Japanese Scent

Melody in woodI still remember my first trip to Kyoto. It was in July. One day, while some scattered rains washed the trees and refreshed the airs with a soft wind, I entered the walls of Nanzenji, one of Kyoto’s famous temples. The great gate and its darkened wood pillars exhaled a perfume close to incense and moss. A top note, sparkling and emotional, came from nose to eyelashes like tears of joy. Then an earthy wave, the middle note, fresh and light like a breeze among the oaks. And finally, for the base note, a deep blow of sliced wood, low and rich, rough on the palate and caressing on the nose. I never forgot that perfume of Nanzenji. To me, it is typical of central Japan. I think I mentioned it a lot before. I had to, eventually, give it a proper homage.
The missing history of perfumesTanizaki said that Japanese aesthetic plays on shadows to suggest things rather than to show them. I never read anything about the smells of Japan. Yet, more so than shadows, scents have their ways t…

Voice of the earth

Leaf harmonium
As I enter a new country, I am always surprised by the fauna and flora. There is the luxurious Thai vegetation that floods any cracks of Bangkok’s walls, a sombre and wet green comfortably sleeping in its unshakable power. And then there is the Scottish green, fractured like a thunder,with dark woods and tortuous leaves gleaming like a gray rock.
I knew of the central part of Japan and its soft mountains, shaped like a silk robe and dressed in velvety foliages. Coming to Korea, the color variations became immediately chaotic. Not anymore could I see the delicate landscapes, gently painted in a typhoon diluted ink, but I was facing and immense fresco of pastels drawn with a dry and swift brush. Two close countries had such difference in their beauty. With these few remarks in mind, I could also notice that the construction woods of Korea were much clearer than the Japanese ones but far less perfumed. How can I believe, then, that two poets can write the same thing in differ…

Velasquez in Japan

Spain : a mute expression
Madrid, 1736. One has to picture the Puritan Spain, faithful to the pope but dreaming of conquests, that forbids nude paintings but owns more of these than any other kingdom — in private rooms of course. In fact, a wind of change is blowing. But it cannot be explicit. Artists see themselves as ‘creators’ more than simple performers, but they cannot express so openly their very desire of self-expression. So their speech take circuitous roads. And Velasquez, with its witty and refined gave us many examples of this indirect voice.
Hence, this painting of his old friend and sculptor Juan Martínez Montañés, that he had no time to finish. And the buste of the king is left as a simple outline.

Un-finite sketch
Now, let’s imagine something a little foolish : what if that painting was willingly left unfinished ?The outline of the buste is not just an unfinished sculpture, it is also an unfinished painting. So, it does not only belong to the reality of the scene depicted b…

Aesthetics and Politics

The man of tea learns of it quickly : a long-neck jet black vase has a different aura from a simple open and refreshing bamboo vase.Why do we keep the room empty ? Simply to give space to imagination ? Any item keeps the mind busy. Across history, powerful politicians have always understood this, one way or another. « Beauty » is a sensibility that varies with cultures and fashions. To change our conception of the beautiful, of the agreeable, is to change our approach of the world.

Aesthetic is politic
During the Momoyama era, a kind of Japanese Renaissance compressed in a handful of years, Sen no Rikyu ruled over aesthetic — according to some historians. The man who wanted every warlord to bow as he entered the tea room set the social tone to modesty of mean, dark colors and rustic simplicity. Some say that Hideyoshi Toyotomi, the great lord of the time, supported Rikyu in his actions. Others say that he saw in the Tea master’s aesthetic power a true menace for his society of magnifice…

Mujuan : The re-use of the world

What we leave behind
Fallen barks, dead trunks, decrepit walls and forgotten bags are strewn all around Awaji. Coming here, I was given the keys of Mujuan, a tea pavillon as abandoned as the island. The 1995 earthquake has seriously shaken the two tea rooms and gigantic garden. A young beginner like me should not claim to open his own tea pavillon, but what master would settle in someone else’s house and, furthermore, a let down house ?
Aguste Comte said that « the dead rule over the livings ». They are the cause of our birth, our world is the result of their actions. We are born in ruins — palaces and forests that our ancestors shaped. Someone else grew what we are harvesting today. Yet, we like new things. We like when an item is made for us. We like to be its first owner, its only recipient. The more I go, the more this mindset seems strangely vain to me. Ceramics I like will survive me for thousands of years. I am merely one of their guests.
I do not know of the story of Mujuan, I do …

In preparation


The nape stiffens up, the eyelids get closer, the eyes converge on an invisible dot. Right there is the bowl to prepare. The back stiffens up, the vertebras align, the arms relax and I walk straight. The way to the pavillon is ahead.
When a great event approaches, these sensations can start occurring several weeks in advance. All my body focus. There is no room for confidence nor doubt. Confidence is the enemy of perfection, doubt is the enemy of action.
All that is left to do is to tie the bow, looking straight at the target. Too much tension and the arrow will spring before the game starts. Not enough and the hand will shake like a needle.

A tea ceremony is a seasonal matter. There is no pleasure to strawberries if they come all year long. To accept that seasons pass, that pleasures change along the year, is the very first step toward the acceptance of our own fragile condition. At my young age, there are already pleasures that I will not know anymore, but others are coming. There…

Three tea stories (3) — The merchant's pride

The stories I am telling here have few historical background. They are merely legends decorated by my imagination.Just like anything that belongs to a fantasy of the past, they are as true as one would like them to be. But it is sometimes so comforting that a story could be true that it does not matter if it really is or not.

It is said that, in the Japanese world of warlords, merchants were traveling all the way to China and India to provide their masters with the greatest weapons and crafts. But as payment, they only received and handful of gold and despise. So, one day, a merchant well versed in Zen and tea desired to finally get respect. In order to do that, he decided to build quite a peculiar tea room.
When a lord arrived there, he would be met with a garden deprived of any splendor. At the back of it, a weak construction was waiting for him. At the entrance, he had to leave his sword and to enter through a small square door that none could pass without bowing. Hence, he felt bare…

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