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.
The motivation for my explorations of the elements in Japan was based on my belief that Japanese culture contains a storehouse of concepts and practices that could support a nourishing life based on environmental stewardship and sustainability. Where better to learn about nature, well-being and resilience than an industrialised country where animism, energy (ki) and the elements are embedded in everyday life. Feeling safe while travelling the length and breadth of the country, and the excellent transport system, make Japan even more attractive. Tens of thousands of iPhone photos have been taken during my train-trips, bus-rides and walking-tours to help illustrate the journeys.
My explorations focus on three different expressions of the elements in Japan and their influence and interplay on/with Japanese culture: 1) the biophysical setting/natural forces (e.g. geography, volcanoes, earthquakes, forests, mountains, seas, typhoons, floods, the seasons); 2) the five Chinese phases (often in association with Yinyang, (J. Inyo)) – Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water; and 3) the five Buddhist elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Space; with Consciousness, a sixth element, found in Shingon Buddhism). The Chinese and Buddhist elemental frameworks were introduced to Japan around 1400 years ago. Each of the three expressions of the elements represent forms of energy (J. ki) and their interactions. Ki, energy, is a key concept in Japan, permeating all aspects of life.
Kyoto has been a convenient and stimulating base for my explorations in Japan and is where I have spent the most time over the last five years. The proximity of my accommodation to Nijo Castle is amazing and a constant reminder of the cultural richness that permeates the city. I was fortunate to find such a fabulous location with such a fabulous landlord when my original arrangement for a place to stay fell through. The city has so much to offer elementally, starting with its geomantic credentials. While some people describe Kyoto as a City of Water, for me it as a city defined by fire as will become clear.
Membership of Writers in Kyoto (WiK) has markedly enriched my experience in Japan and helped me grow as a writer and communicator. Life-long friendships have been made. John Dougill, founder of WiK and creator of the blog Green Shinto has been a great support. When invited in 2018 to edit the third Anthology for WiK with Ian Josh Yates, I was concerned that it would take time away from my focus on the elements. It did, but the benefits and experience far outweighed the ‘disruption’. Happily my Anthology essay titled ‘Shinsen’en, A Heian-kyo power spot‘ was an opportunity to share the profound energy found at the garden and associated Shingon Temple.
CHOOSING WHERE TO TRAVEL
Travel is the best way to experience the diversity of people and places across Japan through an ‘elemental’ lens. The Ainu, Ryuku and Japanese cultures that contribute to modern Japan each have distinct approaches and relationships to the elements. Experiencing the settings where they have evolved is crucial. All the while I look for connections and examples of environmental stewardship, well-being and resilience that are relevant to modern day concerns in Japan and beyond.
From May 2016 I started spending around six months of the year in Japan, between two to three months each time. In November 2019 I left Japan fully expecting to return in February 2020. Then COVID-19 intervened and it is 18 months since I have been able to travel to Kyoto. Travelling between Australia and Japan, then within Japan, has been invigorating and demanding at the same time. Travelling in a different country, especially one that has a different culture to your own and where you don’t speak the language, can be tiring. Sometimes plans can be disrupted – often by the elements. One of my trips to the Tohuko region was cancelled by torrential rains and flooding, and a pilgrimage threatened by an enormous typhoon heading towards Kyoto. These experiences are part and parcel of living in Japan where natural forces – the elements – can have extreme consequences. Forgive me, I am getting ahead of myself.
When choosing where to travel in Japan as independent travellers I let the elements (based on my initial research) and serendipity lead me. My original intention was to publish a type of encyclopedia of the elements with entries on where they were expressed both physically and metaphysically in Japan and the evidence available to support it. The idea was to show how embedded the elements are in the culture of Japan, so much so that people may be unaware of them. While some would say that you find what you are looking for, I find the extent of the influence phenomenal. For example, the five Chinese phases/elements are a fundamental part of the formal tea ceremony, the Japanese zodiac, and represent five days of the week in Japan (e.g. Tuesday is kayobi ‘Fire day’). When I started my travels in 2016 I had 40 pages of entries – these acted as a guide for places to visit. If I’d formally maintained that format the ‘encyclopedia’ would be 100s of pages long by now.
