About ‘Elemental Japan‘
The elements of nature are an everyday part of human experience and essential to our existence. They have ignited the imagination, awe, fear and reverence of cultures around the world. For millennia the elements of earth, water, fire, air/wind, metal, wood, ether/space, spirit and consciousness have been combined in various ways, as a way to make sense of and give meaning to our place in the natural world.
My blog fireupwaterdown.com introduces and celebrates the elements around the globe, showing how connected we all are. Arising from these deliberations, and based on direct experience, Japan presented itself as the perfect setting to explore the elements in greater detail. Where better to learn about nature, well-being and resilience than an industrialised country where animism, energy (J. ki) and the elements are embedded in everyday life? Underpinning this approach is the belief that Japanese culture contains a storehouse of concepts and practices that could support a nourishing life based on environmental stewardship and sustainability. A country that:
- experiences frequent, diverse and at times devastating natural/elemental forces (earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, floods and typhoons);
- embraces animism (especially through Shinto) and a strong belief in the ‘other world’;
- is famed for its love and refined representation of nature and the seasons;
- practices and builds on long-standing nature-based rituals and traditions;
- uses natural materials to create artworks and architecture of great beauty;
- expresses energy (J. ki) in myriad ways;
- sees continuity and change go hand in hand; and
- has two ‘elemental’ philosophies embedded in their culture – the Chinese philosophy of Yinyang and the Five Phases (Earth, Water, Fire, Metal and Wood; J. inyo gogyo) and Buddhist teachings based on the five elements of Earth, Water, Fire, Air/Wind and Ether/Space (J. godai) (with consciousness, a sixth element, found in Shingon Esoteric Buddhism)”
These ideas and ponderings were the genesis of the book I am writing on ‘Elemental Japan’ and the beginning of a remarkable and unanticipated new direction in life.
My first trip to Japan was in 1996, representing Australia at an international meeting on tropical forest management. Seventeen years later, when the concept of ‘Elemental Japan’ was forming, I attended a workshop on Shinto conducted by Oomoto (in English) in Kameoka, near Kyoto. Then in 2015 an opportunity arose to join a taiko tour of Japan with a drumming group based in Hobart, Tasmania. These varied experiences, interspersed with other trips to Japan, set the scene for a focused effort to visit places, people and events connected with the elements.
In 2016 I began spending around six months a year in Japan, at times joined by my husband Tony and sister Ruth. Using Kyoto as a base, the amazingly efficient and extensive public transport system has carried me from Hokkaido in the north to Okinawa in the south to explore the elements, wherever they take me. Along the way I encountered volcanoes (and related onsen), typhoons, floods, earthquakes, snowstorms and the aftermath of the devastating tsunami that occurred in northern Japan on March 11, 2011. During these journeys I have participated in festivals, pilgrimages, cultural events and daily life in Japan; visited places of beauty, mystery, bewilderment and awe; and learnt more about myself in the process. Experiencing the elements first hand has definitely been the best teacher.
This blog was designed to informally share my experiences and impressions on my travels around Japan. My wish is that these musings will lead to ongoing friendships and collaborations, and inspire others to explore the elements in Japan. It is a theme that lends itself to a diversity of media and activities, including tourism. The elemental world is one of many opportunities.
COVID-19 has put a halt to my Japan-based explorations, for the moment. The ‘great pause’, which I am spending in Tasmania, has given me time to research, reflect on, and write in greater depth about the elements in Japan, as well as experience elemental places at home that I’ve wanted to visit for a while. Most importantly it has brought the first book on ‘Elemental Japan’ closer to completion.
First and foremost, people are at the heart of this story. Those I have met and interacted with, and friends I have made and brought with me on this journey, have immeasurably enriched my appreciation and understanding of ‘Elemental Japan.’ I am especially indebted to my family for their ongoing encouragement and support.
The story behind the author
My name is Jann Williams, the creator of ‘Elemental Japan‘. A Victorian by birth, my home is now in Tasmania, Australia. I am an ecologist with a PhD in Ecosystem Dynamics from the Australian National University 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. My plenary address, titled ‘Woman on Fire: Insights from an Elemental Career‘, can be found here.
In May 2016 I was invited to become a member of ‘Writers in Kyoto‘ (WiK). Joining this creative writing group has expanded my horizons and experiences in ways I could never have imagined. 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 this volume was titled ‘Shinsen’en: a Heian-kyo power-spot‘. I have made several contributions to the WiK website, including two stories related to Nijo Castle, and wrote an essay on gorinto (five-ringed pagoda) in Kyoto for the upcoming fourth WiK Anthology.
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. 😄🌸
(The ‘About’ section underwent a major update in March 2021 to reflect the evolution of ‘Elemental Japan’).