Kintsugi in 6 Dimensions
There's a place tucked away at the meeting point of a shrine, a temple, and a steady stream of commuter trains. At times it’s open, sometimes it’s not, but when it is, you can find it by the blue light leading you up a small flight of stairs into an unusual space; a place where time slips from Reiwa to Showa, and often, even further. We’ve arrived at 六次元 (6 Dimensions).
Upon entering the cafe, one finds a selectively lit nest of books, treasures, and art, as minimalist music and incense alternately waft through the air. The hurried pace of the Tokyo transit lines is softly brushed away by the warm welcome of our host, Mr. Nakamura. He’s clear-eyed, calm, yet posesses the energy of a constantly active and generative mind. There are a few people already seated with the broken items they’ve brought to the session: bowls treasured in their daily use, plates, gifts from friends or relatives, a cup, or even a small figurine. This is a kintsugi class.
金継ぎ (Kintsugi) is a process, developed in Japan, of mending broken ceramics using 漆 (lacquer) and gold. It was originally developed for the mending of tea bowls used in the tea ceremony. For a deeper look into the practice, as well as a remarkable statement about healing and the arts, please read Kintsugi Generation, a commencement address given by Makoto Fujimura at Judson University in 2019: https://www.makotofujimura.com/writings/kintsugi-generation/
I’ve found my seat with a friend, as well as a bilingual participant, in a corner surrounded by books upon books. A few familiar titles catch my eye: Cy Twombly, De Kooning, a few novels by Haruki Murakami; happily, the gorgeous cover of Mako’s Golden Sea is winking at my right. On a shelf above my head, I can just make out the curving suggestions of a variety of ceramic pieces; some seem as freshly made as yesterday, others look as though they must have emerged from the fire at least a thousand years ago which, I found out later, turns out to be true. Often in my visits to the places where artists and writers work, I get to experience the shared enjoyment of the treasures that they’ve collected. This space is no exception: As Mr. Nakamura guides us through the process of doing kintsugi, the surroundings become a place where memories come alive through stories told and physical objects are passed across time into our living hands.
Facing sunny side out, the golden rays of forever afternoon are cut abruptly, yet on schedule, by the passing of the Chuo and Sobu Lines. I’ve brought four broken items today. A plate and chopstick rest given to me as a thank you gift by my friend’s children last year, a small ceramic cat I bought in Sky City at the Acoma Pueblo of New Mexico when I was a kid, and lastly, a 茶碗 (tea bowl), raku fired and gifted to me by my friend Dave Krikorian who had an artist residency at Saddleback Visual Arts in 2018. The bowl has an unique quality in that the glaze inside looks a lot like the way a pond does when it’s reflecting cherry blossoms at night. I’ve found that in Aichi Prefecture, where I now live in Japan, cherry trees are often planted near rivers, streams, or ponds. As the petals fall and swirl on the surface of the water, it adds to the magic of お花見 (cherry blossom viewing). I noticed recently that this bowl had a small crack in it (probably from when I moved), and when I pulled, the piece came apart in three. A clean repair.
The urushi, or lacquer that Mr. Nakamura has developed is a lot like the bond that dentists use when repairing teeth. It is nontoxic, safe for children and pets, and cures quickly. When the urushi dries, it can be smoothed with wet sandpaper. Between application and curing intervals, we sip tea and eat a few sweets. Quietly we chatter as we make slow, awkward progress. The mending brings back memories of use; of the people connected to each object. I think of how the chips occurred in the regular wear and tear of hand washing, or my childish carelessness, or how the tea bowl had a hairline crack only discovered after I moved to Japan. I broke it further on purpose to make it right.
I can just faintly catch the conversation of our host. He’s describing the process of creating a piece that is composed of different pieces of pottery from all 53 stations of the Tokaido Road; a topic that fascinates me to no end. I want to ask so many questions, but I don’t know where to start. I can barely place a phone call in Japanese, let alone ask questions about art history techniques. In my everyday life, there are constant opportunities to make peace without knowing, but living in that tension linguistically is often a battle.
The moment when the liquid gold is applied feels like the moment of completion; as though all that you’ve worked for is sealed. The story that the piece is now telling is new. Gold is a visually powerful substance; it dazzles us and confronts us with its reflective power. I turn the tea bowl in my hands and ask what story it’s supposed to tell. I learn that tea bowls usually have names, and that it’s all the more imperative that I name this one, seeing that I’m choosing to work to make this broken thing whole.
木漏れ日”Komorebi” is a Japanese word that is often associated with autumn. It translates, clumsily, into English as “light passing through the leaves of trees”. I’ve decided on the name for my tea bowl. Odd that its story began, for me, with associations of spring. As we complete our work, our gaze turns to the completed work of our friends around us. My friend Jessica came with an absolutely smashed plate that became a stunning object of beauty.
The results of the slow, quiet art of Kintsugi require patience with yourself, the materials, and the process. It can be disheartening when you discover that things don’t “fit” as well as you’d hoped as you piece things into a whole, and the sum of the parts may not have all of the variables to make a clean “solution”. Our lives, our cultures, our communities, have had the hairline cracks tested this year: some things are so broken, it’s hard to know where to start, or where to look for the pieces that have scattered everywhere.
After the kintsugi lesson, Mr. Nakamura helped us carefully pack our finished work for the journey home. He gave us our own kits for when we’re ready to do it again. We said our goodbyes, and went about our planned travel. The next day would be enjoyed at Ueno Park, and we’d get a chance to go to the museum. As we packed our locker at Tokyo Station, in anticipation of later boarding a shinkansen back to Nagoya, I fumbled with my bag and did what I thought would be impossible at this point: I dropped my tea bowl and it fell with a mighty crash.
I said a bad word. I fell to my knees and picked it up in its wrappings, and I cried. All of my sadness about Covid, about America, the politics, the divisions in the church, it all flowed out in a way that up to this point, I’d carried alone and maybe chatted about when my students have asked me. My pain, and my heart’s broken state were very real, and the things that are wrong will take more time to work through. My friend Jessica comforted me immediately: “but you have the kit! You learned how to do it!” I can’t say how much I appreciated her heart‘s immediate response in that moment. She’s right. It’s going to take time, and it’s going to take patience, but hope’s not lost.