Gogyo (Wu Xing) in contemporary Japan

Gogyo is the Japanese term for the five Chinese phases/elements (wu xing), a concept that was introduced to Japan around 1500 years ago.  Since arriving in Kyoto in early  December 2018 I have come across a number of contemporary examples utilising gogyo.  In describing these I return to the original intent of my posts in Elemental Japan. That was, to record my impressions as I travelled Japan to experience the elements in person. Beginning in May 2016, the posts were designed to be informal, a way to share ideas that would be refined at a later stage. As I learnt more about the elements in Japan I’ve found myself spending much more time on my posts to try and capture the nuances of this complex and fascinating topic. That is the research scientist coming out in me. As a consequence the frequency of my posts dropped dramatically. My plan to address that is to be less concerned with the detail and get back to spontaneously sharing the elemental expressions that have caught my eye along the way. This is my first ‘rough and ready’ instalment .

2018/2019 was my first New Year period spent in Japan. It was very enjoyable and educational. Many homes and shops were displaying impressive decorations to celebrate 2019, the Year of the Wild Boar. As you will read later in the post, one of these had a gogyo theme.

The reason for sharing these examples of gogyo is to show how the five Chinese phases/elements are being expressed in modern times in Japan. Previously I have written about their contemporary use in Traditional Japanese Medicine (Kampo), in fusui and at the Obaku Zen Temple at Manpukuji. Here are some more expressions of gogyo that I’ve seen over December 2018/January 2019.

Each time I return to Kyoto I visit the shrine dedicated to Abe no Seimei, the famous Onmyoji known as the ‘Wizard of Yin Yang’. In early December 2018 Jodi Brunner, a friend who is a Master of Feng Shui, came with me. We share an Australian heritage and an interest in fusui, the way of Feng Shui in Japan. This was Jodi’s first visit to Kyoto so seeing the Seimei Shrine was high on the list.

Jodi took this picture of me with the famous Onmyoji himself. The Shrine was founded in 1007 by Emperor Ichijo on the site where Abe no Seimei lived, just north of the Imperial Palace of Heian-kyo.

I’m always on the lookout for new items that relate to the elements when I visit Seimei Shrine.  For the first time I saw some pencils for sale at the Shrine shop in the five colours associated with gogyo – the five Chinese phases/elements of earth, fire, water, metal and wood.

Five coloured pencils sold at Seimei Shrine representing the five Chinese phases/elements. From left to right they represent water, metal fire, earth and wood.

This sign was in front of the boxes of five pencils at the Shrine shop advertising the price and the meaning of the colours. It was the first time I remember seeing the diagram for the five phases, shown on the left, in the Shrine Precinct. There is also a shop in the front of the Shrine that sells a much wider range of commercial items. They have many examples of gogyo.

When I was buying the coloured pencils I also purchased a small plastic sleeve with Chinese bell flowers on it (representative of the Seimei family crest). The sleeve had a Shrine stamp in it and a pamphlet in Japanese that, amongst other things, advertised the Shrine website. I wasn’t expecting to see the word ‘gogyo‘ as part of the URL, but there it was (https://gogyo.seimeijinja.jp)! The site is well designed with a lot of material in it. I’m looking forward to when they produce an English version.

A screenshot from the Seimei Shrine website (gogyo.seimeijinja.jp). There is no mistaking the importance of gogyo and the associated five colours here!

Not long after visiting Seimei Shrine I discovered the five colours of gogyo in a completely different context. Part of my research on the original Chinese inspired design of Kyoto (when it was called Heian-kyo) was to learn more about Suzaka Avenue. This was an 84m wide thoroughfare that led to the Imperial Palace. Today the Avenue is called Senbon Dori. While searching for material I came across a hotel opened in 2017 called Suzaku Crossing. Taking inspiration from the long history of Kyoto and the influence of the five Chinese phases, the whole concept of the hotel is based around gogyo. Suzaka Crossing has a website in English that I would recommend.

The Noren across the front entrance of the recently opened Suzaku Crossing Hotel represents gogyo, the five Chinese phases/elements. Each floor of the hotel is based on an individual phase. I’m seriously thinking of staying there one night even though I have accommodation in Kyoto!

My next sighting of the five Chinese phases/elements was more subtle. Based on a friends advice I visited the Junkudo bookstore in Sanjo Dori in Kyoto to buy a 2019 eco-calendar produced by the Japan Environmental Exchange. While I was there I decided to check out what new books were available on fusui. There were new fusui publications for the new year, as to be expected. What really caught my eye though was a book called ‘elementarium life’ and the associated elementarium design&works. Another first.

Imagine my delight when I saw the word ‘element’ in the title of a Japanese book. The Twitter site related to elementarium life had nearly 21,000 likes as of May 2018. This illustrates the power of social media in marketing.

The young entrepreneur who started the elementarium company is using gogyo as the basis for ‘elemental’ products. He uses different combinations of plants and gemstones to represent gogyo and the seasons. The bottles can be placed in different parts of a house or apartment. It is a clever idea which this ‘rough and ready’ photo demonstrates. Workshops to make your own elemental keepsake are also available.

Here is the eco-calendar for those interested. It is also elemental, with recommendations each month how to connect with the earth.

On my way to the bus-stop from Junkudo I dropped into the Tokyu Hands store to look at their New Year decorations. These are both elaborate and beautiful in Japan (as shown in the example above) and are hung on the front doors/entrances of shops and homes. They are mainly made of rice straw and fashioned into auspicious shapes with auspicious decorations added. Everything has a meaning. The decoration that caught my eye, not surprisingly, featured five colours. It was suggested it could be hung in the living room.

The description on the back of the decoration notes that the five colours represent the five seasons and five directions. They also represent the five phases/elements.

On January 21st I discovered another reference to gogyo in a recently published and beautiful book on Japanese design, patterns and illustrations. The image shown below is part of a two page spread that introduces the ‘Roots of Japanese Color‘ (according to Google Translate). It appears that the 12 Level Cap and Rank System introduced by Prince Shotoku in 603 AD was based on the colours of gogyo (although at least once academic has questioned that!). These traditional colours are still used today. Prince Shotoku was the first great patron of Buddhism in Japan. His blending of Chinese and Buddhist influences set the scene for the interplay of these philosophies over the last 1400 years, including their different approaches to ‘the elements’.   As noted in my introduction, it is a complex and fascinating story.

So there you have it! A snapshot of gogyo in contemporary Japan over the 2018/2019 Christmas and New Year period. The hotel and ‘elementals’ are recent commercial enterprises tapping into an interest in the elements in Japan, one that has the potential to grow.  Before I get caught up in the detail again it’s time to share the gogyo story so far.

3 thoughts on “Gogyo (Wu Xing) in contemporary Japan

  1. Such an adventure Jann! I do enjoy these stories of serendipitous ‘sightings’, of returning to places already visited and finding new insights that add to your investigation! I can imagine how exciting it must be to continue to discover more pieces to the puzzle. I had a look at the Suzaku Crossing website – I really like the way they have chosen to represent each element on consecutive floors via the different colors and an explanation for each element. You should definitely stay one night! The calendar looks ‘super cute’ and educational! A great read!


    • Thank-you very much for your comments. It is an adventure. The serendipitous sightings make it extra special. My story would be quite different if I could read and speak Japanese. But then it wouldn’t be my story! I’ve been wondering which elemental floor I would request to stay in at Suzaka Crossing. It would have to be Fire. The Hotel is in an interesting part of Kyoto so I imagine I will stay one night. It would be informative to talk to them about the genesis of their concept. They might even be interested in reading a blog or two. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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