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 – and that is expressed in much of the art, poetry, food and aesthetics in Japan.
In addition to the geography of Japan, the influence of Taoism and Buddhism sees the elements widely embedded and expressed in Japanese culture. This is through the pervasive influence of Yinyang (InYo) and the five phases/elements (Gogyo) as well as the Buddhist five and six great elements (Godai and Rokudai). Shinto, the indigenous belief system of Japan, adds an animistic perspective on the elements (for example, see greenshinto.com).
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 called ‘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 going 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 that I write, 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. They are my way of illustrating and celebrating the instinctive connections between people and the natural world and exploring what we can learn from them.
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, the Managing Director of NRM Insights 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 May 2016 I was invited to become a member of ‘Writers in Kyoto’, of which I am very proud. Tasmania and Japan are the two elemental places I have the strongest connection to. I am also proud to be the lead editor for the 2019 Writers in Kyoto Anthology titled ‘Encounters with Kyoto‘. This is due to be published in May 2019.
Following the motto that ‘experience is the best teacher’ between April 2016 and February 2019 I have spent over 12 months in Japan ‘exploring the elements’. These travels have opened up wonderful new directions, opportunities and insights. Deep appreciation goes to my husband Tony for supporting these endeavours.
The following text provides an overview of these travels and some of the tribulations along the way. Links to blog posts about some of these experiences are provided where relevant. 🙂
From late April to late July 2016 I was based in Kyoto, Japan. It was my twelfth visit to this intriguing country. The experience of living in the ancient capital for nearly three months was invaluable to my exploration of the elements. Perhaps not surprisingly my first two posts during this period were about fire (see here, here) and water (and here).
On September 30th 2016, I returned to Japan for another two months. The purpose of this visit was to travel further afield to selected places with specific links to the elements; to spend time with my Urasenke tea ceremony friends from Hobart who were in Japan (see ‘Time for more tea‘ here); and to take advantage of those delightful serendipitous opportunities that seem to arise quite often. Here you can read about the first 8 days of this trip where I hit the ground running!
As it turned out, I only spent October 2016 in Japan, cutting my planned explorations in half. My decision to return home was made after learning that a dear friend had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. My brother-in-law had also received some sobering news about his journey with the disease. Home was where I wanted to be. Both Anka and Peter passed away within six months of my return.
In 2017 I returned to Japan for two months in May/June to visit Kyushu (read more here) and other elemental places/people on my list , as well as catch up with friends and colleagues. Learning more about Koizumi Yakumo (Lafcadio Hearn) was high on my list so I visited Museums in Matsue and Kumamoto to learn more about him. My post on earthquakes and national character, found here, is a result of these experiences.
A shorter trip with my sister Ruth in September/October 2017 was postponed because our mother Edna was admitted to hospital two days before we were due to depart. As always, family comes first. Mum passed away peacefully on December 22nd. She is forever in our hearts.
From mid-January to mid-February 2018 my travels in Japan covered different facets of winter from Okinawa to Hokkaido and in-between, and welcomed the beginning of Spring. It was a very enjoyable and educational experience 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 which is reported here. It was life-changing.
On March 23rd 2018, Ruth and I began our postponed trip to Japan. We experienced the sakura blossoms in their many phases (as reported here) and many other essential expressions of the elements. Ruth travelled with me for a month and I stayed another month after her return to Melbourne. Fittingly over these two months I spent time with many friends and colleagues that I have met during my journey. They have enriched my explorations immeasurably. In combination with my winter trip, 2018 has been a transformative year.
In August 2018 I made a special two week trip to Japan to participate in a dedication for our mother Edna held by Wani-ontakesan. It was an incredible honour. The dedication was part of the summer pilgrimage to sacred Mt Ontake. During this trip I also took the opportunity to travel to northern Honshu, a part of Japan I was less familiar with.
From October 2018 I will be based in Kyoto for around six months of the year. The focus will be writing my first book on the elements in Japan, as well as learning some Japanese. My travels will still continue (albeit to a lesser extent), as will my association with Wani-ontakesan. It will be a very exciting and stimulating time.
My initial period based in Kyoto spans late November 2018 to early February 2019. This is the first time I have spent an extended time in winter in Japan and experienced the New Year period. It has turned out to be invaluable, even though my friends and family are wondering why I am spending even more time in Japan! Soon it will become clear.
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. 😄🌸