Zen and the five elements

Kyoto, the City of Zen – one of the many guises of this intriguing metropolis. Short sessions or overnight stays are offered at several temples, principally of the Rinzai school of Zen, to experience meditation, green tea and Zen gardens. This is ‘Classic Zen’, as often portrayed in the west and for the west. A short train ride from Kyoto, the Head Temple of Obaku Zen can be found.  A more recent arrival in Japan, this school of Zen has retained many features of its Chinese heritage.  The two Head Temples of Soto Zen, which has the most temples of any Buddhist school in Japan, are found further afield. The machinations of history determined that this school of Zen has a modest presence in Kyoto. In my exploration of Zen and the five elements each of these schools has a different story. As I’m discovering elsewhere in elemental Japan, their paths merge and diverge in a fascinating and complex way. Here is what I have learnt so far, a journey with many connections to Kyoto.

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Earthquakes and national character

Lafcadio Hearn changed the way the west viewed Japan when he lived there between 1890 and 1904. Over that period he wrote several books and articles in English, most famously his 1894 publication ‘Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan‘ which is still in print. Less well known is an editorial he also published in 1894 (for the Kobe Chronicle) titled ‘Earthquakes and national character‘. Hearn, like me, had an interest in the relationship between people and nature. And like me, he pondered the connection between the frequent natural ‘disasters’ in Japan and the character and culture of people who live in such a changing and unpredictable environment. Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, floods, fires, snowstorms and typhoons are all expressions of the elements at their most forceful and energetic. For me they ‘set the scene’ for my exploration of elemental Japan.

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Space, time and flowers

As Spring unfolds in the northern hemisphere the cherry trees are blossoming  in Japan. In 2017 the Sakura season officially began on March 21st and overall will last a few short weeks. Reports from friends capture the thrill of seeing the first blossoms appear in different parts of the country.  Timing is of the essence as the best viewing period can last for a little over a week at a specific location. This post celebrates the blossoming of the Sakura, seasonal changes and introduces the six great elements as viewed through the lens of Ikebana. Space, time and flowers – another dimension of elemental Japan.

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Time for more tea

My post ‘Taiko and tea’ shares my first impressions about the relationship between tea and the elements in Japan. My concluding comments were ‘Five elements and six senses. A heady mix.’ Since then I have had many more opportunities related to tea, thanks mostly to Allan Halyk, a Urasenke Tea Master based in Hobart. In October 2016 I spent 10 days in Japan with Allan, two of his students and a friend. We walked many miles in Osaka, Kyoto and Uji to immerse ourselves in tea. It helps to be with those who are familiar with the way.

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The power of the five elements

On October 29th, 2016 I made a pilgrimage of sorts from Kyoto to Sohonzan Zentsu-ji Temple on Shikoku. Through serendipity I had discovered that this Temple was where Kukai (posthumously named Kobo Daishi), the founder of Esoteric Shingon Buddhism in Japan, was born and grew up. The five elements of earth, fire, water, wind and void are an essential part of the teachings and practices of Shingon buddhism. As Zentsu-ji Temple has been identified as one of the top three temples associated with Kobo Daishi (the others being the Koyosan complex and Toji Temple, both on Honshu, both of which I have visited) I decided that catching three trains each way was worth the effort.  It was an effort very well rewarded.

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Returning to the elements

October 1st 2016 marked the first day of my return trip to Japan to continue my exploration of the elements. In contrast to my last visit when I was based in Kyoto (see my first 8 posts) this time I am on the move! I have identified a number of places and traditions with specific connections to the elements to visit and interact with over the next two months. And then there are those delightful serendipitous opportunities that seem to arise quite often.

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Wood generates fire

Japan is a land of forests. Sixty seven percent of the country is covered with trees, only second behind Finland when ‘developed’ nations are compared. Currently the forests are vibrant and green, you can’t help but notice them on the mountains and in the Shrine and Temple forests as you travel around. Both mountains and trees are worshipped in Japan to varying degrees. Given the abundance of forests it is not surprising that wood and related materials play such an important cultural role. This is the element that has particularly caught my attention during late June and early July. Here are my impressions, once again a diverse mix. The many connections between wood and fire demonstrates the inter-relatedness of the elements. As always with these informal posts, it is only part of the story.

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Tsuyu, the rainy season

It’s the fourth week of June and it is the rainy season in Japan. The season is known as Tsuyu, meaning “plum rain”, because it coincides with the season of plums ripening. It is hot, sticky and very wet at times. It also means long days, vibrant vegetation, misty mountains, rice fields in flood, hydrangeas, the refreshing of water supplies and more. As you might expect, my thoughts over this period have turned to the element of water. I am using illustrations to help tell this part of the story of elemental Japan.

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Taiko and tea


The tea ceremony and taiko are both quintessentially Japanese. You could say they represent two ends of a spectrum of formality, from a refined, elegant ritual to rousing, energetic (and very loud) performances. Over the last few days I have experienced taiko as a player and audience member and visited Daitoku-ji Temple, a centre for the tea ceremony. As well as their connection to the elements, what has struck me about tea and taiko is the range of senses they engage. It is a timely reminder that elemental Japan captivates all of our senses.

A Japanese sweet served before matcha (powdered tea). The spiral represents a water ripple. The elements are everywhere in Japan.

A Japanese sweet served before matcha (powdered green tea). The pattern and colours represent a water ripple. Just in this image you can see earth, metal, water and wood.  The elements are everywhere in Japan.

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Being careful of fire

One of the most ubiquitous elements I have noticed as I walk around the streets of Kyoto is fire. It is expressed in many forms. There are ways and means to avoid, dampen and fight fire if it breaks out. The use of fire in purification rituals and festivals is also a feature. One of the more well known is the spectacular display in August when five large kanji on the hills of Kyoto are set ablaze. From the red fire buckets and extinguishers in the streets, to the ‘Fire’ brand of coffee sold by Kirin, reference to the powerful force of fire is seemingly everywhere in Japan’s ancient capital.

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