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 .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.