It’s a Friday, and I’m in a small family run unagi (a Japanese eel restaurant) deep in the heart of the mountains around the Kyoto prefecture. A mother is serving tables with a smile on her face, her son is enthusiastically grilling the unagi (eel), and her daughter-in-law is carefully preparing tsukemono (pickles served as appetisers to rice). The only other guests aside from myself; a man in his mid-forties tenderly feeding his old mother with a wooden chopstick. The smell of ancient mahogany instils a profound peace within my soul, as I dip my chopsticks into steaming rice. The rice is served in a classic Japanese red and black Lacquerware box. Unagi, is a favoured dish in the summer season, as it helps restore energy lost from the intense heat. The air is still, the mood loving. The decor of the room is simple and humble, reinforcing the richness and love of the people within it.
It is moments such as these which evoke a feeling that I have come to name as ‘Wakimukudo’ – a way of being, and a concept of the heart which replenishes you with the power and feeling of positivity. That warm feeling lightly felt within the chest, so simple yet its presence undeniable. Triggered by either a conscious, subconscious or unconscious stimuli. This is what I learnt during my travels through Japan; that the heart is enlivened by modest moments, simple things - far from what satiates the thirst of the mind. Its language is subtle and silent.
Serendipity in Japan
Prior to my Japenese pilgrimage serenity was not so familiar. Each weekend was an escape from the dulling routine of modern life. Looking back, I realised that loud music and constant parties were simply a way to dull the heart and the senses. It furthers us from the silence to which the heart responds. It is a paradox of modern life to which many of us are frequently exposed. To find ourselves lost to that which is transient while searching for meaning and missing the essence of what is within and without.
But then my life was turned around; I was granted a unique opportunity to travel Japan exploring isolated temples and shrines, studying ancient Japanese philosophy and wisdom. It truly opened my eyes to my purpose and passion. Here I found ancient philosophies of design and secrets to temple curations that are known only to a rare handful. The Japanese focus their philosophy and everyday life on discipline. Their interior temple designs are constructed based on a wisdom of the inter-connectedness of all. The beautiful mountains around Kyoto are dotted with these secluded mystical temples and shrines decorated with ornate patterns. They are beautiful and are understandably popular with the tourists, but what many overlook is the deep rooted stories and essence that lies beneath every pattern and every design.
I was gifted with this opportunity thanks to my good friend who spent his childhood summers in these rustic temples. He was born with Asperger’s syndrome, and his parents hoped that the experience within these temples and learning meditation techniques would help him overcome his childhood disorder. Not surprisingly they were right. He triumphed over his condition, and it became an ability rather than a disability. It was due to him that I gained the permission to venture and be taught on the sacred design techniques within these temples.
My time in Japan was so rewarding; it imbued me with discipline and helped me see the world differently, to find the beauty and appreciation within every single moment. To have focus in my pursuit of creational design, and to strive to fulfil my goal in life without distractions. To simply let be and find creativity in silence, to appreciate the power of nature, such as that of the wind – its ability to come forth and shatter some leaves, but at the same time it rejuvenates and renews. The simple sense and ethos behind all this can be found in the beautiful and intricate techniques used for these isolated Japanese temples. All too often in this modern world, the genuine meaning of these patterns and the sense of wonder they evoke has been lost. Instead, they are used as decorations or as ornaments to make a venue look nice. Designs such as those, to me, miss their real purpose. Take the symbol of a flower basket for example – a profusion of flowers inserted into a basket woven with bamboo. Legend has it that this symbolises a beautiful nymph with the power to summon happiness. You can find it in all sorts of places – in paintings, on ceramics, on a kimono or lacquerware. It is a very ancient symbol.
Every pattern carries significance, and it should be used and appreciated in this context. By understanding this ethos underpinning Shinto and Buddhist designs, I was able to bring them into my creational endeavours.
Japanese Temples: Appreciation
Spending my time in rustic temples and learning about Japanese history and the wisdom and analogy behind each beautiful yet sacred pattern exposed me to a new way of thinking. Objects are much more than ornaments, as nature is not to be appreciated for its appearance alone. They don’t merely exist in the physical space, they each have a spirit and a life force. Nothing is static; nothing is ever just an object. Everything holds forces within. We might see an object like a rock as a physical entity, but in ancient Japanese philosophy, it is much more than that. It has a unique force, a critical part of existence.
Indeed it may also be quite the reverse; the secret is a lack of structure. Designs should flow naturally. For example, the altar of a Japanese temple can be meticulously ordered, and yet it symbolises the organic flow or the movement of those forces. Something that structure can’t contain – flow is found in everything in ancient arrangements and designs. Similarly, just like the heart itself; its rhythm is a flow, to which the mind abides.
Design can convey a message, but it can also whisk us away on journeys – not necessarily through physical space, but through emotions, life, philosophy and nostalgic reasoning. Using everything I learned I wanted to create something which helps an individual conjure positivity within one's heart or to stop and think about the meaning and philosophical connotations behind it. Design should not simply be a pattern, but a message which conveys a meaning and aims to transmit a feeling and a way of being. It was my journey through the heart of rustic Japanese shrines and isolated temples that helped open my eyes.
