A tea ceremony in Kyoto, Japan.
A tea ceremony in Kyoto.
| Credit: Tetsuya Miura

On my first trip to Kyoto almost three years ago, I attended a tea ceremony held in the filtered winter light of a machiya—a traditional wooden town house found throughout Japan. The host, Yuki, introduced herself with a deep bow and apologized for her inexperience; she had been in training for only 10 years. It was hard to imagine studying anything for two years longer than the average neurosurgeon, but I glimpsed the intricacies of the practice when Yuki explained the competing schools of thought on how the bubbles atop the frothed matcha should appear. Her aim was to create a crescent shape, in the manner of a tea master who lived centuries ago that she admired and studied. But this, Yuki said, would take many more years to perfect.

On a rainy morning a few days later, I stumbled on a museum that was once the house of Kanjiro Kawai, a legendary 20th-century ceramist and a leader of the mingei (or folk art) movement. Kawai was a master of glazing, but renounced what he saw as the showy colors of the European tradition. He embraced natural, metallic blends like coppery red and iron brown. A back room is devoted to a small exhibition of his work. Later I read an essay of Kawai's in which he wrote, "When you become so absorbed in your work that beauty flows naturally, then your work truly becomes a work of art."

At the time, I didn't know how to understand these two moments. But since moving here in 2017, I've come to view both as exemplifying something of the national character and its uncommon attention to beauty. Our idea of Japan is often that of hypermodern Tokyo: the bright lights of Shibuya Crossing, the robots in aprons at space-age cafés. No less true, however, is that Japan is one of the more tradition-bound places on earth, with an unparalleled arts and crafts heritage that remains alive to this day. From the tea ceremonies and the pottery to gardens and flower arranging, that highly attuned aesthetic sense is evident everywhere. There is no walling-off of fine art. "Crafts are an everyday part of life in Japan," said Ashley Ganz, the founder of Artisans of Leisure, which offers tours—including stops at Kawai's studio—focused on the country's culture. Ganz started her company in 2003 after having lived in Japan for two years, noticing at the time that there was little opportunity for tourists who wanted to go behind the closed doors of the country's creative community. "The Japanese still feel it's important to maintain this sense of beauty, refinement, and tradition," she said.

Mishima Candle Shop in Japan
Mishima Candle Shop, in Gifu Prefecture.
| Credit: Tetsuya Miura

After I met a candlemaker in Hida-Furukawa, a mountain town in Gifu Prefecture (about 250 miles north of Tokyo), and saw the seriousness with which he applied himself, Ganz's point became clear. Warosoku candles originated in the 14th century and are famous throughout the country because they're crafted from mokuro—a kind of malleable substance made from the fruit of Japanese wax trees that, when lit, has an exceptionally soft, calming glow. There are fewer than 10 such businesses left in all of Japan. Junji Mishima is the seventh in his family line to work in the warosoku shop, which has been open for more than 240 years. "I used to be a banker," he told me while sitting cross-legged, spinning a bamboo stick that would become the wick in a rotating shallow vat of warm wax. "Now I wake up at four in the morning and do this all day, and I am much happier." By 6 p.m., Mishima will have made 150 candles, alternately bright red, glossy white, and a swirling combination of his own design.

Every year, the 400-year-old canal running through Hida is lit with candles made by Mishima. This is the Santera Mairi, a winter festival for crafts and those looking for good fortune. But above all, it's for people who make things, and the spirit that courses through them that comes close to the divine.