People, nature and the five elements in Japan

In July 2022 the famous Gion Festival in Kyoto was held for the first time in three years due to the COVID pandemic. The roots of the month-long festival originate in 869 AD when people were suffering from a terrible pestilence. For more than 1100 years the Festival has survived many natural and man-made disasters. It is seen as a great symbol of sustainability and the enduring human spirit. July 24th, the day of the second 2022 Gion float parade, coincided with a Zoom event where I shared stories from my eclectic and extensive library of  ‘Things Japanese’. My library includes a selection of physical and digital publications, photographs, mementos and experiences guided by the relationship between nature and people in Japan, through the lens of nature’s elements and two five element cosmologies. This was the fourth event in an ongoing series where Writers in Kyoto (WiK) members share their libraries (the first three events were held in physical libraries, not a virtual one).  My Zoom presentation described the genesis, evolution and use of the library intertwined with my increasing engagement with Japan. It featured stories and lessons learnt through selected publications (including my own) and the people and experiences related to them.  This post draws on the Zoom event, includes links to relevant sources (bolded), and incorporates additional material based on my reflections and questions asked by the audience. There are many stories to tell, so grab your favourite beverage and settle in.

In her introduction to the Zoom session, Rebecca Otowa asked about my experiences with Writers in Kyoto and the Gold Medal Award presented by the Ecological Society of Australia.

The award of the Gold Medal in November 2019 was for my outstanding contribution to ecological science in Australia. It was a great honour. I had returned to Tasmania from Japan in mid-November to accept the award and prepare my acceptance speech. Unknowingly at that time, due to COVID, it has not been possible to return to Japan for nearly three years. This has profoundly influenced the nature of my interactions and experiences with ‘Things Japanese’ and the number of books in my library. Members of Writers in Kyoto (WiK) have provided wonderful support and ongoing opportunities to engage and write about Japan over this period. Co-editing the third WiK Anthology, published in 2019, built on my experience as a scientific editor, provided insights into  the world of creative writing and forged friendships in Japan and the US. The expertise of WiK members in writing, publishing and marketing has been extremely valuable. Many books they have written grace my library. The Books on Asia podcasts by Amy Chavez, one of the original WiK members, have also been an ongoing source of ideas and new publications.

Being invited by WiK to share stories about my ‘Elemental Japan’ library led to reflections on the actions and characteristics that finds me in this place and time in my 60th year.

My first story was written in 1971. It was a science-fiction work titled ‘Magneto Man‘. Fourteen years later my first scientific paper was published on lowland populations of Snow Gum (an important eucalypt species). 1985 was the same year I took my first leap of faith and embarked on a 700 km drive to Canberra in my yellow Honda Civic to start a PhD. Wanting to be supervised by Dr Ian Noble, one of the best fire ecologists in the country,  I had applied and was accepted into the Research School of Biological Sciences at the Australian National University. That’s where I met my husband whose love and support through life has been whole-hearted. He opened my world to new experiences and encourages me to continue taking leaps of faith.

My first trip to Japan in 1996 was to represent Australia at a meeting of the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO). The visit sits between an extended period studying the forests around Canberra and publishing a number of Australia-wide books and reports on ecology and conservation biology of native ecosystems (selected examples are shown in the slide).

The fire ecology of Australian ecosystems has always intrigued me, as have the patterns and processes that underpin the distribution of species at local and landscape scales. Spending several years immersed in montane eucalypt forests, and then the chaparral shrublands in California, made a deep impression. My purpose was to collect scientific data on the form and function of these ecosystems and write academic articles. Spending time in nature provided many other lessons – my post on the interplay of fire, water, eucalypts and light describes how one eucalypt seedling changed the course of my life. The energy of these natural ecosystems also had a big impact on my psyche I am certain (at the time the term ‘forest bathing’ (J. shinrin yoku) hadn’t been popularised).

From the late 1980s an important focus of my scientific research was the potential impacts of climate change on Earth’s natural systems including in Europe, North America, Australia and the Pacific region. In 1994 I co-authored a significant report on climate change adaptation and mitigation for the Australian Government and in 1996 a chapter on impacts in the European Alps. The next year I was invited to be a lead author of the Australasia chapter of the 1997 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. This led to a certificate for my contribution to the award of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2007 to the IPCC.  I remain vitally interested in and concerned about global climate change, the impacts of which are now profoundly evident and relevant to my explorations in Japan.

Eucalypt ecology: Individuals to ecosystems was published by Cambridge University Press and is my proudest accomplishment from the period 1996-2005. No book was available on the topic so it was a gap I felt needed filling. I feel the same way about what we can learn from people’s relationships with nature’s elements and the five element cosmologies in Japan. This is another gap I’m currently filling, building on my focused explorations and experiences over the last six years in Japan.

The powerful combination of spending extended periods observing and embracing nature’s elements, and undertaking several synthetic, nation-wide reviews (that draw on extensive reference material), gave me confidence to explore the vast, complex subject of Elemental Japan. It also gave me confidence to invest significant resources into building a first class library.

From one book to an extensive library, guided by nature’s elements

The diverse sources of physical and digital publications in my extensive library are listed in this slide. Translated and bilingual publications are keenly sought. Access to academic publications in digital form has been a fundamental part of my research. In September 2021 five boxes of reference books arrived in Tasmania that had been sitting unread in my Kyoto apartment for nearly 2 years. Consolidating the books was essential to my explorations as some of the key references had been in Japan.

Responses to natural phenomenon such as the seasons, and the two five element correlative cosmologies (based on godai and gogyo) found in Japan, underpin the selection of material in my library collections.

