Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu, Japan

November 20, 2016

The Beauty of Things That Don't Last

As I walked around Kyoto this week, among the brilliantly blazing Japanese maples, rowan, and ginkgo, my mind wandered again and again to the concept of mononoaware.

It’s a Japanese word with no direct translation into English - but roughly, it means the special and heart-achingly sort of beauty of something that doesn’t last. (Tellingly, there’s also a word - koyo - that specifically means the color of changing autumn leaves.)

For three weeks every year, visitors flock here, to Kyoto. Two weeks, right now, in Autumn, for the leaves. One week, in Spring, for the Cherry blossoms. They’re special, heart-rending times, and they're are gone before you know it.

But mononoaware is everywhere, not just in those three weeks. It’s in things like sake, Japan’s equivalent to wine or beer. In method, sake is made like a cross between wine and beer - basic ingredients, yeast, time, and fermentation.

But unlike wine or beer, it has a limited life. Sake is brewed every winter, and then the following year, it’s released in each season - Winter sake, Spring sake, Summer sake, and Autumn sake.

At the end of November, last year’s sake is gone, and a new year begins. And year to year, they’re never quite the same - even from the same brewer, from the same region and the same rice.

And their short-lived nature is a part of what makes them special to drink.

Japan is a fascinating mix of the timeless and the fleeting. Thousand-year-old temples flashed bright by the fires of autumn. Still, huge ponds, briefly rippled by a koi, poking the surface.

Everywhere, it seems, the time pulls out, stretching hundreds and thousands of years in both directions. And yet us, still here. Still alive with two feet and the soft sweet press of air into our lungs. Light pressing the backs of our eyes, lighting up neurons like fireworks.

There is something comforting in knowing that long after I’m gone, for two brief weeks each year, the hillsides here will still light up in crimson and carmine. And something spectacularly wonderful in knowing that this year, I got to be a part of that story.

Thanks for letting me share it with you.

Have a wonderful week,

-Steven

p.s. The best thing I read all week was a poem. This one, by Ellen Bass. It says it all, perfectly.

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