In July 2022 the famous Gion Festival in Kyoto was held for the first time in three years due to the COVID pandemic. The roots of the month-long festival originate in 869 AD when people were suffering from a terrible pestilence. For more than 1100 years the Festival has survived many natural and man-made disasters. It is seen as a great symbol of sustainability and the enduring human spirit. July 24th, the day of the second 2022 Gion float parade, coincided with a Zoom event where I shared stories from my eclectic and extensive library of ‘Things Japanese’. My library includes a selection of physical and digital publications, photographs, mementos and experiences guided by the relationship between nature and people in Japan, through the lens of nature’s elements and two five element cosmologies. This was the fourth event in an ongoing series where Writers in Kyoto (WiK) members share their libraries (the first three events were held in physical libraries, not a virtual one). My Zoom presentation described the genesis, evolution and use of the library intertwined with my increasing engagement with Japan. It featured stories and lessons learnt through selected publications (including my own) and the people and experiences related to them. This post draws on the Zoom event, includes links to relevant sources (bolded), and incorporates additional material based on my reflections and questions asked by the audience. There are many stories to tell, so grab your favourite beverage and settle in.
Salamanders, Shugendo, Sustainability and the Sea of Japan
Sustainable Daisen is a Non-Profit Organisation (NPO) promoting sustainable practices to help ensure the survival of the endemic Japanese Giant Salamander, Andrias japonicas. This rare species is threatened by habitat destruction/modification, population fragmentation, hybridisation and climate change and listed as ‘vulnerable’ in the Red Data Book (published by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment). The heartland of Sustainable Daisen is the Nawa River Basin, on the foothills of Mt Daisen, close to the Sea of Japan. The unique breeding population of the Japanese Giant Salamander (JGS) found in the basin is facing extinction if business-as-usual continues. Water, and its cycling through land, air and sea, is the element most critical to the conservation of this aquatic species. It is also the key element in the long history of worship of Mt Daisen. Within this rich cultural setting a holistic approach to managing salamander habitat is being implemented, focusing on rivers, forests, farmland and villages. Sustainable Daisen has built an impressive team, website, and many productive collaborations including with the research community. This and other initiatives to save the JGS in the region have received national and international attention. It was my pleasure to meet Richard Pearce, the CEO of Sustainable Daisen, in Tottori Prefecture in May 2018. Since then our lives have been intertwined through our shared enthusiasm for nature, Shugendo and forging a sustainable future for our planet.
The pentagram in Japan: a puzzling mix of magic, medicine and the five elements
The pentagram (J. gobosei) is a powerful symbol over 5000 years old, primarily associated with Europe and the Middle East. In contemporary Japan the pentagram is closely connected to Abe no Seimei, the Heian-era Onmyodo practitioner popularly known as the ‘Wizard or Master of YinYang‘. Depending on the source, Seimei is credited with having either independently created the pentagram around 1000 years ago or adapted/borrowed it from Daoist charts in currency at that time. Elsewhere I’ve read that the symbol was introduced to Onmyodo through Tantric Buddhism, with the original source going way back to the Pythagoreans. My principal interest in the pentagram is its representation of the five elements/phases (J. gogyo) of Wood, Earth, Water, Fire and Metal. As well as exploring the connection with Seimei, this brings Kampo (a form of traditional Japanese medicine) and fusui (the Japanese way of Feng Shui) into the mix. The challenge to research, describe and interpret the origin, history and symbolism of the pentagram in Japan has been great and is ongoing. The purpose of this exploratory post is to share progress with the intriguing and mysterious puzzle so far and discover if readers can contribute additional pieces.
Feel the energy: five years exploring the (five) elements in Japan
Five years ago today I hit the ‘Publish’ button on my first post about Elemental Japan. Titled ‘A story waiting to be told‘ the post introduced and set the context for my upcoming travels to and within Japan where the prime focus would be on the elements. With my travel companion Suki (a soft toy dog) by my side, and a mind map and copious notes at hand, an incredible and life-changing journey was about to begin. Reflecting on the last half decade – the places visited in Japan, the friendships made, the experiences experienced, the blog posts written – provides an opportunity to share the lessons learnt and look to the future. It is a milestone worth celebrating and contemplating. There is a lot to cover, so find your favourite reading spot, grab a drink if you so desire, and enjoy this story about Elemental Japan…so far.
