Takkoku no Iwaya Temple

While exploring Tohoku, Japan, this fall, AFAR Ambassador Rachel Rudwall was fascinated by the tradition and presence of wabi-sabi, from the region’s cliff-leaning temples to its topography-inspired zen gardens.

This was not my first trip to Japan. I had been twice before, exploring cities both ancient and new, plus hiking a large swath of the Kumano Kodo—one of the world’s two UNESCO World Heritage Treks. After those trips, I felt I had a solid grounding in Japanese culture. I knew how to eat with chopsticks at a B+/A- level of expertise, and was familiar with everything from train scheduling to escalator etiquette. But it was not until my third trip to Japan, however, that I learned of wabi-sabi.

Wabi-sabi, according to aesthetics expert Leonard Koren, “is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble…[unconventional and unpretentious.]" While Western ideals typically hold perfection in high regard, this Eastern philosophy instead admires the simple and nature-worn, finding beauty in the way objects are transformed by time.

Tohoku presents an abundance of wabi-sabi, both in the things that society has built, and in the undeveloped landscapes defining this northernmost region of the main island of Japan. Nature interweaves its influence within the culture—or rather, society has chosen to build around the natural world in a harmonic approach to construction.

Aomori Tanbo (a.k.a. rice paddy) art

Temples cling to cliff faces, their beams fastened fearlessly alongside boulders so as to garner shelter, but also not disturb the natural order. Vegetation is groomed, but not so perfectly manicured; individual trees are also allowed to grow beyond their neighbors in a bid for a spot among the clouds. Zen gardens position solitary rocks within rake-lined plots of gravel, the relative emptiness drawing a visitor’s eye to an imperfect natural centerpiece.

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Perhaps most striking, Aomori farmers cultivate field-sized 3-D “paintings” from their main crop, rice—an approach that suggests the transience of both the changing seasons and life itself. These ephemeral illustrations tell tales of Japanese warriors or Western pop culture icons in masterpieces that are harvested just months after being planted.

As I learned from Tohoku locals, wabi-sabi is also an appreciation of desolation and hidden beauty—a perfect set of criteria for a region marked by long stretches of virgin forest, rugged mountain chains, and caldera-formed lakes. Solitary pines dot solitary islands, acting as muses for their local zen gardens. Because towns are few and far between (the majority of Japan’s population lives in cities to the south), Tohoku becomes a bastion for secluded splendor, best explored by all means possible: rail, car, ship, and foot.

No matter the mode of transit, the region will transfix you with its imperfect, impermanent beauty. The weather will roll through the mountains, changing the clouds and the shadows beneath them. Tractor beams of light and frequent rainbows descend from above, and you’ll find it’s hard to resist breaking out in a smile. It will be in these moments that the meaning of wabi-sabi becomes clear: It is precisely because the moment is fleeting that the moment is truly beautiful.