Kintsugi—A Celebration of Imperfection
A Kintsugi-applied sake cup. The gold lines indicate the cracks in the original ceramics.
Today, you can buy anything with just one click. If you accidentally break a plate, a cup or even phones, you can simply replace them with new ones. But what if you break something valuable, like a vase your grandmother gave you, or an expensive bowl you bought in Kyoto?
You may have come across a word wabi-sabi (侘び寂び), a Japanese philosophy that celebrates imperfection. There is a repair technique called Kintsugi (金継ぎ) that epitomizes this spirit of wabi-sabi. A Kintsugi artisan takes a broken ceramics, reattaches the fragments using urushi (漆 – lacquer), and uses kinpun (金粉 – gold dust) to decorate the seam. This is different from the usual ceramics restoration practice, where artisans hide the cracks on ceramics by completely sealing and painting over the seam.
We tend to hide our mistakes to avoid embarrassment. But Kintsugi is all about embracing the brokenness and discovering a new face.
History of Kintsugi
To understand the origin of Kintsugi, we must first look into Sado (茶道 – Japanese tea ceremony)
Sado flourished during the Muromachi period (1368 – 1573) when several tea masters established the foundation and the philosophy of tea ceremony. One of them was Sen no Rikyu, the great tea master who further developed the world of Sado by incorporating the spirit of wabi-sabi.
Tea ceremony represented power and wealth, often used politically as a symbol of authority.
In the late 16th century, a powerful Japanese daimyo (大名 – fedual lord) Nobunaga Oda appointed Sen no Rikyu as his dedicated tea master. Nobunaga forbid his vassals to freely conduct tea ceremonies. Instead, he awarded distinguished vassals with chadogu (茶道具 - tea equipment) and permission to open tea ceremony. Tea ceremony represented power and wealth, often used politically as a symbol of authority.
Naturally, then, ceramics for tea ceremony were considered of the highest value. Every daimyos and vassal who were rewarded with chadogu developed a strong attachment to them. Any broken ceramics were sent to restorers who showed a profound respect for their owners and the original potters. Kintsugi became a valuable repair technique that lived up to and even transcended the expectation of ceramics owners.
Transcending time—past, present and future
A great Kintsugi artisan connects the past and the future. When a Kintsugi artisan receives a broken ceramics, he begins the process by observing the texture and form to understand its past. Then, instead of simply joining the broken pieces, a Kintsugi artisan embraces the randomness of fractures and incorporates the flaw as part of the new design. Fractures are considered as part of a creative process. Each broken ceramics has its unique face to be preserved and a story to be told. In other words, Kintsugi is about understanding the past, embracing the present and shaping a new future for broken ceramics.
Nevertheless, Kintsugi artisans make sure that the gold lines do not outperform the original beauty of ceramics. Rather, the gold lines should play a supporting role to bring out the intrinsic value of the mended ceramics. This is why artisans spend hours observing and understanding the aesthetic of the ceramics.
Kintsugi was applied to the chipped piece of a plate.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
It is worth noting that urushi becomes more transparent over time. Unlike usual paints, urushi coating gains more gloss with each polish. It is no surprise when Kintsugi artisans say they apply the repair technique while imagining its final form in 50 or 100 years in the future.
Kintsugi Studios in Japan
There are many studios in Japan that offer Kintsugi service and workshops. Although some professional Kintsugi services can take one week to even a couple of months, some studios offer workshops that only require a day or less.
Below are a few workshops offered in Tokyo and Kyoto:
Unaginonedoko: Weekly Kintsugi workshops in Tokyo
Kintsugi Golden Joinery: 3-day English-speaking workshop in Tokyo
Detouur Kintsugi Workshop: 2-hour Kintsugi workshop in Tokyo
SHITSUGEISYA HEIANDO: Kintsugi atelier in Kyoto that offers workshops