Celebrating the elemental ceramics of Japan
Taiko drumming fills the air, intense flames shoot out of a multi-chambered climbing kiln, the words ‘Fire, Air, Earth and Water’ appear sequentially on the screen. This is the intense start to the video ‘Elemental‘ featuring the Japanese ceramic artist Ken Matsuzaki. The spirit and energy of the artist is a fifth element that brings the ceramics to life. Locally sourced elements are artfully combined to produce unique ceramic pieces in Japan, a tradition that spans thousands of years. The Way of Tea was a decisive juncture in the evolution of the ceramic arts, adding diversity, vitality and ritualised meaning. To celebrate these compelling creations I invited three friends with a passion for Japanese ceramics to share the pieces they felt embodied the elements. The selections and associated reflections by Robert Yellin, Allen S. Weiss and Tatsuo Tomeoka provide nourishing food for thought about the genesis, function, beauty, spirituality and environmental sustainability of hand-made ceramics in Japan and beyond.
Shinto in a Tasmanian setting
Tasmania and Japan are the two elemental places I have the strongest connection with. They come together in the most recent blog on Fire Up Water Down:
Shinto Moments on the Three Capes Track, Tasmania
For those who exclusively follow Elemental Japan I wanted to share the post with you. For those who follow both blogs please excuse the cross posting. And for those who are new to this blog, welcome!
To make amends for cross-posting, and share some more Shinto Moments, the images below from the Three Capes Track only appear in this post.
Another Tasmanian walking adventure on the Overland Track – that also includes references to Japan – can be found here.
Hokusai, a master of the elements
When things come in threes you sit up and pay attention. So when the famous Japanese Ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) unexpectedly popped up three times in the last two days, my interest was reawakened. Something was telling me that it was time to write about this remarkable man, an artist I have admired for many years. My delight in his art, which captures nature and the elements so vividly, has led me to visit the Hokusai Museums in Tokyo and Obose, Japan and travel to a major exhibition of his work in Melbourne, Australia. Yet it was only when searching online for an unrelated item that I discovered another fundamental connection between Hokusai and the elements – one that was quite an eye-opener.
Yakushima and Yuko-san: celebrating the forests born from drops of water
Yakushima is the wettest place in Japan with annual rainfall between 4 metres around the coast of the island and 10 metres in the mountains. It is famous for its ancient moss-covered forests, abundant waterfalls and rivers, island-adapted wildlife and providing inspiration for the Studio Ghibli movie Princess Mononoke. The forests also inspired the artist Yuko Takada to write and illustrate a book called Water Forest (J. 水の森; Mizu no mori). I bought this striking publication, which is entirely in Japanese, when I visited the World Heritage listed Yakushima in 2017. The sublime watercolour illustrations capture the intensity and beauty of life in the forests on the island. It is this celebratory book that I chose as the first to read in my quest to learn the language of Japan. In doing so I felt even closer to these remarkable rainforest ecosystems.
Yinyang in Japan: harmonising vital energies
Yinyang – an ancient Chinese philosophy of balance, harmony and vital energy – was transmitted to Japan via China and Korea around 1500 years ago. Translated as inyo, onmyo or onyo in Japanese, the philosophy of yinyang, often combined with the five phases/elements (C. wuxing; J. gogyo) of Earth, Water, Fire, Wood and Metal, has permeated Japanese culture. For nearly 1200 years the imperial Bureau of Yinyang (J. Onmyoro) – unique to Japan – practiced divination, astromancy, geomancy (J. fusui), pacification of angry spirits, omenology and more. Renewed popular interest in the ‘Way of Yinyang’ (Onmyodo) focuses on the ‘wizards’ who practiced these magical arts. Yet there is more to yinyang in Japan. Much much more. Using the coronavirus lockdown to delve into the energy of nature and the universe, through the lens of yinyang, has been uplifting and enlightening.
Gorinto: a uniquely Japanese five element stupa
The gorinto is fundamental to my explorations of Elemental Japan. Composed of stacked geometric forms that represent earth, water, fire, wind and space this Buddhist monument embodies the interconnectedness of all creation in tangible form. It has deep spiritual symbolism and significance. Largely found as a grave marker in contemporary Japan, the gorinto has a long association with meditation, medicine, memorials, martial arts and use as a reliquary. In modern times the beautifully balanced and striking form of the gorinto has seen the imagery and elemental connections adopted more widely. From Koyasan – the Shingon Buddhist pilgrimage site that is the ‘home’ of the gorinto – to Kyushu, Kamakura, Zentsu-ji and beyond, my fascination with this form has taken me across the length and breadth of Japan, as well as tracking down related material wherever I can.