The library builds on the elemental associations found around the world, as described in my blog fireupwaterdown.com. There is something about these building blocks of life that speaks deeply to people. When deciding to focus my explorations, Japan was chosen. This decision has taken me on an unimaginable  journey of discovery. The focus of this slide is on the five elements and their importance in Japan. While Japan is often described as having one set of ‘five elements’, in reality there are two. The five elements form the basis of two correlative cosmologies that have been part of Japanese culture for over 1200 years. The cosmologies originated in ancient India and China as ways of explaining the energetic relationship between people and the world around them.

Gogyo – Earth, Water, Fire, Metal & Wood – the ‘five elements/phases’ from China

Wu Xing (J. gogyo), the five elements of Chinese cosmology, were formally introduced to Japan in the mid-7th century and adapted through inyo gogyo setsu (yinyang and five phases theory). Inyo and gogyo permeate Japanese traditional culture. They are still part of everyday life (albeit at a subconscious level at times) through the Zodiac cycle, days of the week, colours, and numerous seasonal festivals and rituals. One of my cherished books, found in a second-hand bookshop in Osaka, is a translated copy (in French, by Mark Kalinowski) of the Wuxing dayi“The Great Meaning of the Five Agents” (pictured on the right side of the slide). The original was written by the Chinese scholar Xiao Ji in the 6th century and was read by specialist advisors to the Emperor when it arrived in Japan. Throughout my life I have sought original and historical sources of ideas and concepts rather than relying on modern interpretations.

The following example of the correlations between gogyo and other qualities is adapted from ‘Sakuteiki: Visions of a Japanese Garden‘ by Jiro Takei and Marc P Keane (2008). The colours in brackets have been added to reflect the variations I’ve found. The authors refer to five phases rather than five elements. There is ongoing debate about the most appropriate description. Each of the associations in the table was used in the Sakuteiki for making decisions on garden design. The garden-making treatise, written in the mid-late 11th century, is most likely the oldest in the world.

  WOOD FIRE EARTH METAL WATER
Season Spring Summer Doyo Autumn Winter
Direction East South Centre West North
Colour Blue (green) Red Yellow White Black (purple)
Emperor Taiko Entei Kotei Shoko Sengyoku
Planet Jupiter Mars Saturn Venus Mercury
Guardian God Blue Dragon Scarlet Bird Yellow Dragon White Tiger Black Tortoise
Taste Acid Bitter Sweet Spicy Salty

Godai – Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Space – the ‘five great’ Buddhist elements

Kukai introduced Esoteric Shingon Buddhism to Japan in the early 9th century. Koyasan, where Kukai is said to be in eternal meditation, Toji in Kyoto, and the Shikoku Pilgrimage are but three examples of his remarkable legacy. His six element teachings is another. Kukai’s major works have been translated into English (e.g. the book on the left in the slide) and many academic books and articles have been written about his way of seeing the world. In his mid-40s, he wrote ‘Attaining Enlightenment in this Very Existence‘ where he explains the conception of Maihavarocana as the Body of the ‘Six Great’ Elements (j. rokudai). The ‘five great’ material elements (godai) are unified and animated by the sixth element, consciousness. The Shingon correlative cosmology is based on godai, the five material elements and includes the five meditation Buddhas, mudras, syllables and the five phases, at least from Kakuban’s time.

The four Buddhist ‘gross’ elements – Earth, Water, Fire & Wind – may predate the introduction of Shingon Buddhism in Japan (I’m still searching for evidence to support that idea). They are found in Buddhist teachings such as the Shobogenzo Zuimonki by Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen Buddhism who referred to the body as a collection of the four ‘gross’ elements. They also feature in the book Hojoki, written by Kamo no Chomei (a contemporary of Dogen) in 1212 AD – a piece of reclusive literature written at a time of war and natural disasters that has relevance today.

Of the four elements,

                Water, fire, and wind cause damage most frequently.

                The earth only sometimes brings disaster.”

Chomei, Hojoki (translated by Matthew Stavros ‘In Praise of Solitude‘ (2022))

When people refer to the Buddhist elements in contemporary Japan, it is Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Space/Void that come to mind. For example, in February 2022 these ‘5 elements‘ were used to promote tourist destinations in National Parks by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment in a paid advertisement in National Geographic.

Symbolism associated with godai and gogyo

A considerable number of my journeys in Japan, and time researching the literature, concern the symbolism of the five elements, godai and gogyo. By better understanding how they are represented in traditional and contemporary Japan my aim was to get a sense of their impact and changes over time. The gorinto is the most visible and accessible representation of godai, the ‘five great’ elements. Principally known as a grave marker, the five elements are usually inscribed on each geometric form in Sanskrit, Chinese or rarely in kanji.  Further material on the symbolism of the gorinto is included below. The plank-like wooden sotoba, also found in cemeteries, represent the material five elements as well. With both the gorinto and the sotoba, the sixth element consciousness permeates the entire structure. Hank Glassman, the author of ‘The Face of Jizo‘, is writing a book on the gorinto that I’m sure will be greatly informative. The five-tiered pagoda, or gojunoto, has also come to represent godai, although how widely this is appreciated is unclear. While the pagoda in Japan was introduced and adapted from China (and to China from India), it is possible that the strong five-element association occurred with the introduction of Shingon Buddhism.

