Mt Atago, Kyoto: exploring the energy of a sacred mountain

Mt Atago is the highest mountain in the ranges that flank Kyoto. It has been a place of Shugendo practice and worship for over 1300 years. Ever since learning that a deity that provided protection from fire was enshrined there, my heart was set on climbing the mountain. The first opportunity to ascend Mt Atago arose on the 21st of May 2017 when a friend and I hiked the 3.7 km trail to Atago Jinja at the summit. The second ascent took place on the 7th of October 2018 as part of a Shugendo pilgrimage with Wani-ontakesan. Both visits to Mt Atago, with their different seasons and different circumstances, were compelling in their own way. Both were connected to the element of fire and in October 2018 to the phenomenal power of typhoons. The energy of the mountain and the long history of veneration at Mt Atago was palpable.

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Kampo, the elements of traditional Japanese medicine

Kampo, which translates as ‘Han Method’,  has a history of nearly 1500 years in Japan.  This holistic and elemental approach to medicine primarily relies on the prescription of herb formulas as well as encompassing acupuncture, moxibustion, and other components of the Chinese medical system. Unique aspects of Kampo include the selection of herbs prescribed and the use of palpation of the abdomen (hara) as a diagnostic tool. After a period of decline following the Meiji Restoration, Kampo is widely practiced today and the prescription of herbs integrated into the modern health care system and the National Health Insurance Scheme. My first direct exposure to Kampo, and its connection to InYo (YinYang) and the Five Elements, was at the Nihondo Kampo complex in Shinagawa, Tokyo. This bought home the continuing relevance of Kampo, and the Five Chinese Elements, in contemporary Japan.

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A transformative two months in Elemental Japan

Cherry blossoms are synonymous with Japan. It was these ephemeral beauties that determined the starting date of March 23rd, 2018 for a two month trip to further explore the elements in the Land of the Rising Sun. The first month was spent with my sister Ruth. Together we saw Sakura in different phases of development, from gorgeous pink buds to trees mostly covered with leaves. The experience was magical, with the highlight the cherry blossom viewing party (hanami), next to Fushimi Castle in Kyoto. My solo travel spanned early Summer, a season of vibrant greens, Azaleas, Irises, the hint of hydrangeas and the flooding of rice paddies. Starting in Kamakura, the second month found me in Tokyo during Golden Week, travelling in southern and northern Honshu, and ending in Sendai to visit the 3/11 Community Memorial Centre.  Here I introduce some of the elemental themes and transformations that occurred over this stimulating two months with a focus on the flower that captivates a nation.

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Shugendo now – a winter pilgrimage on Mt Ontake, Japan

Mt Ontake is a sacred mountain 100 km northeast of Nagoya on the border of Nagano and Gifu Prefectures. At 3067 m it is the second highest volcano in Japan, after Mt Fuji. Pilgrimages to worship Mt Ontake and seek spiritual enlightenment have been made for centuries and continue today. On 23-24 January 2018 I joined a winter pilgrimage on Ontakesan with the Wani-ontakesan community, led by three Shugendo masters. Undertaking ascetic practices on the mountain in extreme conditions reinforced that we are part of nature and the universe. Sharing this experience with others and hearing the word of Gods and ancestors through a medium – a hallmark of Mt Ontake worship – was profound and empowering. The rituals and prayers associated with the pilgrimage were a sign of deep respect and reverence for Mt Ontake and its Gods, and the ancestors memorialised on its volcanic slopes. This transformative experience deepened my understanding and appreciation of the elements in Japan and Japanese culture. It is a pleasure to share my impressions of the two days spent with this remarkable community of faith.

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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 (Japanese) 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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