Isaburo Kado—Ascetic Elegance?

Shaded approach to a teahouse
at Omote Senke Tea School.
In Pursuit of Wabi Sabi
Even the Japanese themselves find it difficult to explain the term wabi-sabi, so what chance have I of getting it right?  When translating, nevertheless, I have often had to try.  I have used words like “understated”, “restrained” or “unpretentious” as well as “simple” or “minimal”.  This is mainly because I have been translating material on tea houses or the items used in a tea ceremony.  Anyway, to me it has always been easier to appreciate wabi-sabi than to explain it.  It may also be easier to consider the two parts of this expression independently.  Some people, for example, much prefer to use sabi as a word describing the kind of “elegant simplicity” found in a Basho haiku.  Or, an “antique patina” that only comes with true ageing.  In contrast, wabi is a good deal more troublesome.

Some dictionary translations and definitions are actually quite good.  In my onscreen dictionary, for example, wabi is defined as the kind of “austere refinement” found in tea ceremony.  I would certainly agree with “refinement” but to use “austere” is altogether too harsh.  It is too hurtful and opinionated and coupling it with “refinement” does not help.  To me it would be better to say “non-indulgent, ascetic elegance”.  Yes, you are right.  I’m only playing with words in the hope of finding some expression that better explains what the word wabi implies and represents.  It is better perhaps to use an explanation—“the enjoyment of a quiet, simple life free from worldly affairs” is how my onscreen dictionary puts it.  This is explaining an attitude toward life that I would suggest manifests itself as an ascetic elegance.  But what do artefacts or buildings displaying a sense of wabi look like?

The two teapots here could perhaps be described as displaying a sense of wabi.  They are certainly unpretentious, rustic and formed in a relaxed way that we could describe as wabi.  But to me they have over stepped the mark and have become wacky.  Despite this, they are two things which I bought while living in Japan and I really like.  Sadly I do not know when or by whom they were made.

This teapot, however, was made in England by John Leach, the grandson of Bernard Leach.  He helped to pioneer the folk craft movement in Japan along with Shoji Hamada and Soetsu Yanagi.  To me this teapot clearly displays influences from past British everyday household ware combined with hints of the kind of acceptance of the happy accidents in firing and an overall look of pure function that a great deal of pottery in Japan also displays—unpretentious, simple and a celebration of non-indulgent elegance.  I would certainly make this a candidate to be described as exhibiting a sense of ascetic elegance.  In the end, however much something is made to look rustic or unpretentious, it must retain a sense of elegance of a very particular kind to be described with the word wabi.

This alcove in a tearoom of a regular
house amply fulfils requirements.
To me all the items used in the tea ceremony are made to look even more elegant in their own way by the teahouse or tea room with its “sandpaper” textured walls, dim lighting and constrained atmosphere combined with the highly measured behaviour of the participants at a tea ceremony.  Everything is contributive.

Can fine examples of lacquerware take a place on this stage?  Yes, most certainly.  Their elegance alone allows them to act as a foil to the other more “rustically” appointed items.

But so much lacquerware is elegant beyond belief and we would not usually say that it has a sense of ascetic refinement or elegance.  There are, however, lacquerware artist/craftsmen who have sought to explore such possibilities.

The “decoration” is simply smudges from a 
finger dabbed into true lacquer.

One of them is Isaburo Kado (1940-2005).  His standard work is very much in line with very good quality household lacquerware.  Except it hints at rural rather than sophisticated roots.  His more “artistic” pieces explore some of the more rustic and ascetic possibilities of wood and true lacquer.  Whether or not they can be classed under a wabi aesthetic heading is something I leave up to you.  But, Isaburo’s work certainly expands the creative possibilities of true lacquerware into a domain that has always been ruled by ceramic happy accidents in the kiln and epitomised by a tea ceremony bowl—an example of the most contrived for of the uncontrived, but, nevertheless, an example of an ascetic elegance.

Isaburo allowed dribbles of true lacquer to form to 
achieve the kind of look he sought.
The Isaburo Kado Museum is located in the hot spring resort of Wakura on the Noto Peninsula overlooking the waters of Nanao West Bay.  The museum is free to enter and open from 8 am to 5 pm (last entry 4:30 pm.).

Split pieces of hiba wood were combined, lacquered and then suspended in front of the view of Nanao West Bay from the Isaburo Kado Museum.
The large chunks generated from splitting pieces of hiba were lacquered and glow in the light from the window.
Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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