The symbolism and representation of gogyo and the related inyo (yinyang) in Japan is more complex. Many months have been spent scanning publications and the internet, contacting academics, and travelling around Japan to try and solve these puzzles. Contemporary representations increasingly use the modern yinyang symbol and pentagram to represent inyo gogyo. Historically their use has not been prominent in Japan. After extensive searching, the oldest example of the modern yinyang symbol I’ve found is from 1798 and of the pentagram from 1759. For more details see the relevant blogs on Yinyang, gogyo and the pentagram. One representation of the five phases that may have a longer history in Japan are the five colours that are part of the correlative cosmology – red, yellow, white, blue/green and purple/black. These are illustrated in the slide above on an amulet from Seimei Shrine in Kyoto and are commonly found in Shinto festivals and rituals.

A selection of books from my physical library, selected according to themes.

Book covers and titles reflect how Japan presents itself to the world and how the country is perceived by others. Originally the intention was to share and discuss images of selected themes .  Hence I started taking photos related to nature’s elements and the five element cosmologies. These included water, metal (mainly swords), Japanese gardens, tea, kimono and geisha, natural and human-made disasters, the seasons, art, architecture, woodblock prints, pilgrimages, Shugendo, Shinto, Zen Buddhism, places I’ve visited, picture books, festivals, wellbeing, ninja, inyogorinto and gojunoto. Words like beauty, soul, vision, design, aesthetics and imagery of nature and the seasons, abound. References to the Japanese love of nature, and living in harmony with nature, are widespread, with critiques of these associations increasing over time.

The digital library (Apple Books and Kindle) takes up much less space than the physical one, as does my extensive photo library. Mementos related to nature’s elements and the five element cosmologies have been collected across Japan and the world. These include bracelets that incorporate the five colours of godai (from Koyasan) and the five phases of gogyo (from  Moto Ise Shrine). I wear the gogyo bracelet as a connection to Japan and the elements.

The digital book in the slide with the shell on the cover contains poetry written after the triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant failure) that beset north-eastern Japan on March 11, 2011. People’s response to major destructive events involving the elements is something we can learn from. Reflections and changes at both the individual and collective level have occurred after major incidents like the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, WW2 fire and atomic bombings, the 1995 Kobe Great Hanshin earthquake and the 3/11 disasters.

Nicholas Teele, Ed Levinson and Karen Lee Tawarayama inquired about the management and storage of different library items. This slide records the actions taken when a new book arrives or when a digital publication is downloaded. Once that has been done, the physical books are placed with publications in related themes. Finding space can be a challenge! In hindsight documenting each physical book as they arrived would have been helpful. Ed suggested that I could take a photo of the book covers and store them digitally, a suggestion worth considering.

Project Japan, a book about the Metabolist architecture movement that followed WW2, was the most recent arrival before the Zoom presentation. Japan is known as the ‘culture of wood’ (another element) and my library contains several books on traditional Japanese architecture and carpentry. The new book added to the growing collection about modern buildings and architects such as Tadao Ando and Kengo Kuma. Skimming through the Metabolist book I discovered that the trademark designed in 1960 was an adaption of the traditional mitsu tomoe symbol. This is found across Japan on shrine and temple roof tiles and represents, depending who you read, either thunder; water; Heaven, Earth and Man; or a Hachiman warrior symbol. The third element in the trademark is smaller than usual; it is the child of the bigger two, representing regeneration. Using symbolism that draws on traditional culture and has elemental connections is widespread in Japan.

Blogs, essays and my fascination with the gorinto

Reference books help inform and often feature in my blogs ‘elementaljapan.com‘ and ‘fireupwaterdown.com‘. Because of their importance, several posts cover godai and gogyo (and inyo). Kukai, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, also features as the person who introduced six element (rokudai) teaching to Japan.

My posts on Elemental Japan are designed to share a story of discovery – a journey of collecting and collating written material and lived experiences. They have led to connections with people I otherwise wouldn’t have engaged with. The interest in the five elements in Japan, and nature’s elements more broadly, is encouraging. By far the most viewed posts are on yinyang (J. inyo) and fusui (Feng Shui). Despite their fundamental importance in Japanese culture there is limited information available in English, especially at a synthetic level. The amount of research involved in writing these blogs was considerable and drew extensively on my library. It has been suggested that the blog posts could be published in book form. They are not designed for that purpose, but are invaluable as reference material and provide a record of some of my explorations.

The simple geometric form and spiritual significance of the gorinto has attracted considerable commentary, including my own.

The  pure geometric, elemental and spiritual form of the gorinto has entranced me since first experiencing it. In addition to my blogs, I have written about the gorinto two other times, drawing on my library as needed. Quotes from ‘Japanese Design‘ and ‘Secrets of the Sacred‘ in my essay in ‘Structures of Kyoto‘ demonstrate the impact of the form and its embodiment of Buddhist teachings on others. This includes Hiroshi Sugimoto who uses a gorinto in his series ‘Five Elements‘. Maria Papatzelou is another visual artist who has fallen under the spell of the gorinto. Her first five element stupa, made of Japanese washi, sits in our home (shown in the slide with shadows crossing it). I also had the pleasure of co-authoring an article in English with Maria on the sacred geometry of the gorinto in the Greek philosophical magazine Monocle.

Recently it was a pleasant surprise to discover another perspective on the form of the gorinto in the book ‘Japan-ness in Architecture‘ by Arata Isozaki (2011). He writes about the unique bronze gorinto reliquaries associated with the monk Chogen, whose simple design includes a fire element with three sides. This pureness of the design is attributed by the author to an obsession with primary form, bursting forth spontaneously in moments of crisis. Interesting. Hundreds of year later gorinto are still used as reliquaries. The fire element generally has four sides, such as 100 year old example in metal I discovered at the Toji market in Kyoto. One of the joys of building a large library is adding new pieces like this to the puzzle. As the gorinto is the most visible and recognisable expression of the five elements in Japan, and because of its deep spiritual meaning, it has been a focus of my explorations.

