Repair with Gold

When a piece of pottery breaks in Japan, the traditional practice is to fuse the pieces back together with gold lacquer. The Japanese word for this practice — kintsukuroi — doesn’t just refer to the method of repair, it also suggests that the tea bowl is more beautiful because of the crack. The gold is a bright line of the pottery’s imperfection. In the west, we tend to judge a repair by whether it is noticeable — the less evidence of a rip, scratch, or stain, the better. Kintsukuroi is the opposite. In a Japanese tea ceremony, guests are served with the most cracked and different side of the tea bowl facing towards them. The imperfections are emphasized and appreciated. 


Japanese pottery bowl repaired in a way that reflects philosophy of Wabi-Sabi


The sense that imperfection makes the tea bowl more beautiful, or at least more interesting, is known as “wabi-sabi.” If you have heard of wabi-sabi, you have likely also heard how tough it is to define. It is a know-it-when-you-see-it kind of thing. And it’s an aesthetic; it suggests not only a look but also a way of life. 

Contemporary Tea Ceremony  

I missed breakfast the morning of my first tea ceremony, four months into my stay in Japan. My stomach growled as my friend drove us along the Sai River towards downtown Kanazawa. Japan’s iconic cherry blossoms had just reached Kanazawa, a small city nestled between the Japanese Alps and the Sea of Japan, on their bloom north from Okinawa to Hokkaido. 

To celebrate the season, the wagashi — small treats served with tea — at our ceremony that morning were delicate cherry-blossom flavored macaroon-esque pastries. Unfortunately for my empty stomach, we were each given a single, tiny wagashi before our tea was served. Everyone fell silent as they ate. A tea ceremony is a cross between performance art and meditation. Actions are meant to be intentional and slow; it is a kind of spiritual exercise. The straightforward act of making and then drinking tea is elevated through total attention to the people and objects involved. 


Matcha green tea in a bowl


Once we finished eating, an elderly tea master served us ceramic tea bowls full of frothy matcha that required two hands to hold. Splotches of green and black interspersed with faint gold lines covered the surface of each bowl. The rim was uneven, and small nicks lined the bottom.  The tea master showed us how to examine our bowl before our first sip. We paused to increase our sensitivity to the beauty inherent in the simple, humble, and non-obvious: The cracks in our ceramic tea bowls. 

This kind of attention and responsiveness, perhaps a kind of “wabi-sabi mindset” often requires overriding our default responses to what qualifies as beautiful and what qualifies as ugly, what is worth paying attention to and what is not. A tea ceremony is one way to practice this. 

Transforming the Ordinary 

The moment that most moved me that morning happened after the tea ceremony had concluded. We were directed into a drafty back room and told to wait there for lunch. A few minutes later, a teenage boy showed up and placed a stack of seven bento boxes on a table near the door. We passed the boxes around and then began to eat, seated atop overturned foam seafood crates. 

One of the many sections of the bento box held kaki no ha zushi, a specialty of Kanazawa's prefecture. Kaki no ha zushi  is a square of rice topped with thin slices of fish or vegetables and then wrapped in a persimmon leaf. I eagerly tore open my leaf as I would the paper wrapping of a burger, ready to finally fill my stomach. Seated right beside me was a sixteen year old girl named Sui who had taken me under her wing during the ceremony. When one of the tea-masters said something my limited Japanese could not decode, she would notice my confusion and discreetly slip her iPhone from the sleeve of her kimono and type into a translator. “When you have to stir the tea, be more calm” “Bow before you step back,” on a screen turned shyly towards me. 

Sui eyed the crumpled leaf of my kaki no ha zushi with concern. Then she reached over, took it from my hands, and folded the leaf neatly around the rice, gently smoothing each corner down with her fingertips so that it matched her own. She handed it back to me, and I felt moved. 

Feelings and Folding 

“It’s a feeling.” That’s the way Kei, a thirty-something man who I worked beside as a cook in a kitchen in Niseko, described wabi-sabi to me. At the time, I had just been trying to make conversation while we chopped daikon. I didn’t quite know what he meant. “It’s a feeling.” 

But months after Kei’s definition, and weeks after the tea ceremony, I kept thinking about Sui’s simple action: folding my leaf. And each time I did, I felt a certain way. I started to see what Kei meant. It is a feeling. 


Large, old tree with moss-covered roots


It’s the feeling you get when you look at a well-loved wooden table, not the one you get when you look at pristine, seldom-used china stacked in a cabinet. Maybe it’s a mix of nostalgia for an object’s past and gratitude for its present — and something else, harder to define. It’s the feeling you get when you focus on a dead flower, or the last traces of a sunset. It is a recognition of the cycles of life and death, use and disuse. It is the feeling you get when you see the natural world reflected in material objects — a rusty patch of metal, a worn piece of wood. Asymmetry is the toll the elements take.

Wabi-sabi is looking at the imperfections of the world and transforming them — not by changing them, but by changing how we relate to them. Instead of trying to escape boredom, endings, and loneliness, the feeling of wabi-sabi is what happens when you work to make those things beautiful. It is the philosophical analog of the gold line to emphasize pottery's crack. 

The leaf that Sui folded for me was nothing if not impermanent — I’d be throwing it away in mere minutes. It was an everyday object — just a little leaf around a cheap lunch. And nothing about our surroundings suggested that the lunch was important — we were in a tiny little room, not even sitting at real tables. But Sui’s focused fold felt to me like she recognized that the leaf and moment, while imperfect, were still a site of possible beauty. She wasn’t trying to make a point. The ceremony was over. She was just living. And that is what wabi-sabi is: the beauty of the everyday, the small, the inconspicuous. The beauty of life as it is lived. 

March 06, 2024 — Emily Carlin

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