The Realisation of Lightness

Japanese Culture of cleanliness, purity and lightness has fascinated the world for the past centuries and inspiration has expressed itself in our western world. Respect for these ancient rituals is instilled from birth onwards and is prominently visible and tangible in society and all areas of Japanese culture.

The curator of the forthcoming exhibition at the Barbican Hall on ‘The House, Architecture and Life after 1945‘ states, “Japan’s greatest contribution to the global history of architecture has perhaps been the realization of ‘lightness’ as an architectural value of significant importance… However, lightness is not necessarily a quantifiable characteristic or property, but a quality that has taken on many guises and meanings, expressed in many different materials and architectural compositions”.

Lightness can be associated with a sense of cleansing, unburdening and freedom.

Japan offers many cleansing rituals and countless festivals celebrating nearly every occasion to “get rid of filth” you can think of. Some of these practices have been founded thousands of years ago and although they have evolved over time, the essence of the ceremonies is still the same.

For the Japanese, cleanliness matters! Bathing is central to Shintoism and Buddhism and worshippers wash their mouths and hands before they enter temples. Cleanliness is equivalent to pureness and thus godliness in a country of high humidity and vulnerability of spreading disease! Luckily, the country offers its people an abundance, over 25,000, of natural hot springs and “sentos” (セントーサス、公衆浴場) or public baths, that have been around for almost six hundred years.  Alone in the 1960s over 23,000 were counted scattered over Japan and 2,700 just in Tokyo! Today, of course, people have their own baths at home – and it seems that the Japanese have brought their obsession for hygiene and cleanness into a new level, combining the old rituals of purification with modern 21st century “kokin guzzu” – antibacterial goods designed to try and get rid of germs.

“Traditional rituals of cleanliness have become part of our everyday lives” states Yuki Gomi, one of London’s favourite Japanese master chefs, and she explains further how Japanese ingredients have multi-functional purposes – to celebrate, to cleanse and eventually to clean! “Green tea leaves, originally used for the tea ceremony, can be re-used to clean Tatami mats throughout the house, the leaves have anti-microbial properties and help keep home safe and fresh.” As a chef she ensures her environment remains fresh and clean on all levels. Hinoki wood, cedar and rice vinegar are all materials that robustly shield from bacteria – but let us not forget, she adds laughing “rice vinegar can also be used to keep hair clean, as it helps to smooth and give a glossy sheen!”

It is the cleansing rituals in particular that are at their peak during these months of the year. What we may refer to in the western world as a charming ‘spring clean’, actually commences in Japan no sooner than December and stretches right through to February and March! The first important cleaning ritual, “o-souji” (大掃除 literally contains two words 掃除 (そうじ, souji, to clean and 大(おお, o-, big), can be defined as a ‘Big Clean’! Back in the Edo period it was matter of cleaning and purifying the house in preparation for greeting the New Year God, Toshigami-sama. With o-souji comes susuharai (煤払い, dust cleaning), the act of cleaning your home and workplace from dust and dirt.

Spring cleaning rituals in Japan are rooted in spiritual belief. Japanese visualise cleaning as something that touches upon their inner eye, the invisible environment of our homes!

Have we ever thought of looking at our home with “closed eyes”, attempting to feel its dark corners, an awkward bookshelf which for years has obstructed our corridors, a broken lamp or cupboard filled with junk. Hidden, disguised, but always ready to resurface in subliminal manner,  the unwanted “dirty” corners of our homes, drag us down…

The Japanese call them “evil” – and believe they have been invaded by none other than house demons – spirits that play tricks on us, lead us to misfortune and bad health!

Luckily, an old cleansing ritual routed in the 8th century, has remained alive in Japan over the past thousand years to keep the devil in check!

“Setsubun” (節分) is celebrated on the first day of Spring according to the old Japanese lunar calendar, usually around the 3rd of February! It is on these days the spirits meet with our earthly world and we have the chance to chase them away or be doomed by leaving them lurking in the dark corners of our home. It is therefore on this special day that the Japanese Nation “ward off the ogres” in no better way than by throwing as many beans out of their house as possible. This symbolic ritual is accompanied by chants “Out with the Evil – Out with the Demons!” Of course as soon as the house is cleansed Good fortune can be welcomed back in again and to ones enjoyment the entire ritual recommences in reverse! ‘Chants’ are accompanied by an abundance of fresh soya beans, now thrown back into the house!

And what to do with all the overflow of beans? Japanese have the answer: the more people participate, the more beans need to be eaten, as each participant is expected to eat the same number of beans as his or her age. Only then will good health be promised. A practical ritual, after all, what better way to clean up all the mess!

Purifying Rituals (春祭), “Harae” (to clean oneself from negative and evil energies) are always followed by a “Matsuri” (festivals) and many more can be listed! Oho-Harahe, for instance , which occurs every 30 days of the sixth and 12th month of the year involves “Misogi”  or standing under showers of icy water! Then there is the rather feisty Hadaka Matsuri (or the Naked men Festival 裸祭) which involves a “Shin” (or ‘man’ to absorb every ones evil spirits)!

The festival to crown all the blessings and hard work of ridding oneself from evil demons, could be the most enchanting of all festivals: Hanami Matsuri  (花見) celebrates the peak of positivity, purity and lightness – the delicate beauty of the falling cherry blossoms from the Sakura tree. It is also known as the flower watching festival. Cherry blossoms are seen as a symbol of life’s transitory nature and that beauty is only short lived! … As is life!

Image Credit: The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945, opens at the Barbican Art Gallery, Barbican Centre, UK on the 23 March 2017

Yuki Gomi, Japanese Chef