Mon, Mar 1, 2021

Lucy Dayman: Kintsugi, the art of healing

A bowl repaired with kintsugi and the remains of another bowl

“The act of kintsugi isn’t as traditional as people think,” explains kintsugi artist and teacher and owner of Rokujigen Six Dimensions Cafe (Ogikugo, Tokyo), Kunio Nakamura, but it’s the lack of rigid legacy of the form, Nakamura seems to relish in. “It means everyone has a different way of producing kintsugi objects,” he says, and when it comes to the current popularity of the movement, it’s been nothing but beneficial. The freedom from regulation and categorization makes kintsugi a Japanese art form with a golden future.

Kunio Nakamura

For those uninitiated, kintsugi is the art of repairing broken ceramics using a combination of sticky lacquer and gold. If you’ve ever seen pottery decorated with golden veins cutting through the item, that’s kintsugi. The practice, while as Nakamura says, isn’t necessarily one of the nation’s most historical arts, it is one with a deep-seated philosophy inextricably connected to the country’s ideology of wabi-sabi, recognizing the beauty in imperfection. 

Kintsugi paint

“Speaking broadly about Japanese culture,” Nakamura says, “there’s a fixation with things that are broken or worn. There’s this concept that you can see the scenery in items that have imperfections, and I love that idea of seeing the aging and the story in the landscape of an object.”

Nakamura teaching a student about kintsugi

In a previous career, Nakamura was a TV director. The discovery of kintsugi inspired in him the desire for a change. “I was exhausted both physically and mentally, but I soon began to feel as though I was healing myself by fixing precious vessels,” he wrote in an article for the Tsumugu website [“Kintsugi, the magical art of mending that bonds the world together.”] After falling in love with the art form, he retired from TV and opened Rokujigen, the cafe, and workshop he now calls home. 

It was around 15 years ago that Nakamura took a deep dive into the form, “at the time there were just two people doing workshops in Japan,” he says, “that’s why I thought I should put on workshops to keep the tradition alive.” Now, Nakamura estimates there are hundreds of people running workshops across the country. “Many are people who started recently.” Kintsugi embodies an authentic yet malleable honesty, which Nakamura believes is a large part of its appeal.

Nakamura’s tools

For many practicing kintsugi, the action of the practice is more important than the outcome. It’s a large reason why Nakamura’s main avenue through which he produces his products is by teaching, running workshops in his cozy, book-filled cafe. Following the devastating 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, he received more sign-ups from those who brought in items that survived the devastation. It was a moment that helped Nakamura confirm his beliefs in what he does.

“The act of repairing something that’s broken has healing properties. When disasters impact peoples’ lives and things get broken, the number of people in workshops grows. I’m not saying it’s a good thing at all, but it’s a trend I’ve noticed.” He says, “I receive a lot of letters from people who joined my workshop saying that repairing their items helped them repair or come to terms with something in their own lives. Some people bring dollar-store plates, really cheap ones. The cost of my workshop is nearly ten times the price of the item, but it’s proof these items have more value than their cost.”

Kintsugi objects on display at Rokujigen

The act of fixing and seeing both the repairs in an object and how that object has been improved by its hardship is a powerful embodiment of the human experience. The struggles we overcome and the way in which we give value to the ‘repairing’ of ourselves can make the human spirit stronger. By doing this in a physical sense, one often connected to an object that was once a symbol of hardship offers solace to those who seek it.

There is one step of the kintsugi practice that solidifies the ‘healing’ aspect of the art, Nakamura says. “When you make kintsugi, there’s a process near the end where you have to sand over the cracks to smooth the gold. This process takes about 30 minutes, and you just have to keep sanding for 30 minutes straight. That act is a type of meditation; you can empty your mind and reflect. People say that’s the most enjoyable bit of the process.” One of Nakamura’s regular customers loves the meditative aspect so much that they visit “every week just to do the sanding. He places an order and gives it back at the end. They’ve been coming for two years.”

The more traditional style of kintsugi decoration

Beyond just the physical, Nakamura senses that kintsugi can also be a way to make sense of the world. “I’ve noticed that lately, there are a lot more people from the United States who are becoming interested in kintsugi. I think maybe there’s a potential connection between a nation that is facing many conflicts and a feeling of brokenness, and the interest in an art focused on repairing and connecting.”

In recent times the western interest in kintsugi has grown the largest it’s ever been. Partly Nakamura suggests it’s about the ‘healing’ properties. Still, also there’s a swelling passion for objects that Nakamura says embody the idea of “fashionable damage, for example, holes in jeans, vintage clothing.”

Broken pottery used for repairs

So, while even if people aren’t aware of the story or message behind kintsugi, the story and message are explicitly represented in its physical being. It’s easy to read and understand. That story is simple but effective and offers a new perspective through which we can see our experiences. In our struggles and when we feel broken, it’s through our repairing and healing that we become better and more beautiful; that’s kintsugi.

(Photos courtesy of Lucy Dayman)

Lucy DAYMAN

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Journalist

Lucy DAYMAN

Born and raised in Australia, Lucy is a currently Tokyo-based journalist with a passion and focus on Japanese travel, art and culture. Previously, she worked as a publicist, and later, as the editor of a music magazine in Melbourne, before relocating to Japan in 2016. In 2019, she co-founded the bilingual communications and creative agency Y+L Projects, based in Tokyo's Omotesando. Her first book, a guide to Tokyo, which she co-authored, will be out via U.K. publishing house DK in 2021.

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