In the market for art
I’m eating soba noodles in a restaurant on Reisen Dori in Kyoto’s Sakyo Ward. They’re delicious — “oishii”, as the Japanese say — but not so much that I filter out the sounds of the nearby Heian Raku Ichi market. Or lose my place in the slender book I’m reading: Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, a classic of Japanese aesthetics.
One passage grabs my attention: “As a general matter we (the Japanese) find it hard to be really at home with things that shine and glitter... We begin to enjoy it only when the lustre has worn off, when it has begun to take on a dark, smoky patina.”
Perhaps our memories accrue, over time and distance, this quality the Japanese call “sabi”?
Right now, I’m telling you about a visit I made to Japan in 2019, so pre-Covid. And although I’m writing as though it were happening in the present, I’m seeing it through a “dark, smoky patina”.
I’m back in the market, the stalls of which are set up in the Okazaki Park. At one end, the temple; at the other, a huge torii gate.
Probably because it’s only held once a month, it’s thronging with tourists and locals. Of the latter, the young people are dressed in a fashionably Western retro style — the Japanese are very good appropriators — while the older people dress either in traditional kimono or frankly daggy casual clothes. Comfort is king.
I stroll towards the shrine, just browsing. Pottery, books, bric-a-brac, furniture, clothing, art, you name it, it’s here. I stop briefly to watch a woman trying on earrings in a mirror, before a man testing a bamboo cane grabs my attention.
Finally I reach Heian Shrine, which was built in the late 19th century to mark the 1100th anniversary of Kyoto’s foundation as Japan’s capital. Thus the Heian Period: 794-1185: Heian-kyo being Kyoto’s old name. It is relatively peaceful, and I take a moment to rest before heading back in the opposite direction, towards the torii gate, near which are two art museums about which I’d read in my guidebook the night before.
Unfortunately the Kyoto City Kyocera Museum of Art is closed for renovations on its c.1930s building. But the Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto (MOMAK), whose more contemporary building dates from 1986, is open. Like many galleries and museums, only a fraction of its massive collection is on display at any one time. And this time, its a selection of prints and pottery, elegant and elegantly displayed, with plenty of space around the objects to allow them to “breathe”.
I’m especially taken by a series of early-20th century prints which embody another quality much-discussed in Japanese aesthetics: “iki”, which Ueda Makoto, a former professor of Japanese Literature at Stanford University, defines as “an urbane, chic, bourgeois type of beauty with undertones of sensuality”.
Back in the “right now”, I can see how both “sabi” and “iki” have worked their alchemy such that my memories of this modest episode from my 2019 Kyoto trip have, after all, lost none of their lustre.
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