wabi-sabi: the Japanese aesthetic that embraces the flawed, incomplete and ephemeral.

Underplayed beauty is so appealing, is it not? The delicacy of a pot amongst wilting vines, the deep green rosemary sprouting from the wooden stalk, vivid blooms above the muted ground.

At this time of year when the conversation turns to gifts I am often stuck for suggestions. Apparently I’m incredibly hard to buy for; I’m an idealist with a very clear idea of what I like and what I don’t. In retrospect the best gifts I have received are those imbued with the thumbprint of their maker, the patina of age or the essence of nature; a handmade teacup with the grooves of the potter, an old mirror, a succulent plant in a vintage pot. Last week a friend gave me a collection of vegetables and herbs from her garden; their roots wrapped in damp paper towel, their stems tied with string – the perfect gift.

I always favour tradition over trend. I prefer colours that I see outside the window; those that appear naturally and then fade –  olive green, smoky grey, unbleached white and I like to bring them into the home. Right now there are five shells lining the balcony rail, dried herbs hanging from the kitchen window pelmet and lilac hydrangeas on the table. I light a beeswax candle every night to smell the sweet, clean scent and watch the wax soften and melt. It’s all simple decoration, placed with intention.

Wabi-sabi is simplicity but it’s also being mindful of what you buy and recognising what you already have. It is the ultimate lesson in sustainability – to mend and make do. I first came across the concept of wabi-sabi in a design magazine years ago. I tore the article from the book and placed the dark, filmic images in a box for keeps. The pages are frayed and the author’s name is long gone, but here is a little excerpt:

“The word ‘wabi’ literally translates as poverty. It looks to remove the concern about material things, of having ‘stuff’; to find a balance between the pleasure we get from things and the pleasure we get in finding freedom from things. ‘Sabi’ acknowledges simple realities – nothing lasts, nothing is finished and nothing is perfect.”

Che, in his innocent ways, unknowingly practices a little wabi-sabi. He gathers ephemera, round stones and fallen gumdrops and he carries them in his pockets. He places them on his bedside table, arranges them for a while and then they disappear, only to be replaced by a petal, a shell, a stalk.

Wabi-sabi doesn’t have rules; it’s born from intuition. Do you have any wabi-sabi ways?

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Showing 32 comments
  • Clio

    I love this idea…and am trying to inject this theory in my Christmas shopping this year (unbeknownst to me exactly what it was until now!)…last year my most treasured and favourite gift was a handmade mug. Every day I drank from it and was thankful for it, it made me so bizarrely happy that little mug. Until my mother accidentally broke it!
    There is a replacement at the top of my Christmas list this year…I can’t wait. x

  • jody

    I always learn so much when I visit here Jodi. Beautiful. Thank you. xo

  • Steph @ this brown wren

    So lovely. Only tonight as I washed up I pondered our small collection of vintage plates and platters that held our dinner. Each one costing only a few dollars at most and often flawed in some way; a chip underneath, age stains and crazing. But to me they are so very beautiful. We use them every day. Some we've had forever, some break and a new (old) one takes it place. My babies and I are also ever turning to nature and seasonal and fossicked tableaus grace our table. I will come back tomorrow to read this post again. Such soothing and restorative words. Thank-you 🙂 x

  • thelittlegnomeshome

    I have always wondered if the words wabi sabi meant anything (I could have googled huh)…..after stumbling across this blog many moons ago – http://wabisabiwanderings.blogspot.com.au/

    Perhaps similar to your Che, we collect things for our table reflecting the season. On a dyed piece of muslin or an old little doily they stay, perhaps a day maybe two and then more treasures appear and the old are put back into the garden…..

  • Saskia

    Beautiful beautiful post Jodi, exactly timely for alot of stressy mum's out there, in time for the crazy-season.
    I find myself getting caught up in it all, but not wanting to…feeling trapped in the madness and feel sad when people treat gift giving like a robotic 'to do' mission. Like you, Im super hard to buy for and I like quality handmade stuff, I usually make presents because I think time and thought spent on a gift is more important than the dollar value. Last year I made my nephew a draw string linen bag with his initial, filled with a large lot of thrifted army figurenes and my niece a cloth doll in a tutu with ginger hair, just like hers. Its all in the thought, wabi sabi…my son Jasper loves to collect sticks, all shapes and sizes:) x

  • Imogen Eve

    I think wabi-sabi must be something we all relate to as a child – then slowly as marketing and consumerism takes over we forget how natural it is to just admire what occurs naturally around us. I love to collect and arrange seed pods, leaves, pebbles and shells. Just like Che.

    This year for christmas I'm trying to make presents (whether cooked, grown, painted or sewn) or buy local handmade.

  • oscarlucinda

    Lovely post. Have you read the children's book about this beautiful concept? I bought it for the little reading nook at work & it was one of my favorites. I made a friend a little zipper purse from a secondhand doily recently – and it was until I'd cut the fabric and sewn most of it together that I realised it had a little yellowed mark on the front. But I left it – I knew my friend would appreciate it even more (and she did) x

  • carissa

    Beautiful words, so well put.

