I beg your garden: The Japanese art of Wabi-sabi

Example of Wabi-sabi
Kyu Shiba Rikyu gardens in Tokyo. Photo: Chris 73, Wikimedia Commons

The Japanese aesthetics of Wabi-sabi is based on ancient ideals. Wabi meaning simple and austere beauty and Sabi – the beauty of ageing well, intertwine into a new style that is slowly becoming an essential part of our everyday life. Defined as finding beauty in the passing of time, the art of Wabi-sabi focuses on impermanence and simplicity; it refers to a mindful approach to life, in all of its aspects.

The term was introduced to the West by Leonard Koren, an American writer, and design philosopher. The combination of the two words Wabi and Sabi and their aesthetic was explained in a book Wabi-Sabi for Artist, Designers, Poets, & Philosophers back in 1994. Koren explained the metaphysical basis of the art of Wabi-sabi and wrote, “Truth comes from the observation of nature. Greatness exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked details. Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness.”

But what does that mean?

The art of Wabi-sabi encourages us to find beauty in imperfection, to mimic the essence of nature and incorporate it in our surroundings – our homes. Nature isn’t perfect, nothing is symmetrical, there is impermanence, incompleteness all around, and yet, everything is so beautifully simple.

Intertwining Wabi-sabi elements into a home means that you are choosing to show character. The home is full of rustic character, charm – if an old writing desk is missing a drawer or a handle it doesn’t mean you should quickly replace it, it means that you cherish the piece because you used it for years and it has changed, you see its beauty in its flaws and imperfections.

One of the mesmerising examples of Wabi-sabi gardens is a precious Japanese Kyu Shiba Rikyu Garden, made in the Edo period. In this wonderful circa 340 years old garden, you can see the combination of elements and how they change as the season’s change. From above it looks like a miniature garden surrounded by buildings, but don’t let that fool you because the sight of the flowers in full bloom will leave you speechless and you will always come back to a different looking scenery from season to season.

How to incorporate it into our homes?

One way to introduce the style to our gardens is to choose objects, elements and plants that are natural, that change with the seasons and that are simple and impermanent. When it comes to plants and greenery, opt for ones with changeable appearances as the seasons change such as a tree with peeling bark, let your plants go to seed and allow the dry leaves fall and remain on the ground. You can plant perennials and self-seeding plants that will take over your gardens corners over the course of years and you will have the chance to see how nature grows and changes.

Incorporate natural elements, place stones aside (away from the foot traffic) and let moss and lichens grow over them, re-purpose old objects (made of natural materials) and see how the materials change, for example, how wood gets the weathered look or how iron objects (old gardening too, gate or fence) rust over time. Place an old chair in the flowerbeds to see what weather does to natural materials or plant a flower bed in the chair.

If you can’t completely change the look of your garden area, try to intertwine as many elements as needed to embrace the Wabi-sabi philosophy as a way of life. You can make your own combination a Zen-inspired garden following Wabi-sabi’s simplicity and impermanence theory and create your own sanctuary. Opt for raw wood pergolas such as the ones at Aspect Shade and let a climbing plant take over the man made structure.  

The key of Wabi-sabi is in creating your own version of the look but accepting the philosophy and embrace the impermanence of everything. Cherish the imperfections and enjoy their beauty because they show the passing of time. As soon as you accept the fact that everything must change, you will lead a better life.