Maybe it was 2018. Or 2019. One thing for sure, it was May: if you go to Japan in May, you don't forget it. I’d never been there before and didn’t know anyone, but I knew plenty about the deeply rooted culture surrounding the use of raw earth in Japanese building traditions. For the Japanese this material has been used for centuries, they are very familiar with it and well able to use it. In Italy, the common image of the bricklayer is generally that of a working class kid, a manual labourer with plaster-covered hands who often speaks another language and all too often is on the lowest rung of the social ladder.
So when I found myself face to face with the great master Matsuki at the Milan Polytechnic, where I’d gone to attend one of his workshops , I couldn’t believe my eyes. Impeccably dressed, in clothes that looked as though they had just come off the shelves at Muji, he had placed a set of at least 50 immaculately clean razor sharp spatulas on the table in front of him in millimetric order and which he was preparing to handle with the same precision as a samurai would his swords. As per tradition, the spatulas had a multi-layered iron blade and an iron handle: the cheapest would have cost no less than €50 and some were real collector's items, to be used only for ceremonies,.
Some time later, Maria Laura told me about Katsura's Imperial villa in Kyoto and its particular clay walls with their soft ochre colour veering towards that of coffee. At the start of the last century Bruno Taut, a master of modern architecture, had talked about his visit to this light wooden building and its sliding partitions, describing it as a reference model for the Modern Movement, and so that was where I was heading, comfortably seated on the Shinkansen, the superfast train that connects Tokyo with “the city of a thousand temples”. The calculated slowness and precision of the other travellers in their movements fascinated me while the seats on the Shinkansen all faced in the same direction and were spaced at least 50 cms apart, so that despite being well over six feet tall I was really comfortable. If another passenger wanted to tilt his seat back, he would turn and ask permission from his neighbour first, complete with the traditional little bow. Surprisingly, it was also forbidden to use telephones , so the whole journey passed in splendid silence.
When I eventually arrived in front of the Imperial villa, I was instantly dumbstruck: firstly because the essential shapes of the clay and wood walls transmitted an incredible charm and secondly because I immediately realized that unless I had previously booked a visit, it was closed to visitors. A quick glance at the internet would have told me that all the other leading monuments in the city were closed that day. So after having planned the trip on the only day off on my schedule, and after two hours on the high speed train, I arrived in Kyoto only to find everything closed and another two hours on the train to get back. However, that initially comical situation provided an unexpected and positive aspect, which gradually revealed itself as I looked at the walls and courtyards of the many minor historic buildings of the city (which can always be visited). As I did, I discovered a richness in the surfaces and colours of walls and floors which had been worked to produce incredible textures. In Japan, raw earth surfaces mostly have the same typical ochre shade, the natural colour of a clay originating from the Osaka area and practically the only one used throughout the whole country.
In historic Japanese buildings, especially tea houses, raw earth is used as the infill for bamboo or wood frames, combined with rice paper for windows or doors and room dividers. The earth tones are soft and warm while the essential finishing texture derives from a deep-rooted aesthetic concept called Wabi-Sabi, a world view focused on the incomplete and apparently imperfect state of objects that calls to mind the Zen vision of impermanence and transience. This condition was described among others by Leonard Koren in his book “Wabi-Sabi for artists, designers, poets and philosophers” while Eugen Herrigel in his “Zen in the Art of Archery” sums up the essence of the approach as “reduction to the essential but without eliminating the poetry”. I wrote this phrase down in my notes and it went on to inspire our collection of TerraWabi interior finishes, based on pigment-free natural clays and lime in both pastel and deep colours and reminiscent of typical ancient plasters.
In the square in front of the Imperial villa there was a place that sold incense and sticks on which it was possible to have carved a votive message of your choice. I took one and had the word “shoshin” carved on it, which in Japanese means “beginner's mind”. In Zen Buddhism, shoshin is a specific attitude of openness, passion and absence of preconceptions in dealing with a subject or a discipline, even when studied at an expert and advanced level but with the same constant enthusiasm that a beginner would do. In 1970 Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi, the first Buddhist monk to have worked outside Asia, dedicated his first collection of reflections to it entitled Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (translated into Italian as Mente Zen, mente di principiante). Curiosity, the ability to know how to be continuously amazed, is something that I always try to pursue and I think it distinguishes me in everything I do. I believe that being amazed and continually learning something new from everything around is a fundamental attitude to work. And also to have fun (even in front of a wall, on the other side of the world).