The Wabi-sabi home – the tokonoma

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When I wrote about wabi-sabi in your home, since there was such a strong response, I thought I’d elaborate on it a little.

blog imageWabi-sabi, of course, arose in Japan, so to apply it in your home, it helps to know a little about what a traditional Japanese house looks like, though very few Japanese still live in them.

A traditional Japanese house is modular and most of the wall space is taken up either by floor-to-ceiling built-in furniture that stores the family’s clothes, bedding, etc, or by sliding doors. The doors, called fusuma, can be opened up to create one big space, or closed to create smaller spaces.

blog imageThis modular construction has affected the way rooms are decorated. You can’t hang paintings on a wall of storage furniture, and large sliding doors tend to look rather boring left as they are. Therefore the Japanese paint their doors, as you can see at right, rather than hanging paintings on the walls, while the walls are left entirely empty – no pictures, no paintings, no photos of loved ones.

This can leave an interior looking very bare to a Western eye, which is more accustomed to having something – or preferably lots of things – to look at, but the Japanese attitude to art is different. They don’t keep their things on permanent display. Instead, they take them out and use them and put them away again.

As an analogy, think of how you take out the Christmas decorations each year, and how pleased you are to see them and how nice the living room looks when the decorations are up. Think too of how bare the room looks without them when you put them away again. But very quickly your eye adjusts to it and you get used to the room looking as it usually does.

blog imageIn order to have somewhere to display art, the Japanese came up with an alcove known as the tokonoma. This is based on the shrine found in Zen temples, which would contain a statue of Buddha, with offerings and candles etc. The tokonoma is basically just one corner of the room set aside. Sometimes it has a rough wood pillar at the open corner, and the floor is often raised like a dais.

Here, the Japanese display a hanging scroll with calligraphy and perhaps a painting relevant to the season, and an ikebana flower arrangement. Sometimes there might be a bowl or a statue or a bonsai tree, but usually there are no more than three things. They then change these items on a monthly, weekly or daily basis.

The tokonoma idea is one that can easily be incorporated into a Western home, and here’s how to do it.

Remove all your paintings, pictures, wall art and photographs from a room, and set aside one area – preferably a corner. You could choose to paint this area a slightly different colour from the rest of the wall, or mark it off in paint like a frame. Place a table, or buffet or a chest of drawers there, and on it place a vase of flowers picked from the garden. Behind, hang your favourite painting or photograph. That’s it – nothing else.

blog imageNow look at it. When it’s the only thing in the room to fix on, you’ll find you pay much more attention to it. But after a week or a few weeks, you’ll also realise that you’re looking at it less. This is the time to change the art, just as you would change the flowers as they dry and wither.

Try this approach at home and see how you get on – by cycling the things you own, you’ll generally find that you need fewer things but that you build a deeper appreciation of each one individually.

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