Another expression of the five (Shingon?) elements

Miyamoto Musashi, a famous Tokugawa period swordsman, wrote about his winning strategies towards the end of his life. The five scrolls were titled Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Void; the same as the godai, or ‘five great’ material elements of Esoteric Buddhism.

‘The Book of Five Rings’ is still widely read in Japan, 377 years after it was composed. It also has an international audience through its application to the art of strategy and business management. Until I read Alexander Bennet’s book ‘The Complete Musashi‘ I had assumed that the ‘five rings’ were directly related to Esoteric Buddhism. Dr Bennett believes otherwise; that Musashi was not trying to appropriate Buddhist philosophy and that his elemental selection was coincidental. In contrast, in his Afterword to the manga version of the book, William Scott Wilson writes that both Shingon and Zen Buddhism influenced Musashi. This seems the most likely scenario to me. Whatever inspired the swordmans use of these five elements,  his choice has led them to become widely known in contemporary times.

Embracing Elemental Japan over time

Having introduced my library and its use at a broad level, and elaborated on blogs and books related to the two five element cosmologies, the next phase of the Zoom presentation – and this post – uses a timeline to help build a picture of how the library and related experiences have developed and influenced my thoughts and actions over the last 12 years.

Experiences and books associated with a 2010 trip to Japan have made a lasting impression.

Making the most of a trip to Japan to attend a sustainability conference in 2010, my husband and I travelled to Koyasan, the religious home of Shingon Buddhism, Kukai and the gorinto. The book ‘Sacred Koyasan‘ had recently been released. It’s documentation of the major memorials in the extensive and exceptional cemetery at Koyasan enhanced the experience greatly.  Finding ‘just enough‘ on the same trip, another recently released book in a store in Ginza, Tokyo, was in retrospect a ‘milestone moment’. The book illustrates the everyday lives of Japanese during the Tokugawa period (1603 – 1868), promoting the lifestyles as models for sustainable living. The book was re-released by StoneBridge Press in 2022 and has now found its true place in discussions about sustainable practices in Japan. It turns out that Azby Brown’s book had more influence on my explorations than the sustainability conference did.

The addition of specialised and often rare books to my library started in 2013 after attending a Shinto workshop in Kameoka, Japan.

In the Q&A session my friend Edith Garton asked what originally attracted me to explore nature’s elements in Japan.  Hearing that people living in an industrialised country still saw nature as having a spiritual essence or soul was a major attraction. The beautifully produced animated movies by Studio Ghibli, with their whimsical forays into the spirit world, also piqued my interest. How then to learn more about Shinto and animistic practices in Japan? Fortuitously, the blog ‘Green Shinto’ (written by John Dougill, the founder of WiK) advertised a one week workshop on Shinto in English, run by Oomoto in Kameoka. With two weeks notice I took another leap of faith and flew to Japan for the Grand Summer Festival in August 2013. Later that year my husband and I visited Ise Shrine in Mei Prefecture to experience its 20 year renewal, and Izumo Shrine in Shimane Prefecture to witness the new thatched roof which is renewed every 60 years.

A Portrait of Oomoto‘, written in English by Bill Roberts, was incredibly helpful during the 2013 workshop. It includes a chapter titled ‘Earth, air, water and fire‘ which describes the importance of ceramics to Oomoto, particularly in the context of the tea ceremony. Onisaburo Deguchi, the co-founder of Oomoto, made a sensation with his yowan, or brightly coloured tea bowls. They were featured in ‘Time for more tea‘ and are highly esteemed. In 2021 the celebration of elemental ceramics in Japan continued, in a post collaborating with 3 ceramic experts. Other books related to Oomoto – on meditation, organic microbial farming, and Nao and Onisaburo Deguchi, the co-founders of Oomoto – were bought after returning to Tasmania and have informed my explorations since.

In 2013 I was unaware how many shades of Shinto existed in Japan. Spending time at Oomoto introduced me to: the new religions and Shinto sects formed during the turbulent times of the Meiji era (especially in the late 19th century); many traditional arts, rituals and festivals; and the relationship of Oomoto with nature, agriculture and the founder of Aikido. I have visited Oomoto many times and am grateful for the opportunities and support Kimura-san has provided.

It was of interest to learn that Alex Kerr, a renowned Japanologist, and Catherine Pawasarat, the author of the first Gion Festival book in English, had both worked in the traditional arts program that Oomoto ran for visitors for 20 years or so. Both Alex and Catherine are members of Writers in Kyoto and their books, essays and videos form an important part of my library.

The relationship between Buddhism and Shinto in Japan has evolved markedly over time. Changes made during the Meiji period (1868-1912) were particularly impactful.

After visiting Oomoto, the more I explored the history of Shinto and Buddhism in Japan, the more complex the story became. Awareness of the changing relationship between these systems of faith in Japan is essential to understanding the evolution and interplay of the five element cosmologies, amongst many other reasons. The sacred landscapes and sites we experience now in Japan differ from those in the past.

A considerable amount has been written about shinbutsu shugo in the academic literature. It was only recently that a publication on the interplay of kami and buddhas in a more accessible form came to my attention (the translated book by Kamata Toji). In contrast, limited information is available on the shrine mergers, so I was pleased to track down the book by Wilbur Fridell. He interviewed people involved with the mergers and brings a human face to these major changes.

