October 1st 2016 marked the first day of my return trip to Japan to continue my exploration of the elements. In contrast to my last visit when I was based in Kyoto (see my first 8 posts) this time I am on the move! I have identified a number of places and traditions with specific connections to the elements to visit and interact with over the next two months. And then there are those delightful serendipitous opportunities that seem to arise quite often.
Here are some images from my first eight days in Japan in October 2016. A reminder that this is an informal blog to share my impressions as I travel and ponder Japanese culture through the lens of the elements. In 2017 I returned to Japan in May/June as my October 2016 visit was cut in half due to family matters. I was blissfully unaware of this change in circumstances when this post was written. The serious synthesising and back-ground research to pull it together will now occur in 2018.
The first serendipitous opportunity to arise was this concert at the Kyoto Art Centre the day after I arrived in Japan. The composition by Yannick Paget was inspired my Feng Shui and based on the five Chinese elements (gogyou). Chinese geomancy or Feng Shui (fusui in Japanese), has influenced the design of cites, shrine and temple complexes and individual buildings in Japan for well over 1000 years. I only learnt about the concert the day before I flew to Japan and rearranged my plans to see it. It was well worth it. Different musical instruments, representing different elements, were located around the room in relation to the generating cycle of the five Chinese elements – water, wood, fire, earth and metal. The concert was a sublime and deeply moving experience.
One trip I had planned was to visit Mino City in Gifu Prefecture, the ‘town of washi (Japanese paper) and udatsu’. The udatsu were a special firewall built at the end of the roof to protect merchant houses from fire. Most of the surviving examples of this architecture are found in Mino. Fires were frequent occurrences in Japanese cities prior to WW2. The proximity of the wooden houses required some inventive approaches to try and minimise the spread of fire. For more background on fire and other fire protection measures see my earlier post ‘Being careful of fire’.
The Great Buddhas in Nara and Kamakura are well known and attract many visitors. Less so the equally impressive Great Buddha of Gifu, completed in 1832. The Buddha, which stands nearly 14 m tall, was conceived in 1790 in the hope of averting large earthquakes and famines. It represents another response to try and influence the sometimes disastrous impact of the elements. The statue has a very calming presence. As an aside, the Buddha is very close to the Nawa Insect Museum – the first of its kind in Japan. The Museum currently houses over 18,000 different insect species, reminding us of their importance in the cycle of life and the connection the Japanese people have to them. More about that later.
Another planned trip was to Shikoku Island, where I visited Ryozen-ji, the first temple of the Shikoku 88 temple pilgrimage. The pilgrimage is associated with Kobo Daishi (Kukai), the founder of Shingon Buddhism. The five great elements (godai) are an essential part of Shingon teaching. The staff that pilgrims use, seen on the far right, have the five Buddhist elements written in Sanskrit at the top. The staff is said to embody Kukai and is to be treated with utmost respect. Usually it has a cover over the top (you can see the difference in the colour of the wood) so I was fortunate to find one where you could see the elements and the lines inscribed between them. The staff looks like a mini-stupa. Originally the staffs were used to mark the graves of pilgrims who died on the demanding mountainous route. Learning this was an ‘ah hah’ moment as the Gorinto (a five ring pagoda usually made of stone) and sotoba (wooden planar stupas) seen in cemeteries around Japan also represent the five Buddhist elements of earth, water, fire, air and void/space. It makes sense that we return to the elements on our passing.
While staying in north-eastern Shikoku I also visited the Naruto Whirlpools. These impressive water features are associated with large tidal movements between the Pacific Ocean and the Inland Sea. The current in the Naruto Strait is the fastest in Japan and the fourth fastest in the world. The whirlpools bring many tourists to Naruto. Around 1853 Hiroshige depicted them in a woodblock print so they have drawn attention for some time. The forces of nature, what I refer to as the elements, are ever present in Japan. During my first 8 days here Typhoon 18 played havoc with flights to and from Okinawa and Mt Aso in Kyushu exhibited its volcanic might again. My previous post ‘A destiny drawn by nature’ explores how their connections to the environment have helped shaped the people of Japan. This topic has been explored in more depth for earthquakes in the post ‘Earthquakes and national character’ which you can read here.
These five examples provide a snapshot of my experiences in Japan over the last few days. There are many more I could share. They will have to wait for another time – another day of elemental exploration awaits!