Wabi Sabi a.k.a Coming to Terms with The Fact That You Aren’t Perfect

Wabi Sabi is a Japanese aesthetic that thrives on the idea of natural beauty, brief transitions, and the reminder that nothing should be perfect. An idea that inspires us to remember that we all once originated from nothing and that one day we will all return to nothing.

Wabi Sabi to some could be considered a way of life, by accepting that all things come to an end. It allows one to realize that while something may not be perfect, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be beautiful or meaningful.

Photograph: Tsukuru Anderson

The idea that all things should be perfect and permanent is a western construct, and by choosing to accept their ideals, we can never really come to terms with the fact that something isn’t perfect and that it won’t last forever. That thought will come off as disturbing to those who want to leave their mark on the world. That is not to say you cannot achieve that goal.   The point of Wabi Sabi is simply to reflect on all the beautiful things and accomplishments you have made in striving for perfection.

Photograph: Tsukuru Anderson

By simply accepting the fact that perfection should not be our end goal, we can better come to terms with the fact that we are all simply human. For anything to be otherwise perfect and permanent is to be considered dead and unnatural. So Wabi Sabi asks us to look past the surface of ourselves and the things around us and to see more than what first may appear.

Photograph: Kameyo Okamoto

Bringing Wabi Sabi into your life requires no money, or training, or talent in the arts. It simply asks that you accept things as they are, without excessive decoration or embellishment. To appreciate what is there, instead of what isn’t. To observe with a careful eye, and through our observations find feelings of wistfulness or serenity. The feelings that help to bring forth meaningful and thoughtful contemplation, these are the feelings that embody Wabi Sabi.

Photograph: Tsukuru Anderson

If you’ve been to the Kobo at Higo Shop and Gallery located in the International District, I am sure many of you can attest to the vast array of beautiful art pieces and products that the store has to sell. Many of the art pieces, ceramics, and other products represent the store’s own version of Wabi Sabi. The store itself could be considered Wabi Sabi. Kobo at Higo, once just Higo, used to be a five and dime store, but after the Japanese internment in 1942 the Murakami family was forced to leave their store, and move to the camps.

Photograph: Kameyo Okamoto

Masa Murakami, was the last remaining member of the  family and retired from operating the Higo Variety Store in 2002.   Kobo was invited by the extended Murakami Family to expand their business that they had started on Capitol Hill in 1995, and opened a second location in the Higo space. The Higo space was repurposed to create a new shop, gallery and a museum wall which showcased art and design as well as  highlighting the history of Japantown and the story of the Japanese family that immigrated from Japan to America during the turn of the century.  The space  showed signs of being touched by decades of passing years, the store now in its preserved state is both welcoming and important to the greater community. And while it may not be considered “perfect”, it is through its imperfections, history, and memory that brings about the beauty and  continues to preserve the history of a different place and time.

Photograph: Kameyo Okamoto

Recommendations for Further reading:

Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers By: Leonard Koren

Wabi-Sabi: Further Thoughts By: Leonard Koren

Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence By: Andrew Juniper

Meet Me At Higo: An Enduring Story of a Japanese American Family By: Ken Mochizuki


Kameyo Okamoto is a sophomore from Bennington College, who has been studying Japanese language and visual arts for the past two years. Over the last month and a half she has been interning for Kobo at Higo, allowing her the opportunity to immerse herself in Japanese art, language and culture. She hopes that during her time here she will have learned more about what it is she would like to do in the future, and in turn, to have learned something more about herself.

Dean Wong: Full Circle – a photography exhibition June 25-July 24, 2016


Full Circle.  Back to my childhood.  Higo Variety Store holds a special place in my heart. I used to come here with a few dimes and quarters to buy candy from the Aya and Masa Murakami.  Sometimes I’d buy toys made in Japan. Or balsa wood airplanes. Chinatown kids would fly those in the Chong Wa play field.

The Murakami sisters witnessed my growth. Chinatown kid. Long haired college student with the badass green leather jacket. IDEC volunteer.
“My, how you’ve grown up,” Masa said to me once. I was on patrol with Donnie Chin when she said that. They appreciated the service these two long hairs provided.

