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Friday, Dec. 14, 2001


Cold, smelly and inconvenient -- the essence of elegance

Miyabi is the Japanese word for elegance. It was often used to describe the ancient capital, Kyoto. All things elegant, beautiful, tasteful, whateverful come from Kyoto: It's a truism that has been drummed into the Japanese psyche for more than a thousand years.

When Sei Shonagon (author of "The Pillow Book") said that the best time of day in spring was the dawn, when "yo yo shiroku nariyuku yamagiwa (the edges of the mountains gradually brighten)," then that was it for spring: Kyoto judgment had been passed. Mountains are elegant, but oceans don't count for much by miyabi standards -- which must be because Kyoto doesn't have any.

When Murasaki Shikibu wrote that a woman was at her best and most intelligent at the age of 9, there was no arguing with it. That was the age of the girl that her famed creation, Shining Prince Genji, fell head-over-heels in love with after a single glimpse. He waited for her to mature a little before marrying her, but always thought she had been sweeter and more elegant as a child -- and generations of readers have taken Genji's word for it.

But there's more to this miyabi business than meets the eye, for Kyoto miyabi is on a very different level from the Western concept of elegance. Take the Kyoto architectural style known as machiya. Machiya houses are long, narrow, wooden constructions, with doorways so small that any overweight person would have to consider buttering themselves before squeezing through. This is because taxes on properties in Kyoto were once calculated by the size of doorways, so everyone went for teensy-tiny sliding doors.

The fuben (inconvenience) of the machiya doors made up a large part of miyabi. It would never do to be free and casual and just walk through the door calling, "Honey, I'm home!" No, one must stoop and be measured in one's movements, quietly announcing one's arrival with a discreet cough.

Then there is the doma (kitchen), which, despite its location in the middle of the house, feels more like an outhouse than a cheerful area to prepare meals in. Damp, dark and cramped, the doma was a space where women spent a good part of their day, but was designed with no thought to their convenience or comfort. It's usually several steps lower than the rest of the house and has an earthen floor. Ventilation is bad, with grueling heat in summer and unforgiving cold in winter. Old-fashioned folks, like novelist Junichiro Tanizaki, however, declared the doma a sacred domain and prophesied that the rise of the modernized kitchen would cause the downfall of traditional Japanese womanhood.

Shutaro Sugimoto, a professor at Kyoto Women's University and resident of a 130-year-old Kyoto machiya, wrote that the three pillars of miyabi were: fuben, samui (cold) and kusai (smelly). As he describes it, true miyabi is the state of sitting in a dark, cold room and vaguely sensing the smells from the nearby toilet: a state of near-poverty combined with near-insanitary conditions.

Sugimoto also reminds us that the word for Kyoto haute cuisine, kaiseki, is derived from kai (the area where a kimono folds over the breast) and seki (stone) -- meaning that the food served was often so scant and unnourishing it was advisable to slip hot stones into one's kimono to ward off chills and hunger pangs.

What a lot of gaman (endurance) to achieve a little elegance. Too bad we can't just slip into a Chanel stole and be done with it. But as professor Sugimoto says, to hanker after material things is the opposite of miyabi -- but to liberate oneself from material desires and still look great surely brings us closer to miyabi. A magic word that elevates poverty and malnutrition into an art form, miyabi is one of Kyoto's greatest inventions.

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