophy within the country. It comes from Buddhism’s “three marks of existence”: impermanence, suffering, and emptiness.

Where does the phrase come from?

The term “wabi-sabi” is derived from two terms that have no direct translation into english, so bear with for a bit of a longer explanation. It comes from “wabi” which technically means loneliness, but more accurately describes a pleasant remoteness from the modern world and being alone in the natural one (similar to the country’s practice of shinrin-yoku, which we have written about previously), and “sabi” which refers to a state of being weathered - not damaged, per se, more… rustic? It’s that level of elegance and refinement that can only come to something that is aged.

The worldview generally revolves around learning to accept that the world changes and is imperfect. There are things that are momentary, fleeting, asymmetrical, uneven and rough, but still beautiful. Wabi-sabi is about being able to see that the world is gorgeous because of its imperfections, not in spite of them. Appreciate that what is now present will change, and that’s what makes this moment so special.

Wabi-sabi in art and creation

One example of how this attitude can manifest within Japan is in the pottery used in the country’s tea ceremonies. The pottery in such ceremonies is often rough and never quite symmetrical, with a design that draws attention to it’s simplistic and uneven construction. Many of these pieces are even deliberately chipped to highlight this aesthetic, in the belief that this gives the object a greater meditative value. In wabi-sabi, an object becomes more interesting and beautiful as we see the changes that can occur to it as it exists over a long period of time (the colour of the glaze in the tea bowl changes as more and more boiling water is repeatedly poured into it; a jacket becomes more nostalgic and personal and treasured once we have worn it a long time and it has become scuffed and faded).

The concept is adjacent to “kintsugi” (also known as “kintsukuroi”, with both terms meaning “golden joinery” and “golden repair”, respectively), an artistic practice where instead of mending broken pottery in such a way that it appears as if it was never broken, a lacquer mixed with precious metals like gold, silver, and platinum is used, which highlights and stand out while sealing the break. Philosophically, this method treats a breakage as part of an object’s story and richness, as opposed to something one should levy against it.

What can this mean for our worldview?

Wabi-sabi combines the aesthetic and philosophical to form a perspective and understanding of what exists that the modern west would do well to appreciate and understand.

What is perfection? Do we place emotional stock in the things that are new and symmetrical, or those items we have owned for a long time that show their wear and tear, and have memories attached to them? Does that not mean that the latter has clearly more value?

In western society, both as people and within creative endeavours, it so often feels like perfection is asked - no, demanded - of us. That pressure is insurmountable. Real peace of mind comes from understanding that it is as something becomes less “perfect” and more personal and worldly and aged that it gains a deeper meaning and importance.

I find thinking about wabi-sabi in reference to my own life to be very calming, especially because I have been overly critical of myself in the past when I - or something I created - did not measure up to my own expectations. With wabi-sabi in mind, I recognise that where I may be imperfect is where I become most myself.

In summary: in a perfect world, we are all rife with imperfection.


Similarly, when Hidden Botanics designs and creates our dried and artificial floral arrangements, we aim not for something that is perfectly symmetrical, and break away from the traditional style to try to create something that is beautiful in that same intimate way as we see when we explore the natural world.


Alex x

May 09, 2022 — Cagla Cantimur

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