The International Examiner rented an office above the store. IE staff used typewriters back in the day. The sisters put up with our stacks and stacks of newspapers in the lobby of 318 6th Avenue.

Standing inside Kobo, I feel that history. Those innocent years when I was just a Chinatown kid with a runny nose, visiting Higo in my cowboy shirt. Young IE volunteer delivering newspapers…and I remember they had a dog. There was a brother…

I’m back again. This time I plan to stay for a month. My photographs, spanning four decades of dedication are here. The sisters are here too. We’re all together like the old days.

As a set, the images in this exhibit span a 40 year period. It begins with “Herman.” A young Chinese boy peering through an old Chinatown window in 1976. I knew this was a pretty cool picture. I didn’t know it would become the cover a my book “Seeing the Light: Four Decades in Chinatown.”

Not bad for a Chinatown kid.

(Special thanks. Chin Music Press. For believing. Kobo Store. For saving history. Giving an artist a chance to share. Janice Ito and Donnie Chin. Rest in peace. I miss you both. I still cry.)

Dean Wong
June 2016

Aya and Masa Murakami, Seattle, Higo Variety Store, 1993.

Dean Wong’s photo exhibition: Full Circle
On view from June 25 – July 24, 2016.

Opening reception and Book Signing event:  June 25, 2015 from 3-6pm.
KOBO Gallery, 604 South Jackson Street, Seattle, WA  98104, (206) 381-3000 http://www.koboseattle.com, hello@koboseattle.com

 KOBO Shop & Gallery occupies the previous home of the beloved Higo Variety Store, a Japanese Five and Dime that first opened its doors in 1909 on Weller Street and later moved to it’s final location at the Sixth and Jackson building where it operated for 75 years. 

2015 KOBO Holiday Gift Guide

It’s not too late to ‘shop small’ for friends and family at KOBO! Both locations are open every day at 11:00am between now and Christmas. Here are a few of our gift picks for everyone on your list.

For the foodie. . .
Haku Shoyu KOBO

Family-owned Haku shoyu from Kyoto is immaculately crafted, then aged in whiskey barrels, infused with sakura (cherry blossom), or cold smoked with white oak for a distinctive flavor profile. A little goes a long way. ($30)

For Dad…

Merino wool socks by Bengt & Lotta add a touch of whimsy to his work attire. “I love stuff that is fun, different and makes you happy,” says Lotta Glave of the husband and wife design team. ($25)

For Mom…

A double-sided face towel made in Japan to elevate her nightly face-washing to a bedtime ritual. Made of 100% organic cotton, gauze on one side and absorbent terry on the other – bigger sizes available if you want to make it a set!  ($18)

I gave one to my brother (he expects one every year now ) but actually anyone on your list…

The difficult-to-find 2016 Calendar from Karhu Studio Kyoto is in stock now! With a tall shape inspired by Edo period pillar prints (hashira-e), each month features a saying in Japanese and English with a whimsical brush illustration by  Clifton Karhu. ($25, available online)

For the curious kid in your life…

Animal and bug ornaments that they’ll delight in pulling out of the ornament box year after year. ($11-19)

For your best friend…
BZR tights
BZR ombre tights
, made in Seattle by a small team accompanied by Lola, the office dog / Studio Manager. Tiffany Ju’s ombre legwear is an internet sensation and a fashionable statement of love for local artists. ($44, available in 3 colorways)

For the eco-conscious design lover…

Five Ply Design coasters are made in Seattle from American basswood, a native hardwood that is naturally light and absorbent. Packaged in all-recyclable materials, the coasters are made to have long lives and composted when you’re done. ($32, set of 6)

KOBO holiday hours

Naoshi – Japanese Sand Art


Japanese illustrator and sunae artist Naoshi will make a special appearance at KOBO at Higo this Saturday, November 14. From 12:00-5:00pm she will sign books and demonstrate her precise, visually striking form of sand art. Her newly-published book Ice Cream Work and prints will be available for sale.

Naoshi Author Photo

Sunae is a Japanese word meaning “sand painting”. Naoshi draws on sticker paper, then applies one color at a time by cutting and peeling sections of the illustration and sprinkling it with colored sand.


