Leonard Koren, Wabi-Sabi, and Enhancing Cognition

When Daphne was a toddler, she loved to scream,


and laugh herself into a frenzy on the floor.

I think I must have been re-reading Leonard Koren’s magnificent book, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets, and Philosophers, for the umpteenth time during her toddlerhood. Now six, Daphne is doing her best to continue to introduce the term to anyone who’ll listen.

The term wabi-sabi feels like it’s headed toward that elite group of Japanese words that somehow make it into common English usage (think anime, manga, samurai, haiku, origami and of course all of the food and ingredient names, among countless others). A search on Amazon for the term yields more than 500 results, in book titles, music titles, jewelry, throw pillows, iphone covers, tee shirts, table runners, baby caps, wall art, and little toy train accessories. Wabi-sabi is everywhere–especially in commerce, it seems–these days.

To most Japanese, the term wabi-sabi is a confusing one; it tends to touch rather deeply on issues of identity and what it means to be a Japanese. It quickly devolves into something known as nihonjin-ron: the seemingly endless debate in the popular Japanese press about what, exactly, it means to be a Japanese. Ask a random Japanese person to try to define wabi-sabi, and you will almost always hear something like, “It’s really difficult to explain.”

Like Koren, I’ve never met a Japanese who can confidently articulate what it means. But, like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (who was talking about pornography), many will say something like, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

“The zen of things” might be as good a definition as any, since the first Japanese to develop the concept were zen priests and tea masters. And since zen is itself difficult to express/articulate, wabi-sabi is too, and most Japanese have given up trying.

Along the way, as Koren so masterfully illustrates in his new complement volume, Wabi-Sabi: Further Thoughts, wabi-sabi has been reduced, simplified, and packaged by Japan’s many iemoto (heads of ancient family lineages that teach traditional Japanese arts), into a narrow—and definitive—set of rules. This represents the morphing—one might even say death—of wabi-sabi from its origins of rustic simplicity into its opposite—something packaged, decided, and even polished and sacrosanct.

Iemoto today, every bit the living embodiment of the tea ceremony and the entire concept of wabi-sabi that they have been for centuries, with their rather vast empires of tea schools and tea commerce, are in point of fact rather brilliant, if not altogether transparent, entrepreneurs. An iemoto’s signature on a tea scoop, whisk, or other utensil (or on the box it comes packaged in) can add thousands of dollars to its value. Very few practitioners would dare to make tea in a way not sanctioned by them.

We recently had the delightful opportunity to host Leonard for a lunch and some matcha at Breakaway HQ in San Anselmo. His “appealingly irritable sensibility,” as the New York Times called it in a memorable article, was in full evidence, just as it is in his stark, thought-provoking writing.

We talked quite a bit about matcha, of course; Leonard has an extensive background both as a scholar of tea and a practitioner, and has a fluency and unique comprehension of matcha I’ve never encountered. When I mentioned that matcha can be an excellent tool for many who hope to enhance their own cognition and maybe even productivity, he was skeptical.

“Though I love tea, I’m not sure getting those cognitive lifts are the best way to work. If I feel good about something, I’m pretty sure I’m not on the right track. In my work, I need the pessimism, the self-criticism, the negativity, the despair. Of course it feels better to feel optimistic, hopeful, and to think you’re on the right track, but it feels bad if maybe you go a few days without tea and caffeine, and realize maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to use it as thought-fuel. That rather narrow optimistic track is nice, but I need a wider vision. Caffeine helps me get deep along a narrow path, but staying away from anything cognitively enhancing helps me experience my full range of attitudes and emotions.”

Leonard has had a remarkably diverse history of interests, passions, and experiences. He’s well-known a “design philosopher,” with deep backgrounds in art and architecture. I asked him how, at parties, he answers the awful question that everyone asks, “What do you do?”

“You say things that will engage other people to get you what’s available,” he answered. ” I usually tell people something different each time. Trained as an artist and architect, self-taught, magazine publisher, author, book designer, product designer, theorist, Depending on what your needs are, I will give you a corresponding answer.”

“I figure that, at least by the time you’re 70 or 80, you figure out where where you fit in in the general scheme of things. At 68, I’m just beginning to realize how I fit into the scheme of things. I denied it most of the time. We tend to categorize people and professions and jobs. Infinite bifurcations, like branches of a tree. Using the metaphor of architecture with design, we mix things like commerce, neurology, globalism, biology, and ethnography. Wabi-sabi, if you look at it in its broadest interpretation, is found in all these things.”

Wabi-sabi images force us to think about our own mortality, says Koren. It evokes a tender sadness, and maybe loneliness, but those feelings are comforted by the knowledge that ALL things in existence share the same fate. Nothing will remain in the end, if we think in evolutionary terms of billions of years.

Diffused light through washi (Japanese paper), the color and textural changes of metal as it rusts and decomposes are classic wabi-sabi images. This state of going toward our eventual fate—from something to nothing—and a conscious appreciation of that very state can give rise to incredible feelings of beauty and stillness, yet evoke a feeling of being totally alive and free. It’s a nice space to be in. Matcha is an obvious doorway for me. Wabi-sabi is about enjoying the delicate balance between the pleasure we get from things, and the pleasure we get from the freedom of things.