  • Katie

    Beautiful post. I am always amazed (and delighted) at the creations my little ones make from things collected and deposited in their pockets. Always pleasant reminders that less is more.

  • millefeuilles

    One day, one day, Jodi, I'll be making one of my rabbits just for (you) Poet in natural colours. I'm just a little snowed under with rabbits and mice right now. Lucky me.


    (When I look at what I'm creating now I laugh out loud and wonder where, oh where, has the serious garden historian writer disappeared to? I think my children have inspired me. There's a time for everything.)

  • Max

    i took pottery classes for many years with a teacher from the japanese tradition. i loved how we were encouraged to recognise when something we made had 'life' in it, rather than aiming for perfection, and to contemplate things like the weight of a cup in your hand, how it feels on your lips etc. this is totally what the japanese tea ceremony is about-noticing and contemplating the sounds and feel of tea making and drinking-its really hypnotic. i drink tea so mindfully now, i cant help it! if something has life it is irrelevant if it's broken or worn, in fact that is part of its life and beauty-its quite a useful concept to internalise to manage ageing too!

    • katiecrackernuts

      Max, lovely. It's in the failures sometime that we're able to see beauty. I know my favourite items to use are often because they're just right for me and maybe not 'right, right'.

  • katiecrackernuts

    A beautiful sentiment Jodi. I love when you find something that resonates and gives name to a value, or aesthetic, you hold dear.

  • laluuu

    Ah, wabi-sabi! In my little family we are constantly seeking wabi-sabi in everything we do. With some things it is unconscious, with others I need to work harder. My husband and I felt drawn to this concept many moons ago on our first trip to Japan. It was a completely life-changing moment when I realised the way I wanted to live actually existed as a thing. A beautiful, peaceful, meaningful way of life. Thanks for this post Jodi. It serves as gentle reminder not to get too caught up in the craziness of the season. Luna. xx

  • Bianca (ivylovesjack)

    You are so much like me Jodi.

  • Bohemian Beautiful

    I'd never heard of it until now, but you wrote it beautifully, and it's a lesson I should try to practice more!

  • Sarah Raaen

    Beautiful sentiment. Beautiful words. Beautiful images. Thank you for blessing my day with such beauty, Jodi.

    Sar xx

  • Ellen Arthur

    Beautifully written Jodi :)I truly love the thoughtful and handmade gift as well. I redid my existing bedside tables and I think I love them so much more because it is using what I already had and found the potential in it.
    Ellen xx

  • sascedar

    such a beautiful notion of aesthetic. i think i would like to apply this idea of beautiful, understated imperfection to my view of myself, to to how i love. because the imperfections, the individuality, are the beauty? che's ever changing, fading, renewing collections of things from nature are like the interactions with loved ones. (it must be time for bed, that's a little too deep for me, i think). thanks for introducing this to me jodi! :)sarah

  • Lerosso

    Precious words. I love prepare gifts with brown paper and red bakers twine (simple but beautiful).


  • melina | golden kin

    “Rings and jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only true gift is a portion of thyself.”

    Wabi sabi was my declared religion over a decade ago as a teenager. I read The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo; it is essentially the wabi sabi 'bible', though the term is not used at all throughout the book.
    As for gift giving, I gather gifts for others year round. Some are given in the moment, others are saved for a holiday event. Sometimes they are as tangible as a book or a teapot, other times they are a garland of pinecones I've gathered myself or a shawl I've crocheted. As a product designer, I am not against "things". But functional and beautiful things, items that speak out or benefit or are a marvel to behold. Too much madness this most beautiful time of year, I care not to waste it rummaging the stores!
    Thank you, Jodi, for sharing this. 🙂

  • Stacey Roberts

    I used to collect gumdrops as a child in Victoria. I had forgotten…

  • Melissa@Julias Bookbag

    We own the book 'Wabi Sabi' by Mark Reibstein — it was a lovely gift my daughter received from her grandmother a couple of years ago — about a little Japanese cat, pondering the meaning of her name…delightful book!

  • ashley

    the kids book is amazing! we have wabi-sabi ways here. simple and sustainable. i love this post jodi. x ashley

  • look see

    Wabi-sabi – I'm so glad I've learnt this phrase 🙂

  • Reply

    I have none that I can think of but I think it's easier for others to see these things in us then it is for us to see them in ourselves. I'm really looking forward to being by the ocean this time next week and disconnecting from the city for a while. Perhaps then the wabi-sabi nature in my personality will come out more strongly? Who knows….

  • sarah

    we love to gather, collect, discover and display all of our beautiful finds. i often find little pebbles, shells and stones in the bottom of the washing machine {sometimes i forget to check the pockets} a beautiful post x

  • Kirsty

    Jodi (& comments above). This could be my very favourite post … ever. Just superb really and so very very true.

  • Kristian

    Lovely explaination that makes me want to be more mindful too.

  • allison tait

    Mr6 also practices wabi-Sabi. I have quite a collection of 'beautiful rocks'. Thanks for Rewinding.

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