What do you love most about working in sunae?
I love the process of using vibrantly colored sand to transform a white board. I feel very gratified at the end of each project.

When learning the art of sunae, what did you find most difficult?
Making tiny pictures is really difficult because every line must be cut. There is no way to re-do or touch up a mistake, but the happy sense of satisfaction at seeing the finished piece is well worth the pressure! Shiny, colored sand is truly beautiful and I’d like everyone to see the original pieces, not just the digital images.

At what age did you know you were an artist?
I was about 25 years-old when I knew I was an artist, but Ice Cream Man (the main character in Ice Cream Work) is a character gleaned from a drawing I first created when I was just 7! I re-discovered this character in 2007 and began expanding his daily life and world. When I started making sunae, I never thought I’d be an artist; I just loved this art form!

We love the smaller characters in Ice Cream Work, too! Did you draw “Ice Cream Dog” or “Pretending Interest Cheetah” before or after you created “Ice Cream Man”?
I drew the smaller characters after I created Ice Cream Man. I imagined the daily life of this character – his friends (both good and bad), his girlfriend and other creatures around him. I had so much fun imagining these characters.

What surprised you most about living in the United States? [Naoshi is from Iwate Prefecture in Japan, but currently living in Los Angeles.]
The wide roads and freeways! While in Japan, I hadn’t driven in a decade, so I felt completely unable to drive in LA. Today, I sing while I drive!

Ice Cream Man works hard, but he also takes time to have fun and relax. How do you balance your life between work and play?
For me, if it’s work, it’s work. To balance my life, I go to music concerts, eat dinner with friends, read comic books and eat sweets. I’m gonna have fun!


Naoshi Book Signing, Demo & Print Sale
KOBO Gallery (at Higo)
604 South Jackson Street  Seattle, WA  98104 (map)
Saturday November 14, 2015

Simple Cup Show 2017

Takashi Hara

This is the 11th year of a wonderful tradition at KOBO: the Simple Cup Show, also known as the Simple Cup Invitational. Each year ceramic artists are invited to contribute 2-4 cups to this celebration of the humble cup. This year’s exhibition is curated by Peter Olsen, Executive Director of Seward Park Clay Studio, and Binko Bisbee, Co-owner/Director of KOBO Seattle.

Peter helped KOBO start what has become an anticipated yearly event and has co-curated the Simple Cup Show from the beginning. We had the chance to pick his brain about cups and more.

Jonah Amadeus

The Simple Cup show has been called “a unique take on a common object”. Why cups?
The cup is perhaps the most used ceramic vessel of any. We put it up to our lips, we carefully hold it, we look at it up close. Many potters love making cups because of these things. They may carefully think about how it feels to have lips closing around the rim of the cup. They consider balance and how to keep the user from burning themselves. Some potters use the cup as a tableau for decoration, since there is such close-up addressing of the pot.

After several thousand years of potters making cups, it is still possible to have an individual voice in crafting this most intimate object. Many times, one can immediately recognize a cup connected to a particular maker, just as one can recognize paintings or sculptures. They are that individual.

Bill Jamison

I can imagine being a bit intimidated to use one of the beautiful cups on display. Who buys the cups, and for what purpose?
I hope no one will feel intimidated by the cups. They are not as inexpensive as Pottery Barn or something like that, but they are handmade objects and are priced accordingly. If one wanted to collect affordable objects that grace one’s home (or office or car!) handmade cups are a very accessible and reasonable thing to build a group of. Often when potters get together in each other’s homes we enjoy looking at each other’s collection of cups.

There will be something for everyone at this show. Some people go for the pots with paintings on them. Some are looking for the perfect wood-fired little cup for a splash of bourbon, some are tea practitioners that want a very particular type of bowl. Some people collect the work of a particular maker.

If one is mindful about addressing the cups that we use, we begin to see particular beauty in the object. I can’t tell you how many times people have called the studio, almost in tears, to say how they broke their favorite cup, and could I please help them find the potter who made it. The loss to them is very tangible and I think this speaks to how important the cup is for many people.