Suki and I joined many trips and tours with friends or groups as well as travelling independently. I have visited many places with Oomoto, a Shinto Sect based in Kameoka and Ayabe that I’ve been associated with since 2013. Pilgrimages to Mt Ontake, Mt Atago, Fushimi Inari, Mt Ishizuchi , Mt Misen (on Miyajima) and Mt Fuji were undertaken with Wani-ontakesan, a Shugendo group based in Wani, Shiga Prefecture. Shugendo is an ancient Japanese religion that combines the physical, Chinese and Buddhist elements in a complex and captivating system of mountain worship. My friends Yoshiaki and Michiko Yagi have escorted me to places in Kyoto, Osaka and Minoh City that I otherwise would not have experienced. Other friends have taken me to places only accessible by car. My husband, sister and good friend Akiko Murikami have travelled with Suki and I from time to time. I am eternally grateful for the support, assistance and friendship I’ve been afforded.
Below is an almost complete list of places from A to Z visited in Japan so far, from Hokkaido to Okinawa. They include locations visited with my husband before this blog began. Those entries without brackets are places I have stayed overnight, the other entries represent places or other sites with a connection to the elements. Specific places visited in and around the main cities of Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Sendai (indicated in bold) are not included as the list would be exceedingly long. The plan is to create a map of the main sites visited so the scope of my travels is easier to comprehend. In the index for the map it will be possible to indicate which aspect of the elements drew me to each location.
Aizu, (Aguni Island), Akita, (Amanohashidate), Asahikawa, (Mt Atago), (Aomori), (Ayabe), Beppu, (Cape Hedo), (Chikubushima), Daisetsuzan National Park (NP), (Echigo Yuzawa), (Enoshima), Fujinomiya, Mt Fuji, Fukuoka, (Futamiokitama Shrine), Gifu, Hagi, Hakodate, (Mt Haguro), (Hakone), (Hasedera), (Mt Hiei), Hikone, (Himeji), Hino, (Hiraizumi), Hirosaki, Hiroshima, (Horyuji), (Iiyama), Ikoma, (Ise Grand Shrine), Mt Ishizuchi, (Iwami Ginzan silver mine), (Iwashimizu-Hachimangu), (Izumo Taisha), (Kudoyama), (Joshinetsu-Kogen NP), Kagoshima, (Kamakura), Kameoka, Kanazawa, Kawasaki, Kitakyushu, (Kiyomizu Magaibutsu), (Kobe), Kochi, (Koyasan), (Kumamoto), Kumano Kodo (5 day pilgrimage), (Kunisaki Pensinsula), Kyoto, Maibara, Matsue, (Matsumoto), Matsuyama, (Mino Udatsu Townscape), Minoh City, (Mt Mitoku), (Mt Miwa), Miyajima, (Nagahama), Nagasaki, Nara, (Naruto whirlpool), Naoshima, (Nima Sand Museum), (Niigata), (Nikko), Nagano, Naha, Narita, Noboribetsu, (Obuse), Ohara, Omi-Imazu, Okayama, Mt Ontake, Osaka, (Otsu), Rinku-Town, (Ryozenji), Sapporo, (Sasaguri), Sendai, (Shiraoi), Shichirigahama, (Shirakami-Sanchi), (Shirakawa-go), Takamatsu, Teshima, (Tokoname), (Tokushima), Tokyo, Tsu, Tsuruoka, (Uchinada), (Uji), (Wani), (Yakushima), (Yamadera), Yamaguchi, Yokohama, (Yoshimi), (Yoshino), (Yoshioka Hot Springs), (Zentsuji).
As already introduced, my elemental explorations were guided by themes and topics related to the elements, with a degree of flexibility built in. For example, I travelled at short notice from Tokyo to Kyoto and back in October 2016 to hear a musical performance based on Feng Shui (J. fusui) and the five Chinese elements. In their more structured form I have timed my travels to coincide with different seasons, pilgrimages and important cultural events such as the New Year and Obon. In early 2018 I covered the length of Japan over winter to experience the diversity of environments experienced in that season. From cherry blossoms in Okinawa in January, to the Snow Festival in Hokkaido in February, the trip was exceptional. Two months later my sister Ruth and I experienced the beauty of Sakura in Spring as we traveled together in Japan for a month. Certain travels have been based around an individual element such as Metal. This took me, for example, to the silver mines of Iwami Ginzan that played a pivotal role in East Asian trade after it opened in the 1500s; and to see the World Heritage listed Golden Hall at Chusonji in Hiraizumi in Tohoku. The mausoleum built for the Fujiwara family was an incredible sight to behold with an amazing history.
