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

Caffeine: Can I Drink Matcha During Pregnancy?

Portrait of pregnant woman looking at ultrasound scan of baby.


We get this question all the time.


Dr. David Elmer, an OBGYN at Nantucket Cottage Hospital in Nantucket, Massachusetts, puts it this way:


“There’s been a shift in paradigm, where we don’t go on conventional wisdom and practice evidence-based medicine. And the overwhelming evidence does not support much, if any, damage in having caffeine.”


The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Mayo Clinic, Britain’s National Health Service, The March of Dimes, and many OBGYNs throughout the world generally agree that pregnant women can safely consume up to about 200mg of caffeine per day.


Recall that a normally brewed cup of coffee has somewhere between 100mg and 200mg of caffeine. Starbucks’s 16-oz house coffee has about 330.


Also recall that a serving (1 gram) of matcha contains roughly 25mg of caffeine. Which means that you can have seven or eight servings of matcha per day and still be under the recommended limit. Most people, that is to say most not-pregnant people, don’t drink anywhere near that much matcha.


Other than watching caffeine levels, it’s hard to imagine something that gives your body/system so many phytonutrients isn’t also beneficial to a fetus.


Naturally, this does not constitute medical advice — always check with you doctor first.


Also remember that it isn’t JUST the nutrients and caffeine — it’s really about the OVERALL health of the mama that matters most. And if a cup or two of matcha makes mama happy, I have to believe that a happy, humming mama makes for the happiest, humming baby. Moreover, because the baby does indeed absorb so much of your nutritional intake, pregnant women have to be extra mindful of getting optimal nutrition.



Matcha Has Less Caffeine, But the Caffeine Lasts Longer


Blend 99 1kg bag


We get a lot of calls and emails asking about caffeine and matcha.


The short answer is that is has far less caffeine than brewed coffee does — about a quarter as much (roughly 25mg of caffeine for matcha, roughly 100mg or more for coffee, depending on factors such as steeping time, water temperature, and many others). Some estimates put as much as 200mg of caffeine in brewed coffee, which would mean matcha has about an eighth as much caffeine as coffee. But as a rule of thumb we can generally conclude that matcha has about a fourth the caffeine as brewed coffee.


The slightly expanded answer is that, even though it doesn’t have much caffeine relative to coffee, the relatively small amount of caffeine in matcha lasts a lot longer. How can this be?


The small amounts of caffeine in tea usually take longer to enter the blood stream than does the caffeine in coffee, which tends to be absorbed into the bloodstream just minutes after drinking.  With matcha, it typically takes several hours to fully enter the bloodstream, and can last as long as six hours. Moreover, the “crash” many people experience an hour or two after drinking coffee doesn’t happen with matcha.


The leading theory on why this is so has to do with the amino acid L-theanine, which we’ve discussed at length in these pages before. L-theanine and the many other antioxidants, flavanoids, and phytonutrients in matcha are thought to slow down the body’s absorption of caffeine – resulting in a gentler increase of caffeine in the system and a lengthened period of alertness and wakefulness, with no crash once the caffeine has run its full course. at the end.


Matcha is a rather fun ride — it feels great  to hydrate, to feel a steady stream of serene yet energizing flow, and to feel like you’re at your peak performance.


5 Reasons to Drink Matcha Instead of Coffee

raw and as tea

I’ve said it many times before, but I’ll say it again: I have always loved good coffee, still love it, and will likely always love it. But I don’t love it nearly as much as I love matcha. Here are five reasons to kickstart your day with matcha:

1)  Matcha has a better caffeine high. By “better” I mean that coffee’s caffeine high wreaks more havoc on the body. It starts off with a blast, and ends in a crash. Coffee causes spikes in adrenaline glucose and insulin levels, which in turn create jitteriness, nervousness, and, at least for me, often crazy hunger pangs.

Matcha, in contrast, does a better job of creating a calm alertness, with just a quarter the caffeine. There are no spikes and crashes, it just comes on gently and leaves just as gently. No adrenal weirdness, no glucose spike, and no need for pastry; it satiates like nothing else, making it the perfect treat for anyone worried about their weight. The 25 mg (or so) of caffeine bind with matcha’s phytonutrients (especially L-theanine) in a way that slows the body’s absorption of the caffeine; it typically lasts at least three hours, though some people report feeling it for as long as six or seven.

2) Better breath. There really is no comparison here. Matcha is also better for your teeth: it thwarts the bacteria that causes plaque, making it a powerful ally for everyday oral hygiene. Coffee breath and enamel staining? This is a no brainer.

3) Better skin. Ever notice the skin of hardcore coffee drinkers? Matcha helps clear up acne, and has been used for centuries by Japanese women as a facial mask. Matcha’s antibacterial properties help to give skin a natural glow.

4) More antioxidants. Matcha is ridiculously full of catechins, flavonoids, and polyphenols, especially the mighty epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which has been linked to so many health benefits and has therapeutic applications to the treatment of so many disorders, including cancer.

5) Great matcha is WAY easier to make than great coffee is.

Matcha has the reputation of being difficult to make, but seriously: scoop sifted tea into cup, add hot water, froth. All of 30 seconds to perfection (assuming you’re starting with great matcha, of course). Great coffee should be measured (20 grams seems to be the most common weight), freshly ground, then steeped or steamed, using a variety of complicated and expensive machinery. And then there’s the waiting for the machine to do its thing.

Needless to say, matcha is not intended to prevent, treat, or cure any disease; it’s just green tea, albeit a very special one that has all kinds of interesting health properties. And because there are no known downsides or side effects to regular consumption of matcha, there is little to lose in making the switch from coffee to matcha, at least some of the time.

You needn’t give up coffee altogether (unless your doctor tells you to, of course) — I sure don’t plan to. But do give matcha try; you have nothing to lose but stained teeth, bad breath, and heart-pounding jitters. And you might have a whole new world of wellness to gain.