Minakata Kumagusu, a well-known Japanese author, naturalist, biologist and ethnologist protested against the shrine consolidations. He was concerned that by removing the shrine forests, the mergers would damage the scenery and nature around the shrines, in addition to destroying historical buildings and antiquities. Shozo Tanaka was another environmental activist around the turn of the 20th century, known for his anti-pollution activism against the Ashio copper mine. He is often referred to as Japan’s first conservationist. These examples, discovered through academic references, illustrate two early contributions to nature conservation and environmental management in Japan. Others followed in the footsteps of Kumagusa and Tanaka.

Energy in Japan comes in many forms, internally and externally.

Another leap of faith was taken in 2015 when I joined a Tasmanian taiko tour of Japan after only 4 months practice. The same year I composed a blog about taiko and the elements based on the book ‘The Way of the Drum‘. The elements were one of the attractions to the art form. Another was the intense energy involved in drumming, as exemplified by training with two master drummers in Japan. Masako Taiko organised the tour and has kept the connections with the Japanese groups alive. Ki (energy) is a fundamental part of Japanese culture and ‘ways’ of being. ‘The Japanese Arts of Self Cultivation‘ presents ki in this context.

The importance of ki to everyday life in Japan could possibly be hiding in plain sight. ‘Genki desu ka‘, a popular greeting, can be translated as ‘how is your energy?’ Minowa (2012) argues that several modern rituals are based on consuming Ki energy. Contemporary Japanese authors cited in the slide refer to their attunement with energy flows, and of the importance of yojo – an approach to lifestyle based on these very flows. The book Yojokun, written by Kaibara Ekiken in the 17th century, still has relevance today. Aikido and Reiki (both which contain ki in their name) are Japanese practices that draw on the energy and elements in the body. Energy flows at the landscape scale, as exemplified by Fusui (Feng Shui) have been associated with the location of cities, spiritual sites and houses in Japan. These examples help explain why the subtitle of my blog Elemental Japan is ‘Feel the Energy‘.

The tea ceremony involves quieter forms of energy, a moving meditation. When reflecting on my library, it dawned on me that my interest in nature’s elements in the tea ceremony connected the dots to where I am today. Seeking out Allan Halyk, a Urasenke tea master in Hobart, led to meeting his friends, which led to being invited to tea and art/architecture tours in Japan in 2016, which led to meeting two Japanese friends who have had a significant influence on my life. My blog ‘Time for more tea‘ shares some of the books and experiences that places the tea ceremony as an exemplary expression of inyo gogyo in Japan and a critical part of my evolution.

2016 was a monumental year for meeting people and visiting places connected to the elements in Japan.

In 2016 I commenced spending half of each year in Japan. What a monumental year it turned out to be. In addition to joining two life-changing tours, for the first time I saw  one of the stunning optical glass gorinto created by Hiroshi Sugimoto. Bennesse House on Naoshima was displaying one from his ‘Five Element’ series. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Attending an exhibition titled ‘Prayers to Water‘ in Kyoto was another of many examples where the elements came to the fore in 2016. It was elemental heaven.

Three years after joining Writers in Kyoto I co-edited their third Anthology, ‘Encounters with Kyoto‘. The Japanese friends I’d met in 2016, and others they had introduced me to, attended the party after the launch on June 22nd, 2019 (shown above). Each of them have generously opened their hearts to share Japanese culture with me – you will meet them again as you read further. Without these experiences and friendships my library and life would be less rich. Likewise, members of Writers of Kyoto have become good friends, in particular Karen Lee Tawarayama (with the long dark hair in the picture on the right) and Rebecca Otowa. We are part of a community of Anthology editors designed to assist and support new editors as they come on board.

The title of this slide may seem dramatic. Discovering this image however fundamentally changed the way I viewed the five Buddhist elements and the gorinto. Up until that  time I had considered the form a static, physical representation of the five great elements. Meditation was for followers of Zen Buddhism. Seeing the body in the stupa, was a major ‘ah ha’ moment.

To learn that the gorinto form is used as a meditation tool to help reach enlightenment was a major discovery. It helped see myself and the world around me differently. Neither Adrian Snodgrass, where I originally saw the image and description, nor Pierre Rambach (who didn’t include the description), included the source of the drawing. It was not until I read the academic book by Hendrik van der Veere on Kakuban’s thoughts that the origin became clear. That was a milestone moment. The practice of the stupa representing a body is also illustrated in Alan Grapard’s 2016 book ‘Mountain Mandalas‘ that describes Shugendo in Kyushu. Books inform my travel and travel informs my book selection.

Shugendo now

The intimate connection of Shugendo to inner and outer nature, and the two five element cosmologies, caught my attention; as did the opportunity to join mountain pilgrimages with my friend Keiji Okushima, a talented glass artist I met at Manpukuji, the head temple of Obaku Zen. That connection is a serendipitous story in itself.

Shugendō (修験道) is an ancient Japanese syncretic tradition characterised by spiritual practice, mountain-asceticism and periodic retreats centred on ritual death and rebirth. Blending elements of Buddhism, Shinto and Taoism, both godai and gogyo (and inyo) are represented in its rituals and beliefs. Aspects of these secret and sacred practices have increasingly become accessible to non-practitioners with major growth in Shugendo scholarship and outreach in the last 20 years. In 1970 Byron Earhart wrote one of the seminal books on Shugendo, referring to the importance of the six elements in the practices in the Mount Haguro sect. The Shinto sect of Mount Haguro Shugendo now has a sophisticated web page and training opportunities in English, designed for visitors interested in getting ‘Back to Nature, Back to Yourself‘.

