Japan is a land of mountains, the most iconic, recognised and depicted being Mt Fuji. Formed from volcanoes and tectonic activity, the mountains are clothed in forest. They influence the weather and form catchments that provide water for life on the plains. Plains where most Japanese live and rice, the basis of the traditional diet, is grown. Earth, fire, water, wind, wood – the mountains are a significant feature of elemental Japan. It is no wonder that they are considered sacred and are a focus of spiritual activity.
Mountains have been a focus of my recent explorations on the elements in Japan. I am fortunate to be able to see the mountains of Kyoto from my apartment opposite Nijo Castle. It is a reminder of the importance of mountains (and water) in the selection of Kyoto as the capital of Japan through the practice of geomancy. The elements have been a key component of the siting of cities, temples, shrines and other structures, as referred to in my previous post ‘Feel the energy’.
Koyasan, the Headquarters of Shingon Buddhism, is another place where mountains played a key role in selecting a site, this time for a temple complex. Kukai (posthumously called Kobo Daishi), the founder of the Shingon Sect, chose the site because the eight mountains surrounding the site resembled a lotus. Muro-ji Temple, another Shingon Temple also known as the Women’s Koya, is surrounded by nine peaks and eight valleys. In both cases the mountains surrounding the temples represent a mandala. A few days ago I was privileged to visit Muro-ji, having been to the remarkable Koyosan on a previous visit to Japan.
Sacred geography, as exemplified by these two Shingon temples, is something to keep in mind when exploring the elements in Japan. Books such as ‘Japanese Mandalas: Representations of Sacred Geography’ and the recently published ‘Mountain Mandalas: Shugendo in Kyushu’ provide detailed coverage for those interested in learning more. The website ‘The A to Z Dictionary of Japanese Buddhist Statuary‘ (www.onmarkproductions.com) also has some useful material on mandalas. This includes an overview of mandalas (mandara in Japanese), and a description of those found in areas such as the Hakusan Mountains. These and other sources have helped me view the landscapes of Japan in a new light.
Mt Misen on Miyajima Island near Hiroshima is a sacred mountain that I have long wanted to climb. Last week that dream was fulfilled, as was my wish to experience the Eternal Flame on the top of the mountain. This was the flame used to light the Peace Flame at the Hiroshima Memorial Park. The heavy rainfall the day before my walk gave a voice to the streams and refreshed the earth, air and vegetation. It was a special experience and very elemental. Kukai, the founder of Shingon Buddhism thought Mt Misen was special too. He spent 100 days on the mountain undertaking ascetic practice in 806, lighting what has become the Eternal Flame at that time.
Kukai has turned out to be a feature of my recent explorations as well as mountains, although that was not planned. Toji Temple in Kyoto was entrusted to Kukai in 823 by Emperor Saga. It continues to this day to be an active place of worship for Shingon Buddhism. Toji was another place I visited in the last week to attend the market. Held on the 21st of each month, it arose to service pilgrims to the temple. The elements, six in total, are a fundamental part of Shingon Buddhism and were represented in many ways at Toji. They are also an essential part of Shugendo, a religion of mountain ascetics. Another aspect of the elemental story of Japan to explore. As is the relationship between Shinto and mountains, one of the original places of worship.