As expected, beautiful scenery was abundant on my travels. I love the greenness of the forested landscapes in Japan, the different stages of rice production, the lack of cows and sheep (except for Hokkaido) and the charming villages as the landscapes pass by. Images of nature also adorn posters on trains and train stations. I have been keeping a record of how nature and the elements are portrayed in advertising to build a sense of the potential subliminal images that people are receiving.
Power lines, concreted shorelines, rivers and roadways, forest plantations, single-use plastic and rural decline are also abundant in Japan – signs of rapid ‘modernisation’ following World War 2 and depopulation of rural areas. At the front of my mind when I travel are the massive disruptions to Japanese culture during the Meiji period, beginning in 1868. In particular the decisions to forcibly separate Buddhism and Shinto, substantially reduce the number of Shinto Shrines, and ban Shugendo and Onmyodo (Way of Yinyang) practices means that the Japan of today is very different from that of 150 years ago. Add to this the destruction associated with WW2 and the rapid changes afterwards. The mantra of ‘continuity and change’, used to describe the juxtaposition of traditional and modern elements in Japan, is one that I am attracted to.
I am delighted to have built a wonderful group of friends and colleagues through my exploration of the elements in Japan. You know who you are. October 2016, during my second trip in the ‘elemental’ series, stands out as a month where the people I met opened up whole new worlds, particularly in relation to the arts. Rebecca Otowa, a talented book author and illustrator that I admired, was the first new person I met while waiting for Alex Kerr to sign his book ‘Another Kyoto‘. Rebecca and I have a shared interest in the elements. We took a taxi to Kyoto station together that evening and have become great friends.
Not long after meeting Rebecca I embarked on an Art & Architecture Tour (AAT), accompanying my friend from Hobart, Corinne Costello. The participants in the tour came from Italy, Hong Kong, the US, Australia and Japan. I was in awe of the creativity and entrepeneurship of the group. The Sawadas, Japanese artists who create monumental nature-inspired installations for institutions around the world, were particularly impressive. Nami Sawada told me that I was the most academic person she had met. While I did feel a little like a fish out of water, I took it as a complement.
After this exceptional experience Corinne and I met friends from Hobart for a ‘tea tour‘ of Osaka and Kyoto. Allan Halyk, the Urasenke tea master accompanying us, was keen to try the Buddhist cuisine at Manpukuji, an Obaku Zen temple in Uji. It was there, on October 24th 2016, that I met Keiji Okushima at an art exhibition. As they say, the rest is history.
Keiji was acting as a go-between for my purchase of a wooden gorinto created by Kenichirou Odagiri, shown on the left in the image below. When Keiji and my paths crossed a chain of events saw me welcomed into the Wani-ontakesan Shugendo community and invited to join them on their pilgrimages, Festivals and other events. When I visited the Okushima family home I came to appreciate what amazing artists Keiji and Kaori are, both working with glass. Nature and family inspire their beautiful creations. We have bought several pieces of their art and are working towards holding a joint exhibition in Australia.
What would I be writing today if the meeting with Keiji had not taken place? I cannot imagine. This serendipitous occurrence changed the nature of my travels and appreciation of the elements, and led to our mother, Edna Williams, becoming a Japanese spirit called a Reijin. In 2016 Keiji also introduced me to Yasuko-san, the owner of two cafes in Shiga Prefecture. As I was about to start another round of travel she gave me the biggest and most memorable hug I have ever experienced. It stays with me to this day, as do her words “the answer lies within yourself“.
Understanding your inner nature in order to understand and appreciate nature around you is a theme that has arisen many times over the last five years. The phrase “we are the elements” was also shared several times, highlighting that humans are part of nature/the cosmos, not separate from it.