My early formulations of Elemental Japan did not incorporate Shugendo. How that has changed. Now I have many publications and lived experiences of this mystical religion. In July 2016 Akiko Murikama and I visited Yoshino, a mountain village famous for its cherry blossoms, Shugendo temple, shrines and fundamental role in Japanese history (the Southern Court was located here). Coincidentally a major Shugendo festival was being held the following day at Kinpusenji. Excitedly I returned to Yoshino and explored the Shugendo connection to the five elements in the post Fire up, Water down.

The following year reading Alan Grapard’s insightful publication ‘Mountain Mandalas‘  greatly helped my visit to the Kunisaki Peninsula in the NE of Kyushu. Caleb Carter’s 2022 book on Shugendo on Mt Togakushi is my most recent purchase. To share the increasing interest in Shugendo, Caleb and his colleague Catrina Roth created the public Mountain Religions Facebook page. Riko Schroer, a Shugendo practitioner based in Brisbane, has provided much support and material in English through ubasoka.net/Shugen Oceania and his experiences through his home temple Kannonji in Yamagata Prefecture, Japan.

The powerful saito goma ritual at Kinpusenji, Yoshino, July 2016. The red paper talisman represents fire, one of the five Chinese phases. The rituals, clothing and practices have special meanings, imbued with the elements. Details of the symbolism, up to a certain point, are now available in popular and academic publications.

The importance of nature’s elements to Shugendo was bought home in a personal way when I met  Doukan and Motoshige Okamoto for the first time. Keiji Okushima had introduced me to these Shugendo masters who had agreed to answer some questions. When I asked about the importance of godai to their practice, Doukan said ‘we are godai‘. We are the elements. It was the first time I’d heard anyone say it that matter of factly. The brothers also spoke of the energy they received from nature on their pilgrimages. When asked about the potential for Shugendo to inform the management of natural resources Doukan said the first step was to get in touch with your inner nature through aesthetic practices in the mountains. Tateishi Kosho is one practitioner whose creative reinvention of the Shugendo tradition and environmental and social activism is captured in the film ‘Shugendo Now‘. It may be coincidence that Earhart and Grapard, who have written books on Shugendo, have also written articles on nature and culture in Japan that address environmental concerns.

From July 2017-July 2019 I joined several pilgrimages with Wani-Ontakesan (the Shugendo community led by Doukan and Motoshige), including Mt Fuji and the remarkable Mt Ishizuchisan on Shikoku island. Learning the Heart Sutra, to chant on the pilgrimages, bought me closer to the soul of Japan. Numerous books and articles have been written on this Buddhist sutra but nothing comes close in my experience to chanting it with other pilgrims. Most heartfelt were the four pilgrimages I joined to Mt Ontake. My first winter pilgrimage is described in the post ‘Shugendo now‘, named after the film. The contrast between winter and summer pilgrimages on this sacred mountain is explored in the Anthology catalogue accompanying the 2022 exhibition ‘The Spirit of Shizen‘ held in Luxembourg in July and August. Sharing these profound experiences is a great privilege.

Selected publications and their diverse elemental stories

Selection 1:

Dragons are found throughout Japanese culture, from the story of the creation of Japan to the ceilings of Zen temples in Kyoto. Their association with yang energy and the element of water made them a powerful symbol associated with fire-fighting in Tokugawa Japan.

The book Irezumi by W. R. Van Gulik (1982) was used to advertise my Zoom presentation. It includes an erudite and educational chapter about the dragon tattoos worn by Edo-period firefighters to help protect them from fire. Dragons are associated with the element of water in Japan and were also painted on the work coats that firefighters wore. Van Gulik’s description of the interplay of fire, water and metal, in the context of inyo gogyo is masterful.  Metal is represented by the hook firefighters used to remove wooden structures in the path of the fire. The publication is rare so I was fortunate to find a copy. Finding a copy of ‘Hanten and Happi‘ (1998) at a second hand bookshop in Teramachi, Kyoto was also fortuitous. It added to the story in Irezumi with the description of Sashiko Hanten coats (also adorned with with dragon images) worn by well-known individuals when paying formal condolence visits to those affected in the aftermath of fire. These elemental connections are fascinating and add to the richness of Elemental Japan.

Selection 2:

The Tokugawa period (1603 – 1868) in Japan was not as closed as sometimes reported. This has important implications for discussions about sustainable practices based on this period.

This slide draws on two publications from my academic digital library and on two physical books written by the Obaku Zen expert, Helen J. Baroni. Each example – the translation and critique of a book on European natural philosophy that includes Aristotle’s four elements; a book chapter that characterises policy interventions in the mid-17th century in response to changing climate; and the establishment in 1661 of a new sect of Zen from China – help illustrate external influences on Tokugawa Japan during the sakoku (closed country) period when the Shoguns introduced an isolationist policy. Mukai Gensho was not impressed with the Aristotlean elements and was surprised at the Portuguese lack of knowledge of energy flows, the five phases or principles related to the earth and the sun.

While Japanese residents were unable to travel overseas, and their travel within Japan was closely monitored, external trade continued during the Tokugawa period in items such as silver, gold, copper, silk, marine products, medicine, exotic animals and more (Christine Guth’s 2016 paper on the importation and use of rayskin is an eye opener; as is her chapter on natural resources in the 2021 book ‘Craft Culture in early Modern Japan’).  In addition to ‘dutch learning’ emanating from Nagasaki, the Chinese monks who established Obaku Zen bought contemporary mainland cultural elements and artifacts to Japan. Diverse external influences like these have had a lasting impact on natural resource use and attitudes towards the five element cosmologies.