Simple Cup Show KOBO Seattle ceramics
Picking favorites at last year’s Simple Cup Show

This will be your 11th year co-curating this exhibition. What makes this show exciting for you?
I have enjoyed my collaboration with [owners] Binko and John at KOBO. I am excited to know many of the people who make the work. I have a large collection of cups myself and am continually surprised by new ideas, new processes and the amazing variety of approaches to the cup. I absolutely love seeing people at the opening. The excitement is great, and people are so happy to be able to collect the cups that they love. It is a joyful experience.

Simple Cup Show 2017
KOBO Gallery (at Higo)
604 South Jackson Street  Seattle, WA  98104 (map)
November 4 – December 2016
Sale by lottery begins at opening, Sat Nov 4
Draw a lottery number as early as 6:30; sale starts at 7:00
      11th Annual Simple Cup Show can be previewed beginning on Friday, 11/3.

Studio Visit with Jeweler Catherine Grisez

Meet Catherine Grisez, a jewelry artist who paints with gems and transforms beer cans into large-scale sculpture. Catherine lives and works in Seattle’s South Park in an auto shop she and her father converted into artist studios surrounded by greenery.

If you could only use 3 words to describe your work, what would they be?

Tell us a bit more about your jewelry.
My work often originates from a personal narrative, reflecting my stories and life experiences through a visual representation. My goal in most everything I do, whether jewelry or sculpture, is to give people a moment of beauty or thought or insight that breaks the routine of the everyday.

In addition to jewelry, you make sculpture and spearheaded an enormous installation to hang over Seattle’s Duwamish River. Can you tell us a little about working on such different scales?
After focusing on small scale sculpture, it’s only been the last 5 years or so that I’ve returned to making jewelry. I love the immediacy and intimacy of working small and focusing on the beauty of an object. But I also crave the complexities of working larger so I’m now trying to balance out by doing both. It’s been interesting the last month or so as I’ve been working on Cultivate, a large public installation (the largest project I’ve worked on to date). One day I was setting tiny 2mm rubies in a commissioned necklace and hours later was sketching plans for a 60’ sculpture installation that will hang off a bridge. It’s odd, but I think I’ve always balanced out in extremes, so for now, this is working!

What do you enjoy most about your work as a jewelry artist?
I love the design process, problem solving to ultimately create something beautiful. In my sculpture I tend to focus everything around a central concept that takes days and days (and often months or years) of writing and thought and sketching before things are resolved. I love the immediacy of jewelry. Since the scale is much smaller and processes less involved, I can often finish a piece the same day I started. The work retains a fresh energy this way and the focus can be on the way the wearer expresses her sense of beauty through the jewelry. Plus I love playing around with color in gemstone form. It sometimes feels like I’m painting through rocks!

Find Catherine Grisez Jewelry on the KOBO site, or find a wider selection at either of our locations.

Photographs by Charissa Pomrehn for KOBO

Rob Vetter – Paintings


Rob Vetter lives in Seattle’s Rainier Valley surrounded by parks, playfields and Lake Washington. It’s no wonder that his miniature landscapes evoke glimpses of the Northwest remind us of recent strolls through the woods and walks by the water. These little gems are oil paint on blocks of wood that can be grouped on a gallery wall or stacked one on top of another.

rob vetter landscape gallery

Your landscape paintings are all miniature, and done on wood. How did you come to this format?
Whenever I’ve taken a small impromptu sketch and made a larger, more meticulous painting out of it, I’ve failed. For me, painting is all about filling the given space – when I’ve filled the space, it’s done. From that standpoint, the miniature has obvious appeal. But I also love the idea of coming across something, rather than being hit over the head by it the minute I walk in the room. And miniatures are still objects, they belong to that category epitomized by the jewel, which never needs to be explained. The 2×4 is something I had on hand – also it’s something cheap and something we take for granted.

Rob Vetter painter at work Rob Vetter painting6

Your tagline is “Humble art for humble folk.” Who is your audience?
I usually paint for the person I was twenty years ago, and the person I’ll be twenty years from now – the novice collector who just knows what they like, as well as someone more experienced who’s looking for something new. As for the paintings, the humble bit means, yes, they’re affordable and diminutive and can be put anywhere. In terms of the audience, they don’t really have to be humble – it’s just a tagline.