BLOG STATISTICS & RESPONSES
Now for some numbers, a far cry from a big hug. Elemental Japan is hosted by WordPress. An annual fee is paid to remove advertisements. 38 posts have appeared on Elemental Japan between May1, 2016 and May 1, 2021. There have been around 31,000 views from people in 148 countries. Interestingly one post accounts for approximately 1/3 of the total views – Fusui, the way of Feng Shui in Japan. The USA, Japan, Australia, UK, Phillipines and Canada, in that order, are the top six countries by viewing numbers. WordPress indicates which tags and categories are the most viewed with ‘five elements’ being one of the most popular search terms. Again, with hindsight, I can see why some of the earlier posts had limited readership – the titles were not gripping enough. Having said that, I am surprised that more people haven’t viewed the blog about Ninja and the elements. It is one that I am particularly proud of.
Has the blog been worth it? The answer is unequivocally a big YES, even though one post alone (The elements at your fingertips) on the sister blog FireupWaterdown has had a similar number of views (30,300) as the whole Elemental Japan blog. In the big picture the number of views is not important. Writing and sharing specific aspects about the elements in Japan has helped me keep a record of my experiences with the hope of ongoing interactions ensuing.
Rewardingly several people have contacted me after reading one of my posts with three becoming friends and collaborators. Two are Australians with strong connections to Japan who read my blogs on fusui and Shugendo respectively: they are Jodi Brunner, a Feng Shui Master who co-owns a restaurant in Echigo-Yuzawa and Riko Schroer, a Shugendo practitioner and teacher who lives in Brisbane and trains in Japan. I have benefited greatly from Jodi and Riko sharing their insights. I was especially pleased when Yoshiaki Yagi contacted me after reading my blog about tea on the WiK Facebook site. He and his wife Michiko-san live in Minoh City near Osaka. We have been on many wonderful trips together including to the Bunraku Theatre in Osaka. Yoshiaki-san has written a book on sustainability in Japan in which I am honoured to be included. Soon I will be editing the English component of his second book on ‘Things Japanese‘ (working title). These unexpected encounters have enriched my understanding of Japanese culture immeasurably.
FUTURE TRAVEL PLANS
Before COVID-19 arrived and international travel ceased I had, amongst others, plans to visit the Oki and Sado Islands in the Sea of Japan, the sword making town of Okuizumo, Mt Aso and other places in Kyushu, Mt Osore in northern Tohoku (two previous attempts have been aborted), Echigo-Yuzawa in the ‘snow country’, explore the Mt Daisen/Sakaiminoto area, walk the Choishimichi pilgrimage to Koyasan, join Wani-Ontakesan on more pilgrimages, experience the Afan forest created by CW Nicol near Nagano, return to Kamakura and visit a few sites in and near Tokyo. These destinations all address some new aspects of the elemental story. More recently I have felt that I should spend more time in villages along the extensive coastline of Japan as the importance of the sea to the culture and history of Japan has become more apparent.
Having had a long break from travel, and time to reflect on the last five years, the question arises whether, in the new world we find ourselves in, all of this additional travel is necessary? When it is possible to visit Japan again my focus will be on visiting friends, discussing my ideas with them and reacquainting myself with Kyoto. Many of the places in my ‘wish-list’, and some I have added since, are fortunately close to where they live. My initial explorations were ‘under the radar’ in many ways as I gained confidence in viewing Japan through the lens of the elements. The challenge now is to draw from and build on the aspects of Japanese culture that can support a nourishing life based on environmental sustainability in a modern setting.
IMPRESSIONS & LESSONS LEARNT
My travels in Japan, friendships made, and background research have led to the creation of a different elemental mind map than the one I began with five years ago. It is one that better recognises the intimate connections between the biophysical, Chinese and Buddhist elements and their evolution through time. Their influence on Japanese culture has been immense.
I have come to appreciate that the subtitle of my blog, ‘Feel the energy’ deserves more attention. The Chinese and Buddhist elemental frameworks I’ve been exploring are expressions of different forms of energy, to which humans (also forms of energy) are intimately connected. The overarching concept of yinyang (J. inyo), which has a long history in Japan, completes the energy analogy, representing as it does the life force inherent in all living things. Inyo and gogyo (the five Chinese elements) are already used to address well-being in Japan through their application in healing practices. Gogyo is also being expressed in other ways in contemporary Japan.
