Kintsugi: The Beauty of Imperfection Kintsugi: The Beauty of Imperfection

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Kintsugi: The Beauty of Imperfection


2022.04.30

NAVITIME TRAVEL EDITOR

Kintsugi: The Beauty of Imperfection

Cut with deep grooves, the trunk of a Japanese lacquer (urushi) tree oozes with yellowish-grey liquid. As the name Toxicodendron vernicifluum implies, this sumac’s sap is toxic. But after it’s filtered, heated and colored, it will form a lacquer that is mixed with gold, silver or platinum and used to repair broken pottery. This traditional technique of highlighting the imperfections from damage is known as kintsugi, or “golden joinery.”

  • 01

    Breathing New Life into Old Pottery

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    License Free Image from Shutterstock

    In the hands of a master kintsugi artist, a cracked or broken chawan tea bowl is not only restored to its usefulness—it’s often more beautiful than before. The filled cracks and rejoined shards seem to pulse with gleaming veins or flash with forked lightning. Kintsugi has drawn numerous adherents in Japan, and a growing number overseas, not only for the technique itself, but also its inherent philosophy of accepting imperfections and giving new life to things that are flawed.

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    License Free Image from Shutterstock

  • 02

    Tea ceremony heritage

    While early examples of kintsugi in Japan date to 1500 BC, the technique flourished the late 16th century with the spread of the chado tea ceremony developed by tea master Sen no Rikyu (1522–1591); the associated art of maki-e, enhancing lacquer with gold-dusted decorations, can be traced back to the Heian period (794–1185). The kintsugi movement promoted the aesthetic ideal of wabi-sabi, recognizing beauty in flawed and aged things, as well as the notion of mottainai, a desire to minimize waste. Many tea ceremony practitioners prized chawan of great beauty as well as the spiritual aspects of sharing tea with others in settings that emphasized nature, seasonality and the transitory nature of life (mono no aware). It’s perhaps no wonder that in chado, spectacular chawan are sometimes broken on purpose so they can be repaired with kintsugi, resulting in an enhanced aesthetic appeal.

    Photo by Riho Kitagawa on Unsplash

    Photo by Riho Kitagawa on Unsplash

    Just as each piece of pottery can break in a unique way, no two kintsugi works are the same. For repairs of breaks, lacquer is first applied to the edges of shards to act as glue. Sometimes, fragments are replaced by golden epoxy or with pieces from other wares, ones with a totally different aesthetic, for an even more striking restoration. When the fragments are dried, they can be painted over with lacquer dusted with gold, imparting a whole new sensibility to the object. After repeated drying and lacquering, a process of repeated polishing of the seams begins. The approach for chipped or cracked wares is similar. These restorations are painstaking and time consuming, taking weeks for simple pieces or as much as a year for a large, complex object.

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    License Free Image from Shutterstock

  • 03

    The healing power of flaws

    Recent years have witnessed a renewed interest in kintsugi, especially following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake that devastated the northern parts of the country. The movement has inspired artists overseas, not only in ceramics but in fields as varied as fashion and jewelry to gold-filled cracks in a basketball court. But one of the technique’s largest influences is on psychology and wellness books. Kintsugi serves as a metaphor for the power of embracing one’s flaws, as Ken Mogi, a neuroscientist and author, describes in his new book The Way of Nagomi: Live More Harmoniously the Japanese Way.

    Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash

    Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash

    “In life people can sometimes be hurt and symmetries can be broken, and you won’t be the same self. But that doesn’t really matter because life goes on and you could be a better self after the accident or some traumatic event. Because life is all about imbalance,” Mogi said in a recent YouTube video. “Applying kintsugi to a broken ware is recognizing this basic nature of what life is all about. We strive on. We muddle through. Just because we are imperfect. That’s the whole purpose of life.”

    Even contemporary kintsugi artists acknowledge the healing, spiritual power of their craft.

    “I’m restoring a piece of pottery, but I’m also restoring myself,” kintsugi artisan Yukiko Kuroda told NHK TV in a recent interview. “After working on so many, I feel a transformation in them. It’s like there’s a life force inside. It’s as if I’m reviving a living thing. I try to make each vessel live again.”

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