For more on wabi-sabi and other highly original and idiosyncratic examinations of things that fascinate him, check out Koren’s publications at www.leonardkoren.com

Meet Master Ceramicist Tom Decker


It’s no secret that we–like many of you–adore really high-quality ceramics. We constantly keep our eyes and ears wide open for new ceramicists whose work stands out as exemplary for its beauty, utility, tactile delight, and, of course, suitability for matcha. They can be from anywhere, but we especially love meeting local ceramic artists and asking them to make very special works just for us, with matcha specifically as a focal point.

A few months ago I was interviewed by the wonderful folks from Tea People about matcha. As part of the same podcast they also interviewed Tom Decker, a Berkeley-based ceramicist, ceramics instructor, and tea lover, who said a lot of interesting and, to me, deeply true things about the nature of matcha and the shared experience of drinking it.

So I contacted Tom and asked if I could see some of his work. He graciously drove over to Marin from Berkeley and brought some of most beautiful bowls I’ve ever encountered. We immediately commissioned some bowls for Breakaway Matcha clients. But it was the story of the bowls, and how Tom makes them, that blew me away.

Tom has taught the clay arts and ceramics all over the world, but somehow one day realized that the ground underneath his house in Berkeley (where his family has lived for more than a century) was full of unbelievably rich clays. In the front yard was a loamy, ochre-colored clay almost ideal for stoneware vessels, but it was pretty hard to excavate — he needed a pick and a digging bar to break it apart. And in the back was an almost black, silty clay, easily obtained with just shovel, that he could turn into earthenware glazes. So he decided to start using both of them in his work.

Both clays first require soaking the hardened material in water. Once the clay has broken down in the water Tom then uses screens to remove any rocks, stick, roots, etc. The wetted clay is then dried and ground to a fine powder, using a huge stone mortar and an aluminum baseball bat (!) as his pestle. This powder is then screened again with a finer sieve. The powdered clay may then be rewetted and formed into a glaze. Tom likes to add some white, local (of course) stone he finds around the neighborhood and laboriously pulverizes it to make the glaze.

In each firing, in a tiny remarkably efficient kiln in his backyard, five tea bowls at a time are fired to mature the clay body and glaze at stoneware temperature (about 2200°F). The kiln is fueled with wood that Tom gathers from the neighborhood, which he then chops and seasons. It takes about three hours to reach temperature, after which it’s cooled for eight hours and then unloaded.

In Japan most ceramicists present their bowls in beautiful wooden boxes (typically paulownia). Tom, naturally, makes his own boxes from local wood (pine), and they’re almost as beautiful as the bowls. We wrap the bowls in turmeric-infused (used originally as an insect repellent in muggy Japan) thin cotton towels before placing them in these lovely handmade boxes.

We’re calling the bowls Rare Earth.

And we have an extremely limited quantity. We don’t know when we’ll see more again and we expect them to soon be gone. If you’d like one, you may want to get it quickly.

We couldn’t be happier with them, or with the entire experience of getting to know Tom and his gorgeous art.


Profiles of Hardcore Matcha Drinkers–Dave “Yeah Dave” Romanelli

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It’s a complete pleasure to introduce the inimitable Dave Romanelli as a hardcore matcha drinker. Dave’s energy is utterly boundless and utterly contagious. He has helped thousands of people educate themselves on the wonders of yoga and the awakened life. He has no problem teaching classes with titles like, “Yoga and Chocolate,” and “Yoga and Wine.” We need more iconoclasts like him, and we couldn’t be happier about his mission to get everyday mortals to live more fully in the moment. We of course also love him for switching his obsessive coffee habit to an obsessive matcha habit. Dave is an original!


I have to ask: why does everyone call you “yeah Dave?”

In college, I had a penchant for asking hypothetical questions that didn’t have answers (think Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High). My friends gave up on answering the questions and would just say “Yeah Dave.”


I absolutely LOVE your mission to make meditation — dare I say inner peace? — accessible to everyone, especially young(ish) hip urban people. Give us your best tip on how to incorporate a simple meditation practice into our daily lives.

Once you get it, meditation is the most wonderful thing in the world. Until then, it can be painfully boring. So here’s a good way to start. instead of sitting with your eyes closed, set an alarm for 1:11pm. When it goes off, take a minute to chill out, to breathe, to push back from the computer and relax. Once we start to connect “meditation” to “feeling amazing,” we are more likely to try it. And once you make it a habit, everything changes. They say “meditation creates more time than it takes.”


What does wellness mean to you? what simple things can an average person do to feel at her best?

Wellness is who you are in your natural state, when you relax, when you are savoring matcha, watching a sunset, indulging in the simple pleasures that form your most lasting memories. from that foundation of peace and joy, health can root down and blossom. But without that foundation, health will always be elusive.

An average person should start by taking at least one moment each day to really savor life. By that I mean, no worries, no work, just do something for yourself that you will remember when you put your head on the pillow at night. So many days go by where we don’t remember a single thing that happened and that is a global sociological epidemic. But the solution is simple. ENJOY YOUR JOURNEY


How does matcha fit into your daily routine?

Matcha changes everything. It’s the way i start almost every day. Gives me energy, it’s a ritual, it’s supremely healthy, just a magical way to get started on the right foot.


Why are you so damn happy all the time?