The elements are also associated with well-being through the growing interest in Shugendo practices in Japan and internationally. People are seeking ways to reconnect with their inner nature through being in nature. The elements in all their forms are fundamental to Shugendo practice, which has been one of the attractions for me. Shinto also has much to offer as a nature-based and animistic philosophy. Taishi Kato, a Shinto priest in Osaka, has written about ‘Shinto Moments’ and how they relate to everyday life. The insights in the book enriched the experience when I walked the Three Capes Track in Tasmania last year.
A recent initiative called ‘Nature’s Narrative‘ draws on the six Shingon elements, along with the use of mantras and mudras, to improve people’s well-being. The gorinto represents these elements in their purest form and has been used as a focus for meditation practices in Japan for centuries. It is a profound symbol of our inner nature and connection to the universe that touches many peoples hearts. My essay in the upcoming fourth WiK Anthology addresses the deep connections of the gorinto with Kyoto. It is a form that I have sought out in my travels as the most widespread and identifiable representation of the elements in Japan.
Recently I have had the pleasure and privilege to collaborate with Maria Papatzelou, a Greek artist who shares my passion for the gorinto. We feel that this elemental form has a life beyond its association in Japan as a grave marker. Our joint article on the gorinto combining photos, text and poetry will appear in the Greek Philosophical magazine monocle this month. The Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto already uses the form of the gorinto in his ‘Five Elements’ artworks. I first saw his stunning creation in optical glass (illustrated in my gorinto blog) at the Bernesse Museum on Naoshima during the AAT in October 2016. It was breath-taking.
Artists like Hiroshi Sugimoto shape the way we see and respond to the world. Many contemporary artists and architects draw inspiration from the elements in their photography, sculptures (some of the ones I have seen in metal are particularly striking), paintings and other media such as the digital works created by teamLab in Tokyo. I have been fortunate to see many of their works as I’ve travelled around Japan. These artists have a critical role to play in our well-being and connection to nature. Hand-made Japanese ceramics are strongly elemental (a combination of earth, fire and water) with a long tradition of daily use. While such products cost more than synthetic ones they are sustainable and hold the spirit of the creator. Artists such as Maria and Sarah Brayer (who staged an elemental exhibition in Kyoto called ‘Inner Light’ between 28/4 – 5/5/2021) are inspired by the Japanese aesthetic. They share its elemental qualities with a wide audience, both using Japanese hand-made paper (washi) as a medium. Maria is also working on a collaborative project led by Masashi Nakamura (author of the JAPAN CODE) comparing the four elements of Earth, Water, Fire and Air in Greek and Japanese culture.
These examples come from the storehouse of cultural practices in Japan that can support well-being and a nourishing life for both people and the planet. The ‘Seeking Sustainability Live‘ podcast by JJ Walsh from Hiroshima shares many examples of people describing or drawing on Japanese traditions to treat the environment with more respect. While these are usually small enterprises, they have the potential to grow. There are many innovative ideas that point to a more sustainable future. Recently I had an idea to help reduce the widespread practice of single-use plastics. Bamboo has a long history of use for utilitarian purposes in Japan. Bamboo groves that are being abandoned due to decreased demand could be utilised to make recyclable and/or biodegradable packaging, containers, cutlery and the like. This would create jobs, help manage the groves, and continue support for bamboo products. It would be great if someone was already doing it.
Reflecting on the past five years has been incredibly beneficial. The journey has been an amazing one. I’m surprised by what I’ve managed to achieve in many ways. Without the support and encouragement of family and friends it would not have been possible. I thank them from the bottom of my heart.
It has been suggested that I could turn my blogs into a book. If I went down this route I would update the current posts and add material on haiku, metal and other individual elements, dragons, yokai/the other world, ki/energy, disaster management and the pentagram as an elemental symbol. I would also write the second post I have promised on the gorinto and about yinyang in Buddhism. One of the limitations of this approach is that it represents pieces of the elemental puzzle but is not a cohesive picture. My focus now is pulling together the pieces of the puzzle, with the goal to complete the draft of my first book on Elemental Japan by the end of 2021.