Michi Online No. 4 / Fall 2000  

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Perceptions of the Shadowy World
Text and illustrations by Vinayak Bharne

Of modern illumination could represent the brilliance of the sun, then traditional Japanese illumination could be said to symbolize the tranquility of the moon. For part of the beauty of traditional Japanese space lay in that soft, diffused light that engulfed it with a subdued ambiguity. It was this dim illumination that generated a gloomy "shadowy world"1 to compliment the soft textures of the tatami and the shoji.2 But in today's Japan, such associations are forsaken entities, the surreal luminescence where darkness and light were mutually indistinguishable, having been gradually displaced by the glare of the incandescent bulb. This essay revives and reiterates the indescribable tranquility of the traditional "shadowy world" of Japan, where one would sit in the dim light, basking in the faint glow of the shoji, lost in meditation, calmness, and repose.

From Japanese mythology stems the concept of yami ("darkness")--a unique notion of space. Literally, yami implies a mystery, a feeling of something hidden in space. The ancient Japanese believed darkness to be the realm of the dead. The spirits of their ancestors dwelled in this world of darkness. Through the tradition of ancestor worship, a visit into darkness evoked in the visitor a sense of being in a sacred space. In the fourteenth century essay Tsure-Zure Gusa, a Japanese priest emphasized that night was the best time to go to worship at the temples. In darkness was emptiness--the void. When this concept of the void was translated into architectural space, it manifested itself as an austere room, devoid of all furniture, that was bathed not in light, but in darkness and shadows--nothing else.

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