BEAUTY: REFLECTIONS ON ART, CULTURE & NATURE
ichi Raku, ni Hagi, san Karatsu
Some of my first steps on the road to understanding and appreciating the Japanese aesthetic began during my early teens in the small coastal city of Hagi. It was here that I was thrown into a new world of beauty that shouted my name and very loudly time and again. Hagi is the home of Hagi-yaki which is a high-fired, pastel-glazed style of Japanese pottery dating back to 1604 and ranked only second by connoisseurs to Kyoto's Raku-yaki. As with many of the ceramic centers in Western Japan, the origins of Hagi-yaki can be traced to two great potters from Korea who were brought to this coastal city by the ruling Mori Daimyo clan to produce tea wares.
I walked into one of the many art galleries in Hagi specializing in local ceramics and in the small showroom dozens of works with wonderful shapes and colors adorned the shelves and counters surrounding me. I was immediately drawn to a traditional hana ire or vessel for flower arrangement with a glazed surface that looked like an oozing milky mudslide. The shape of the vessel looked rather traditional and familiar, but the surface was something so new and appealing to me. It vividly reminded me of my childhood visits to the Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii where the lava flows reach out to the ocean and freeze in motion at the touch of water in explosion. The power and brilliance of lava in action is an amazing process of nature and here too in a small gallery space in Hagi I was face-to-face with the product of earth and fire. I asked the owner of the shop if I could see the piece and she encouraged me to not only look, but to touch and feel. She watched me as I took the piece in my hands and gently followed the line of the glaze from top to bottom and from side to side. I could see and feel the divide where the raw fired clay contrasted with the luxurious pastel-colored glaze as if nature had thrown it herself. There was something so perfect, yet at the same time imperfect --- perhaps that is perfection I thought. The owner of the gallery told me that Hagi-yaki is alive and continues to live through daily use. She said that when you put water into many of the tea utensils the fired clay will absorb the liquid and it will then begin to sweat. This will then cause the glaze to crack and create a whole new surface dimension. I was amazed and to be brutally honest somewhat pleased to learn that my Western-sense of "perfection" was indeed imperfect and in need of some adjustment.
Wabi-sabi and the Impermanence of Things
The Japanese sense of beauty is deeply rooted in the concept of wabi-sabi which centers on the Buddhist concept of impermanence in nature. Many scholars and writers like Leonard Koren have described this aesthetic of beauty as one of imperfection, impermanence and incompleteness. The word wabi itself connotes rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, or better yet understated elegance. Sabi is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs. The hana ire I found in Hagi embodies many of these qualities and serves as my first major leap into the wonders of Japanese art.
Epilogue to the Hagi Story
After visiting the ceramic gallery more than 10 times over the course of my stay in Hagi, the owner of the gallery asked me for my name, address and telephone number. She told me that the hana ire was destined to be with me as it called my name so loudly. She had recognized this too. I told her there was no way that I could pay the $1,000 price tag (which was equivalent to a million dollars to a teenager), but she said in time you will be able to pay for the piece. The hana ire arrived home before I did and remains an integral part of my ceramic collection to this very day.