Why ‘Elemental Japan‘?
Japan and the elements have an intimate association. Geographically the archipelago sits on The Ring of Fire where the earth moves and grinds due to the action of tectonic plates. As a consequence, volcanoes, earthquakes, hot springs and tsunamis are part of the Japanese experience. If that isn’t elemental enough, Japan is also located in the typhoon belt, which is at its strongest in the summer months. The long coastline and mountainous interior of Japan are also defining features. Fire, water, wind and earth – all have full expression.
The geographic setting of Japan also brings the distinct seasonality the country is famous for – cherry blossoms, the summer heat, maple leaves, a snow-clad Mt Fuji – that is expressed in much of the art, poetry, food and aesthetics in Japan.
In addition to the geography of Japan, the influence of and interactions between Taoism, Shinto, Buddhism and Confucianism sees the elements widely embedded and expressed in Japanese culture. The pervasive influence of yinyang (J. inyo) and the five phases/elements (J. gogyo) – Earth, Water, Fire, Metal and Wood; the Buddhist five and six great elements (J. godai and rokudai) – Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, Space (and Consciousness); and the animistic beliefs that permeate Japanese history, are all critical pieces of the elemental jigsaw puzzle. The Japanese cultural tradition contains a vast storehouse of notions and practices which may help establish a culturally-grounded ecophilosophy and support a nourishing life.
As someone with a passion for the elements, taiko drumming, and things Japanese, Japan inexorably drew me under its influence. So much so that I am writing a book with the working title ‘Elemental Japan: feel the energy.’ This blog, which is informal and hopefully informative, shares some of the learnings and experiences of researching the book along the way.
Each post is based on my impressions, a stream of consciousness if you like. They are a way of keeping track of my journey of discovery and identify where further research is required. As importantly, the posts reflect the energy, beauty and mystery of the elements as I explore Japan.
The book, or possibly books, on Elemental Japan will bring these vignettes together – under-pinned by systematic and synthesising research. That’s proving to be quite a task! The theme also lends itself to other forms of media and activities, including tourism. The elemental world is one of many opportunities.
The first post in this blog (‘A story waiting to be told‘), written on May 1, 2016 in Kameoka (near Kyoto) is well worth reading as an introduction. It shares some of the material on the elements in Japan written in a complementary blog, Fire up Water down, that explores the elements at a global level. You can read more at fireupwaterdown.com. With posts reaching back to May 2014 there is literally a whole world of elements waiting to be discovered there.
The posts on my two blogs are my way of illustrating and celebrating the instinctive connections between people and the natural world and exploring what we can learn from them. An improved understanding of our interdependence with nature is vital for creating and nurturing a sustainable planet.
Following the motto that ‘experience is the best teacher’ an overview of my activities since 2016 is presented below. Links to blog posts are provided where relevant – they demonstrate my commitment to understanding Elemental Japan through time and space, and to sharing my knowledge and insights.
Up until November 2019 I spent over 18 months ‘exploring the elements’ in Japan; since COVID-19 appeared, I have been continuing the exploration from my home in Tasmania. These travels (real and virtual) have opened up wonderful new directions, opportunities and insights. My hope is that these musings will lead to further friendships and collaborations, and inspire others to explore the elements in Japan.
- Late April to late July 2016 based in Kyoto, Japan. My first posts during this period were about fire (see here, here) and water (and here).
- Here you can read about the first 8 days of my trip in October 2016, where I hit the ground running. Time was spent with my Urasenke tea ceremony friends from Hobart who were also in Japan (see ‘Time for more tea‘ here).
- May/June 2017: I visited Kyushu (read more here) and other elemental places/people in western Japan. Museums in Matsue and Kumamoto were visited to learn about Koizumi Yakumo (Lafcadio Hearn). My post on earthquakes and national character, found here, is a result of these latter experiences.
- (At the end of 2017 I tackled the monumental topic of ‘Zen and the five elements‘ based on my experiences in Japan to that point.)
- Mid-January to mid-February 2018: Different facets of winter from Okinawa to Hokkaido and in-between were explored, and the beginning of Spring welcomed: a taste of which can be found here. The highlight was a two day winter pilgrimage to Mt Ontake led by three Shugendo masters from the Wani-ontakesan community reported here. This experience was life-changing.
- March 23rd 2018 to mid-May 2018: A month spent travelling with my sister Ruth experiencing the sakura blossoms in their many phases (as reported here) and many other essential expressions of the elements. Site visits with Ruth in Tokyo are included in posts on fusui (Japanese feng shui) and Kampo (Traditional Japanese Medicine).