Selection 3:

As a Dr of Philosophy it has been enlightening to discover the ongoing discourse among environmental philosophers on nature and the elemental in Japan and our engagement with our local environment.

Kukai, Dogen (the founder of Soto Zen Buddhism) and Watsuji Tetsuro (the author of the influential and widely-debated book ‘Fudo‘ (wind and earth) in 1935) frequently appear in the musings of environmental philosophers. Buddhist teachings on being a ‘Buddha in this Very Body’, and the Buddha nature of ‘non-sentient’ beings like rivers and mountains, feature strongly. Watsuji, who also wrote about Dogen, called attention to the many ways in which our environment, taken in the broad sense, shapes who we are from birth to death. His appreciation and critique in Fudo of the European philosopher Heidegger has spawned many academic papers and more accessible books like ‘Watsuji on Nature‘.

Selection 4:

The invitation by Yoshiaki Yagi to edit the English translation of his book ‘Japan and Things Japanese – An Invitation to Japanese Culture‘ was a great honour.

Yoshiaki Yagi and I met in 2016 through Writers in Kyoto. He approached me after reading my post about the tea ceremony on the WiK Facebook site. Yoshiaki-san and his wife Michiko-san introduced me to many aspects of Japanese culture, such as the Bunraku puppet theatre, dining in summer over the Kamogawa and visiting out-of the way temples and shrines. Lightly editing the English translation of Yoshiaki-san’s book, which is currently available through Amazon Japan (other countries will be added soon), reflects the trust we have built through these experiences.

It is fitting that the oldest book in my collection is ‘Things Japanese‘ by Basil Hall Chamberlain, published in 1891. Other books with similar titles have followed, taking an encyclopaedic approach. The values and cultural attributes described in Yoshiaki-san’s 2022 book share a more personal and spiritual perspective. Shinbutsu shugo, the everyday synthesis of Buddhist and Shinto worship is alive and well, despite the drastic changes implemented in the Meiji era. Through my involvement as editor, I have learnt much about ‘Things Japanese’ and the importance of nature (in its various guises) to Japanese culture seen through Yoshiaki-san’s eyes.

Next steps

Preparing the Zoom presentation and this related blog has helped formulate the next steps.

Reviewing and reflecting on my library and related experiences has been a valuable exercise. It will help inform my forthcoming book on Elemental Japan. In the six years I’ve been intensively exploring this theme, shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) has become a worldwide phenomenon and books have appeared that link wellbeing to the Shingon elements (Nature’s Narrative by Barbara Seie Morrison, 2020) and the five phases (Song of the Brush, Dance of the Ink by William Reed, 2022) in a contemporary context. I have learnt that there are many types of nature and energy in Japan. This is an important frame of reference when people point out contradictions between the oft-repeated Japanese love of nature and contemporary settings where concrete lines the coastline and rivers, 40% of the forests are single-species plantations, plastic packaging is overwhelming, small urban gardens are being  replaced by houses at a substantial rate, and Japan’s impact on the natural resources of other countries and the oceans is large.

At the same time, the attention to the UN Sustainable Development Goals in Japan, and the myriad local activities related to creating sustainable environments (often related to traditional practices) is encouraging.  Some of these activities have been addressed in my most recent post ‘Salamanders, Shugendo, Sustainability and the Sea of Japan‘. Sustainability practices have also been linked to the response of the Japanese to natural disasters. Today my library contains many books, articles and commentaries on nature and culture on Japan and some of the apparent inconsistencies. It is a topic important to address in the context of Elemental Japan. In the Zoom presentation I also indicated that there was more research to do on symbolism associated with the five elements. That’s something I will leave to others for the moment.

When I return to Japan there are many people and places to visit. My Japanese friends and the many friends I have made through WiK top the list. With a draft of my new book at hand, I am looking forward to discussing ideas and images and identifying areas for attention. Taisho Kato, a young Shinto priest at Hattori Tenjingu Shrine in Osaka, is promoting new ways of exploring our relationship with nature and each other. His book ‘Shinto Moments‘ featured in my blog about walking the Three Cape Track in Tasmania. Avi Landau, who writes an authoritative blog on the Tsukuba region NE of Tokyo, has deep knowledge of nature and Japanese culture. I sense that meeting with both Taisho-san and Avi will be of great value. There are many other individuals with much to contribute, including a Kyushu cluster. 🙂 When writing about nature’s elements and the five element cosmologies in Japan, and the lessons for a sustainable future, it is people and their individual actions that make the difference.

Milestone moments and grateful thanks

At the end of my Zoom presentation Stephen Mansfield asked whether I could identify any ‘Milestone’ publications, ones that had made a major difference/impact to my explorations. His example was reading ‘Pictures from the Water Trade‘ by John Morley when he first came to Japan. Coincidentally this book also made an impression on John Dougill, the founder of Writers in Kyoto.

While there are several books that have helped me approach/see things differently I hadn’t thought of them as milestones as such. It’s a useful analogy. In the Zoom session I referred to ‘At Home in Japan‘ by Rebecca Otowa , ‘Gurindji Journey‘ by Minoru Hokari, ‘A study into the thought of Kogyo Daishi Kakuban‘ by Hendrik van der Veere, and the young adult novel ‘Jet Black and the Ninja Wind‘ by Leza Lowitz and Shogo Oketani.  The books referred to during the presentation were also milestones in their own way. On reflection, some additional books are included in this new slide, the majority which can be readily purchased.  Each has their own story. To discover more about these choices, please ask in the comments.