We love the snippets of nature in all your paintings. Do you paint them directly from life? These are not painted from life – they’re from photos I’ve taken. Whenever I’m out and about I always take my iPhone. I used to be very against this type of thing – a plein air (painting on site) purist you might say – but now that I have two little boys my self-righteousness has slackened a bit (along with everything else) and I’ve realized that the important thing is simply to paint. Plein air will always be the ideal, but in addition to being time consuming (travel time, set up, take down) and finicky (you can’t do it after dark), the failure rate can be high. And I don’t have a lot of space for failure in my life right now. I just hope that my years of experience as a plein air painter can imbue these pieces with enough authenticity to make them acceptable to the remaining purists, god bless them.

Rob Vetter painting5

What has it been like to work with KOBO?
For me, working with KOBO is kind of like landing a role in the new Star Wars movie. I’ve known and loved the shop for so long, to finally be a part of it feels both inevitable and also like a dream. And the way it all came to pass couldn’t have been more perfect – I was in the shop one day and the thought occurred to me for the first time and I said to myself, “Why not?” I introduced myself to [co-owner] Binko then and there and by the end of the week I was bringing in some work. It doesn’t ever go that way.

Rob Vetter, Paintings
KOBO Gallery (at Higo) (map)
August 4, First Thursday – August 21, 2016

Studio Visit with Jewelry Artist Ann Chikahisa

After several years of being a corporate sales executive, Ann Chikahisa was ready for a change. She decided to take a metalsmithing class and got hooked on making jewelry. With a friend’s encouragment, she hosted her first trunk show and sold 70 pieces in one night. She’s been creating ever since.

With a customer base that includes designers and architects, Ann has found a niche making wearable sculpture on a miniature scale. We visited her at her White Center studio in Seattle.


You write, “Every piece I make is a journey.” Can you tell us the story behind a particular piece?
The journey begins with the wax. I take a piece of wax and play with it , using various tools to create texture. Next comes form. What shape will highlight the texture? Then I take the form and have it cast. The jewelry is then created from the forms and how I organize them and curate them. Every step is play and letting the moment happen. Sometimes my “oops” turn out to be the best pieces!

Tell us a little about how your family and culture has influenced your jewelry work.
I am a third generation Japanese American. I grew up in a creative household where my mother always was either sewing or knitting. As a child I loved to draw, paint and take art classes. Japanese culture is a huge influence on my work- wabi sabi is the essence of it.

What are your favorite pieces to wear right now?
My favorite pieces are the Stonehenge statement bracelet and the Stonehenge wrap necklace. [See them on Ann above. The wrap necklace is a single piece that’s wrapped and tied around her neck. Stunning!]

Find Chikahisa Studio jewelry on the KOBO site, or find a wider selection at either of our locations.

Photographs by Charissa Pomrehn for KOBO

Kris Marubayashi – Ceramics

MEET THE ARTIST  – ONE DAY EVENT: Wednesday, July 1, 2015, 3 – 6pm,

KOBO Gallery (at Higo) in Japantown
604 South Jackson Street
Seattle, WA  98102
(206) 381-3000

Kris Marubayashi is a sansei (third generation Japanese American) ceramic artist based in Sacramento, CA.  She creates pieces that are highly textural, resembling rocks, geological formations, and metal.  KOBO patrons may be most familiar with her Caldera collection (below), inspired by volcanic cauldrons.


Wednesday, July 1, FROM 3 – 6PM  at KOBO Gallery (at Higo), meet Kris and see selected new works from workshops in Wisconsin and Curaumilla, Chile. She will also bring some of her paper clay bowls, a recent experiment in mixing cement with paper clay to to create pieces that are strong, light, and unrestrained in size.

Kris Marubayashi ceramics

She writes, “I think each of the workshops I went to this year showed me different ways of working with clay, including new ways of creating designs from the past. I made medium-sized slab pieces in the past that tended towards cracking, and the extruder will enable me to create similar work [see above] without that problem!”

Black Paper Clay Vessel 2015
Black Paper Clay vessel 2015
Caldera Bowls
Caldera Bowls
Kris Marubayashi, Ceramics
KOBO Gallery (at Higo) (map)
One day only – meet the artist and see new work
Wednesday,  July 1, 3 – 6pm