The Japanese aesthetic persists after 27 years

Various Japanese welcome-kitties hold up their paws
Japanese welcome kitties (maneki-neko) ancient and modern crowd the top of my fridge. Kawaii!

Though it’s many years since I lived in Kyoto, I doubt I’ll ever lose my quasi-Japanese aesthetic sense. Quickly, let me declare my boorish ignorance of this topic! Nevertheless, I continue to take photos that celebrate quiet, small, half-hidden, mysterious, rough, innocent, shocking, light-hearted, peculiar kinds of beauty. Even ugly-beauty. Japan expanded my ability to see, my sense of beauty. And considering how long Japan’s philosophy and culture have endured, no wonder the Japanese aesthetic persists in my own mind, 27 years later.

Before I lived in Japan, I think more conventional items stirred my sense of beauty. A mountain, a house, a face, a painting in a frame. Things or beings that were already defined, labelled, and outlined.

Living in Japan shocked me into admiring (almost adoring) the shape and energy of a tiny weed in a broken wall, a flash of colour lit by sunshine, an energetic shadow, a flower before or after its peak. My eyes fix less on a handsome building, more on a single element such as its angles or shade or empty spaces. I lived for a while with a tea master, his partner, and some of his students. They explained the concept of wabi-sabi to start me off, and for two more years I soaked up that world of Zen, Noh, Tea, gardens…

Here’s a funny contradiction. Japan has a national list of their most beautiful views, even prescribing the exact place to stand in order to take a photo of the exact same standard view. But Japan thrives on contradictions and anomalies: they’re part of Japanese aesthetics. My tea-people taught me to enjoy contradictions, not to struggle with them.

Anyway, here are a few photos from the last week to show you what I mean. I don’t know if you’ll agree with me โ€” but I really love my daily aesthetic adventures as I tread pretty much the same routes every day.

Green weed clinging to a rough brick fence
A classic shot of a fresh and energetic weed in an old, stained brick wall.

The weed photo is nothing special, but I just cannot resist a tiny plant forcing itself through a wall and struggling to hang on.

Photo in three vertical sections: left to right, a board with grey paint flaking off; a post with 2 vertical metal rods; and a metal post with sunlight making angled shapes on it.
Part of a fence. On the left, an old wooden board with grey paint crumbling. On the right, sunlight landing on a metal post.
Photo of a chocolate brown cat looking at a vase of three over-blown peonies on a 3-legged stool
Cat contemplating three blowsy peonies on a pine stool

What charms me about this photo? Not the chair in the background. The silky look of pine when the sun shines on it. The cat caught in an odd pose, looking a bit meercattish. Those OTT peonies sprouting petals from their stamens: how dare they be so big and beautiful? And the shadows. It’s far too cluttered to reflect the Japanese aesthetic: but my appreciation was born in Kyoto.

Photo of a metal fence framing bright white tiny irises in front of big green pittosporum bushes in front of three buildings with sharp roofs. On the fence is graffit
Dad-graffiti, sharp-roofed buildings, and libertia ixioides in flower

What I love about this photo? Let me count… Three great buildings in the background, two grey males so boldly angled and a softer female companion on the right: they’re like parents overseeing the bad dad who defiled the wall with graffiti. I adore the flowers, so tiny and as white as lightning. I like the way the shapes change so clearly in this photo from top to bottom: from sharp and pointy (roofs), soft and round (bushes that I think are Pittosporum Tenuifolium or Kohuhu) and even sharper (the leaves of the New Zealand native iris, Libertia Ixioides). But a true Japanese aesthete would probably have focused on a tiny corner of this photo.

Another post making use of my Kyoto eye for beauty

Most people know exactly why they take photos of people. But other than people, what do you like to photograph? What grabs your attention? And why?

17 thoughts on “The Japanese aesthetic persists after 27 years

  1. I enjoy your photos very much and have often thought that they show an interesting awareness of the combinations of things. This post explains something of how and why this is so.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thanks, Anne. Iโ€™m glad you noticed something different about them and glad itโ€™s been explained.

  2. Sadje says:

    Thanks for explaining the idea behind the photos. Lovely pics. Love the last one with graffiti the best.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Aha! I like it too.

      1. Sadje says:


  3. I like photographing the creek, because it is different every day.

  4. Gallivanta says:

    I am enamoured of the Japanese aesthetic, or at least what I know of it. Yesterday I learned about “komorebi” ~ sunlight that filters through the leaves. I often try to capture that light in my photos. I usually fail!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Perfect! What a fun challenge.

  5. alison41 says:

    I really enjoyed your photos. I enjoyed Part of a Fence – the subdued colours. Some years ago I read about the concept of Wabi Sabi – its an approach that appeals to me. Lastly: good to see a pic of Ursula, after a cat-less free months of posts.

  6. Shadows, reflections, and movement for me!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Interesting! I see them in a recent photo you posted with tower, boat and reflection in perfect alignment.

  7. judithhb says:

    What an interesting post Rachel and so much to think about. I take photos of cats and dogs going about their daily business. The cat that lives in our house is photographed many times during the day. I love how he looks out of the living room window. There is much to see as he looks over the valley. And when Iโ€™m out, I see a cat contentedly sleeping in the Sun or a dog, running off with a stolen shoe in his mouth. I wonder what they are thinking. Now I I will be looking for plants popping out of unexpected places. Are they weeds or plants?

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Cats arrange themselves into irresistible shapes, day in day out. Dogs do not pose for the photographer so you have to be ready and fast. And of course, all plants are plants ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. granny1947 says:

    Great post.
    I kept going back to relook at the pics to see what I had missed.
    You know from my blog that I loved my beach.
    It was never the same.
    I miss taking photos.
    Not much scope for it in the complex.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That’s sad. Beaches are beautiful every minute of every day. Is the complex too tidy? But keep your eyes skinned for tiny patterns and surprises ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. SelmaMartin says:

    Thanks so much for this post. Your kawaii maneki nekos beckoned me. What loveliness. I donโ€™t have kittiesโ€” real or figurines. What I have are frogs.
    As you must know, frogs are kaero in Japanese.
    I married into a family whose fascination was with the kaeru. And I love inheriting that.
    My kaeru is in my genkan. Itโ€™s the last thing one sees before leaving the house and the first thing upon returning.
    Also, as you must know, the welcome back greeting is O-Kaeri-nasai. It balances the itterasshai of leaving. I adore this.
    I love my kaeru. But Iโ€™m hoping to get me some nekos next year.
    Your photos are soothing to my soul. All of them. You have that Asian soul. How lovely. I was immediately drawn to the brick fence. Adore that.
    As for me, I get such pleasure from nature and am particularly enamored with hairs on plants. Sunlight needs to filter in slanted for the lovely hairs to show. I love this.
    Thanks for writing this and forgive the length of my response. Iโ€™ll curb my enthusiasm next time. I bless you, Rachel. Nice to meet you. Xoxo

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      So good to hear from you, Selma. I will immediately start paying attention to hairs on plants in slanting sunshine. I like thinking about your kaeru, and the way some things have a beauty that is both personal and cultural.

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