The central book, ‘Wind Mandala‘ by Yasu Suzuka, is a bespoke, beautifully produced volume bought at an exhibition in Kyoto that I attended with Ken Rodgers. Ken is the co-founder of the Kyoto Journal, a member of WiK and a fellow Tasmanian. We have many connections, including books he has recommended. ‘Wind Mandala‘, an enchanting title, encapsulates many of the qualities that continue to attract me to Japan. The first sentence of the Preface by Eikoh Hokoe states:

Through a pinhole, Yasu Suzuka in fact captures wave of energy that have streamed through space from the sun to bless our earth and give power to life.”

The book contains stunning pinhole photographs of sacred places in Japan and around the world (including Uluru in Australia). Some of the exposures lasted 20-30 minutes, capturing the elements in time and space. Again from the Preface: “Suzuka worships through his pinhole camera, as if to physically share their* age-old rituals. In this regard, he partakes in a devotional love and trust of nature and humanity.” (* their = kami) Japanese people have a way of ‘deeply seeing’ the world around them, influenced by the celebration and anticipation of the seasons and their representation in poetry, food and many traditional arts. Ian Richards drew attention to this trait with his question about the traditional Japanese calendar that describes the 72 micro-seasons. It reflects an awareness of the fine-scale cycles and changes occurring in the natural world.

It would be safe to say that my library, in its entirety, would be one of the most extensive collections of English material on nature’s elements and the two five element cosmologies that permeate Japan. Rebecca Otowa asked what plans I had for the library. Where will the physical books reside when I eventually return to the elements (which I’m not planning on any time soon!)? It’s a question that we’ve given some thought to and are still considering. If the collection was in Japan it should be easier to find a home/homes for the material. Some of the rarer books could be sent there if interest was noted. Books on certain themes could also be passed onto friends in Australia, or offered to organisations like the Japan Society in Sydney whose library I’ve visited.  For the moment the library will continue to inform and influence my explorations of Elemental Japan and bring great pleasure.

A photo of the Zoom session taken by my sister Ruth. The red jacket symbolises my Kanreki birthday year, one where I start the second 60 year cycle of life.

I conclude by thanking the people involved with the Zoom session that forms the backbone of this blog. Lisa Wilcutt, the WiK Zoom officer, ably and patiently organised and advertised the event. Rebecca Otowa hosted the meeting (deputising for John Dougill), introduced me to the participants and managed the Q&A session. Thank-you Lisa and Rebecca. It was delightful that my sister Ruth and brother Rod, and friends Shane and Edith Garton could join. Ruth has been a wonderful companion on my Japanese journey. We spent a marvellous month together touring Japan in April 2018 which has left indelible memories. Karen Lee Tawarayama prioritised my presentation over attending the Gion Festival for which I am truly grateful. Several people gave their apologies, related to time zone differences, COVID (a sign of the times), or other commitments. The video recording, and this complimentary post, provide opportunities for those who missed the July 24th session to learn about my library and its importance to my explorations of Elemental Japan.

6 thoughts on “People, nature and the five elements in Japan

    • Thank-you Lisa. It’s been quite a journey. The Zoom event and follow-up blog have helped fine-tune my forthcoming book on Elemental Japan. As importantly, they’ve made me appreciate even more the people I’ve met along the way.

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    • Thank-you very much Ed. The topic is intriguing. Summarising it can be quite a challenge! At the moment I’m revisiting my book draft after reflecting on the presentation and blog. The references I included are important milestones although are the tip of the iceberg in a way. Providing recommendations is an enjoyable part of the learning and sharing process. A friend in Japan contacted me a while ago to enquire about material related to the ocean in Japanese culture. It turned out there was more in my collection than I’d appreciated. Being of assistance this way adds value to the library and my explorations more broadly.

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  1. There is so much content here worthy of comment however, I will stick to the aspects that have particularly stayed with me. Having been present at the Zoom presentation, I do recommend chasing up the recording as the two ‘versions’ go well together. The first thing that stood out for me is your extensive knowledge and appreciation of Japan, with the focus on your area of expertise – the elements. Basing your relationship to Japan and the elements around the books that have influenced and/or inspired you is a delightful way to share this story. I like the way you note that ‘books inform my travel, and travel informs my book slelection’. The combination of the depth of your research with your lived experience and strong connections with your friends in Japan adds authenticity to your words. The leaps of faith you have taken, the years you have devoted to this journey will, and I’m sure are, the perfect foundation for your forthcoming book on Elemental Japan. ♥️💙

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    • Your words of encouragement are much appreciated. Reflecting on my ‘Japanese’ library, and the way it has developed over the years, transformed the books into something much more than paper and ink. They each have a story to tell and their lives are intertwined with mine. One journey that influenced my book selection was a visit to Hagi in SW Honshu. It is known as the City of Water (with much more to offer as it turned out). On returning home, discovering of a book on the city (by an Australian academic) enhanced the experience. The author had the courtesy to respond to some questions so the learning continued. The Sea of Japan side of the main island, where Hagi is located, has a fascinating history which tends to get overlooked – as do many other areas of Japan other than Kyoto and Tokyo. I’ve been privileged to visit some of the lesser known areas in search of ‘things elemental’, including with you my dear sister. The completion of my forthcoming book, based on these lived experiences and my research, will be a testament to your support over many years.

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