I have been buying a lot of books recently. The Internet is good for filling in the knowledge gaps but books are still the best way to get the grasp of the whole picture whether it is how not to break your 1 year old baby or learn to distinguish fine tableware from the one you can buy at a 100 yen shop. I have been living in Japan for 14 years and still lack the sensibility to comprehend the highly refined yet understated beauty of Japanese art. It particularly bothers me when I shop with my husband for new plates and rice bowls and it became a real problem when he requested a whiskey glass for his birthday this year. I don’t know the difference between crystal and normal glass. I don’t know why one finely cut glass costs 5 times more than the other that looks the same.. My point is I needed some help so I got the book on Japanese design to finally learn what it is that my husband means when he says “shibui” and why a rustic looking rice bowl in a Gion restaurant costs more than the whole trip to Kyoto. ^-^
I learned that the super simple Japanese tableware that my husband favors is made in “wabi sabi” – style that partly comes from the Zen philosophy of worldly detachments, simplicity and purity. It celebrates the humble beauty of natural imperfections as well as fragility of life. I often wondered why rice bowls are not always symmetrical, why they never look the same, why Japanese traditional “kaiseki ryori” – course meal comes in a wide array of different plates instead of being served on one unified set as they do it in Europe and Russia. This book really opened my eyes on the whole concept of subtle beauty, something that I find myself drawn to naturally but never had the cognitive apprehension of. Each plate is unique, each one of them is a work of art, perfected by the generations of artists. I am curious now to go to Mitsukoshi department store and have a fresh look on their displays of rice bowls and lacquer boxes. ^-^ I understand now the obsessive attitude with which my mother-in-law takes care of her New Year “osechi” boxes and tableware. Everything is double-wrapped and stored in a separate container – all those mismatched trays and plates and bowls. When I just came to Japan and saw this rainbow of different plates whether in a restaurant or at someone’s house, my first thought was “oh! They must have broken the others from the set”. How silly of me! Each one of them is carefully chosen to compliment the other. Each one of them is handmade, unique and has a story on its own. I understand now that the value of each piece is in its sophisticated attention to the details, not in whether it has a complicated design or whether it is polished or whether it matches the set. I think I have a good eye for beauty and with my enriched understanding of Japanese unique culture and art, I think I can make smarter choices now and perhaps even surprise my husband. ^-^
The book also mentions a lot of places my husband took me on the path of enlightenment such as Katsura residence in Kyoto or Nezu museum in Aoyama, Tokyo. I always admired the beauty of those places but never knew the underlying story of its architecture and design. Although the book only briefly mentions each school and concept, it gives a pretty full picture on Japanese aesthetics and art in general. When I picked it up and went through the glossary I thought it would be a bit boring like a textbook but it surprised me not only with the interesting content such as historical anecdotes behind some of the works but also with a beautiful captivating language it is written with. It is definitely not just a nice coffee table book but a great read as well.
By the way, bookdepository.com is the place I buy all my books from (the ones I can’t read on Kindle or listen to on audible.com). They ship to Japan for free and have a pretty great selection from art books to children books, even some foreign titles. But I also always check amazon.com as well because they do happen to have better deals on the same books from time to time. ^-^
Another book I found interesting – Japanese nursery rhymes. It would be an understatement to say that my son is obsessed with nursery rhymes in all three languages. It was great to find a book with English translations of some of the traditional Japanese songs that he particularly favors such as “Koi nobori” – carp streamers and “Shabondama” – bubbles. The English translation is adapted to the melody so I can sing it too. The book comes with a CD and each song is performed in both languages. The girl who sings them has a bit of an American accent but I can overlook it especially because it is the English version of a song that I am interested in. The illustrations are adorable! A very useful and stylish addition to my growing collection of children’s books. ^-^
I checked the other titles by the same publisher. They have tons of books for children, explaining about Japanese holidays and traditions. They come particularly in handy to the expat families raising children here, in Japan. It is nice to have a good reason to finally learn these things. I like explaining thing to my son and see fascination on his face. ^-^
I have decided to start writing more about the books that I read. I have just ordered 5 books on raising happy toddlers. I think it’s a great idea to share some particularly memorable moments here, on my blog. ^-^ Stay tuned!