Japanese Temples: Construction
The Japanese highly value raw materials such as wood. Considered more than an object that is utilised to create a structure; it is respected accurately as a living being. Hence, in ancient Japanese architecture, no nails were allowed in construction or interior curation. The concept of creating wooden joinery within old temples was introduced to Japan through China. It was prominently throughout the Han and Tang dynasty that the technicalities of wooden joinery were widely embraced. Thus, the Japanese developed methodologies which were adapted from traditional Buddhist beliefs, creating unique joineries that interlock or interconnect pieces of wood together. Even in Japan today, many wooden joineries are still preserved throughout traditional wooden homes in various places in Japan. The interior joinery within a temple is the most important element within the constructional phase. Curations of such, take into account the character of the different types of wood. It is traditional practice throughout Japan, that wood used for building or design is sourced from various trees based on geology and physiochemical makeup (e.g. the location within the mountain, the air intake, the sunlight intake, etc.). Hence, similarly to metal in the west, wood in Japan is considered in how it responds to a change in temperature and throughout seasons. In conjunction with this, the choice of wood is also based on the philosophy that each type of wood carries a unique 'character', and this is reflected in its application.
Many visitors frequent temples in Japan and appreciate the beauty but are unaware that each piece of wood was specially selected based on what the craftsmen and curators feel would best reflect the purpose of the temple itself. Additionally, every wooden joinery within the temple grounds is created with acute calculation and precision, contributing value and personality. Comparable to creating the perfect piece of sushi that one can savour with the knowledge that a chef has trained in the art of sushi his entire life.
Formulas of proportion are utilised to imbue harmony. The placement of a single pagoda or the ‘main focal point’ is akin to other philosophies, such as the mandala of the Buddhist sutra. Of utmost importance is the ability of all individuals who are involved in the process of its architecture, design and curation to envision a three-dimensional structure from a two-dimensional blue print.
A temple is a way of being. It reflects harmony, as well as, the power of art and craftsmanship in bringing to fruition a symphonic orchestra in the form of a visual-cognitive place of spirituality and silence.
Embracing Lessons of Old Japan
Everyone’s journey is different, but there are a few secret philosophies that I have learned through exploring Japan that pertains to the way of temple and shrine design.
1. In adverse surroundings do not allow oneself to fall into the demise, but uphold your ground. Just as a man is measured by his or her values, creations and designs should also reflect the true inner will found within the heart.
2. If you can find solace from a single drop of water, then you know the way of the heart. Curation and design should exhibit this simplicity. The beauty of a sunset can be conjured universally because it evokes fondness within the heart; this is what I wish to channel through my experiences in Japan.
3. Every design or curation should convey a simple message of positivity that hits the heart and triggers a warm feeling of appreciation.
4. Patterns should not be static – they should flow. Capturing movement is critical. Think, for example, of the emotional and physical flow you find within yourself when you stand on the bank of a river, sit by an ocean or stare into a waterfall. Movement is not something predictable, but its presence is known when tuned in. Within Japanese temples or shrines, the exterior is very structured, but the interior follows the flow of these forces.
5. As a designer, I am responsible for my creations, and my attitude will shine through what I create. So, if I go into the design process without a benevolent mindset, it will have a harmful effect on the design, how it looks and how it makes people feel. Designs embarked upon devoid of love in the process cannot evoke positive emotion in people when they view them.
So, when I begin any of my designs or curations, I dedicate my mind to evoking that sensation of bliss that I wish people to feel when they witness my designs or curations for themselves. If you have love in your heart and positivity in your mind, it certainly will transmit into your hands and through into your creations. Every object that one uses be it a calligraphy brush to paint or the texture of raw material that one chooses, it must symbolise the same flow of energy in oneself because this amplifies the magnitude of the final creation.
Presently, my deeply rooted determination is to revive the way of ancient Japanese philosophy, to trigger the Wakimukudo within others. For me, Wakimukudo is a way of being - a concept of the heart, which replenishes and increases the power of positivity within one’s chest. It is this constant exposure and magnification of love in the heart of others, that my purpose lies, to be able to play my part in increasing the happiness in others through my designs and curations.
Traveling along this journey also made me realise the blessings bestowed upon me by the universe. Most pertinently, my close friend who gave me a unique opportunity to travel Japan and to learn the truth behind temple curations and designs. The people who have come into my life unexpectedly within the last few years, none more so than the interior designer Kit Kemp – who took a leap of faith in me. She is someone who embodies success but does so with such down-to-earth humility. It is a way of being which summons the essence of the Japanese sense of Bushido (warrior way). That is something I wish to communicate – designs that imbue the way of the heart.
I realise today that the younger generation might shun the words ‘ traditional’ or ‘tradition’ or even ‘old’, but these are necessary aspects of design found within the philosophy of the heart to evoke feelings of nostalgia. As the heart is always captured by the sweet sensations it recalls, it is also these recollections that are required to trigger these emotions. A way to connect to the unconscious part of the brain, through both conscious and sub-conscious…..patterns, symbols and logos.
All images and blueprints courtesy of Hermione Skye.
Hermione Skye is a British designer and the creative director of Wakimukudo The Label. She is in the process of publishing her book, ‘Sacred Shinto Designs of Japan’. She travels back and forth between the UK and Japan. She has been featured in numerous design and architecture magazines. Her passion lies in bringing back the wisdom of ancient designs to the modern day era.
Disclaimer: This is a non-sponsored guest post. No royalties were exchanged for this post.