- Mid-May to mid-June 2018: A month of solo travel including Golden Week spent in Tokyo and time discovering the joys of Kamakura and Enoshima.
- August 2018: a special two week trip to Japan to participate in a dedication for our mother Edna held by Wani-ontakesan at Mt Ontake and travel to northern Honshu.
- October 2018: ongoing research on the five-storied pagoda (gojunoto) reported here. Pilgrimages to Mt Atago in Kyoto (see here) and Ichizuchisan in Shikoku.
- Late November 2018 to early February 2019: my first extended experience of winter and the New Year period, spent principally in Kyoto. This included the coldest time of the year, reported here. Being able to view the first sunrise of the year and participate in many other special cultural events was magical.
- March/April 2019: based in Kyoto following the sakura cycle from bare branches to full flower and beyond. Experiencing Spring in all its abundance.
- Mid June to mid-August 2019: Organised and attended the Japanese launch of the third Writers in Kyoto Anthology which I co-edited, designed and published (available here); experienced summer fire and water festivals (see here); and marvellous pilgrimages to Mt Ontake, Mt Fuji and Mt Atago (Kyoto). My first experience of Obon, the summer festival dedicated to ancestral spirits.
- Mid September to mid-November 2019: Experienced Super Typhoon Hagibis as it approached and made landfall in Japan in mid-October, as accounted here. Shared an amazing five day pilgrimage on the Kumano Kodo with my friend Akiko Murikama in early November.
- February 2020 and ongoing: Four planned trips to Japan in 2020 were cancelled due to COVID-19. This ‘great pause’ is being used to research and write blogs that are helping consolidate the best way to present the book/s on Elemental Japan.
- Since March 2020 several blogs have been posted from my home in Tasmania – including ones on gorinto, yinyang (this one taking several weeks to bring together), Hokusai, and a celebration of the elemental ceramics of Japan.
- On my sister blog ‘Fire up Water down‘ my experience of viewing the Three Capes region of Tasmania (September 2020) through ‘Shinto eyes‘, and my elemental immersion on the Overland Track (October 2020), are described. Both posts include references to Japan.
- After many years and ways of trying to learn Japanese, between April and July 2020 I took online lessons with a teacher in Tottori Prefecture. My first translation of a book in Japanese (about beautiful Yakushima, the wettest place in Japan) is shared here. As soon as it is safe, I am keen to test these new language skills in Japan, my home away from home. 🙂
When it is possible to travel internationally again, the explorations in Japan will continue. Deep appreciation goes to my husband Tony for supporting these endeavours.
The story behind the author
My name is Jann Williams, the creator of ‘Elemental Japan‘. My home base is in Tasmania, Australia where the elements embrace us. I am an ecologist with a PhD in ecosystem dynamics and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Western Australia in the ERIE Research Group, School of Biological Sciences. Professor Richard Hobbs, the leader of ERIE, and I have had a close association for over 20 years with a shared interest in ecosystem restoration and intervention in natural and modified habitats. My LinkedIn profile contains more details about my professional career.
In November 2019 I was the recipient of the prestigious Ecological Society of Australia Gold Medal for my significant contribution to ecology. The plenary address, titled ‘Woman on Fire: Insights from an Elemental Career‘, can be found here.
Tasmania and Japan are the two elemental places I have the strongest connection to. In May 2016 I was invited to become a member of ‘Writers in Kyoto’. I am proud to have been the chief editor and designer of ‘Encounters with Kyoto: Writers in Kyoto Anthology 3‘, published in June 2019 (available through Amazon.com and Amazon.com.au). My essay in the volume was titled ‘Shinsen’en: a Heian-kyo power-spot‘.
Writers in Kyoto (WiK) encourages members to contribute short written pieces to the WiK website. As of February 2021 I have written four: two related to Nijo Castle, a write-up of a Zoom meeting on the Hojoki (presented by Matthew Stavros) and my reflections on Edward Levinson’s book ‘Whisper of the Land: Visions of Japan‘.
Photographs really are worth a thousand words, or more – I always use them to illustrate my posts. Unless otherwise stated, all images are mine. If you would like to use share these images with others, they should be attributed to myself or the original source. Thank-you.
If you would like to share your photos of Elemental Japan I’d encourage you to use #elementaljapan on Instagram. 😄🌸