The pentagram in Japan: a puzzling mix of magic, medicine and the five elements

The pentagram (J. gobosei) is a powerful symbol over 5000 years old, primarily associated with Europe and the Middle East. In contemporary Japan the pentagram is closely connected to Abe no Seimei, the Heian-era Onmyodo practitioner popularly known as the ‘Wizard or Master of YinYang‘. Depending on the source, Seimei is credited with having either independently created the pentagram around 1000 years ago or adapted/borrowed it from Daoist charts in currency at that time. Elsewhere I’ve read that the symbol was introduced to Onmyodo through Tantric Buddhism, with the original source going way back to the Pythagoreans. My principal interest in the pentagram is its representation of the five elements/phases (J. gogyo) of Wood, Earth, Water, Fire and Metal. As well as exploring the connection with Seimei, this brings Kampo (a form of traditional Japanese medicine) and fusui (the Japanese way of Feng Shui) into the mix.  The challenge to research, describe and interpret the origin, history and symbolism of the pentagram in Japan has been great and is ongoing.  The purpose of this exploratory post is to share progress with the intriguing and mysterious puzzle so far and discover if readers can contribute additional pieces.

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Shinto in a Tasmanian setting

Tasmania and Japan are the two elemental places I have the strongest connection with. They come together in the most recent blog on Fire Up Water Down:

Shinto Moments on the Three Capes Track, Tasmania

For those who exclusively follow Elemental Japan I wanted to share the post with you. For those who follow both blogs please excuse the cross posting. And for those who are new to this blog, welcome!

To make amends for cross-posting, and share some more Shinto Moments, the images below from the Three Capes Track only appear in this post.

Another Tasmanian walking adventure on the Overland Track – that also includes references to Japan – can be found here.

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Hokusai, a master of the elements

When things come in threes you sit up and pay attention. So when the famous Japanese Ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) unexpectedly popped up three times in the last two days, my interest was reawakened. Something was telling me that it was time to write about this remarkable man, an artist I have admired for many years. My delight in his art, which captures nature and the elements so vividly, has led me to visit the Hokusai Museums in Tokyo and Obose, Japan and travel to a major exhibition of his work in Melbourne, Australia. Yet it was only when searching online for an unrelated item that I discovered another fundamental connection between Hokusai and the elements – one that was quite an eye-opener.

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Yakushima and Yuko-san: celebrating the forests born from drops of water

Yakushima is the wettest place in Japan with annual rainfall between 4 metres around the coast of the island and 10 metres in the mountains. It is famous for its ancient moss-covered forests,  abundant waterfalls and rivers, island-adapted wildlife and providing inspiration for the Studio Ghibli movie Princess Mononoke. The forests also inspired the artist Yuko Takada to write and illustrate a book called Water Forest (J. 水の森; Mizu no mori). I bought this striking publication, which is entirely in Japanese, when I visited the World Heritage listed Yakushima in 2017. The sublime watercolour illustrations capture the intensity and beauty of life in the forests on the island. It is this celebratory book that I chose as the first to read in my quest to learn the language of Japan. In doing so I felt even closer to these remarkable rainforest ecosystems.

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Typhoon Hagibis, a personal account from Kyoto

Typhoons have been on my mind more than anticipated over the previous 12 months. A year ago I wrote a post about the extraordinary 2018 typhoon season in Japan. In October 2019 I found myself in the potential path of the biggest typhoon to make landfall on the main island of Honshu for over 60 years. Typhoon Hagibis, named after the Philippine word for speed, displayed unprecedented features. Needless to say the uncertain path and intense energy of the Super Typhoon were unsettling. My previous post about typhoons in Japan was as an outside observer, this time it is a personal account from Kyoto using images to tell my story as it unfolded.

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Mikoshi Arai – fire, water, kami and the Gion Festival

Flanked by bamboo torches, a group of around 50 men carry a portable shrine (mikoshi) on their shoulders. At intervals they stop and shake the temporary home of the kami, then move onwards to their destination – the Kamogawa in Gion, Kyoto where the mikoshi will be purified with sacred water from the river. Following the mikoshi down Shijo-dori I clap and shout ‘hoitto, hoitto‘ along with others in the crowd. The energy in the street is palpable. The Mikoshi Arai, part of the world famous Gion Festival, sets the stage for a series of events in Kyoto over the month of July.  The Yamaboko Junko Parade on July 17th, featuring two distinct kinds of enormous wooden floats, is the best known and attended of these events. A week earlier the Mikoshi Arai, which stretches across dusk and darkness, purifies the entire Gion Festival.

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In search of gojunoto, the five element Japanese pagoda

The Japanese five-storied pagoda (gojunoto) is a remarkable piece of Buddhist architecture that represents the five elements of earth, water, fire, wind and space/void. It has played a significant role in Japanese culture for over 1400 years and continues to do so.  Built to enshrine Buddhist relics and as a focus of devotion, the towering form of the gojunoto captures and captivates the imagination. Their layered wooden grooves ascending in stages towards the sky evoke a spiritual connection. The metal spire at the top completes the structure and symbolism.  The sophisticated wooden architecture of the pagoda provides resistance to the elemental forces of earthquakes and strong winds, a design that has informed modern multi-story architecture. With it’s origin in India, and influences from Chinese architecture, the Japanese pagoda has developed into a distinctive form. My search for gojunoto and the way they are represented has opened up a new and exciting dimension of Elemental Japan.

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Daikan, the coldest time of the year

January 20th is one of the significant days recorded on my 2019 Japanese eco-calendar. It is described as the ‘Coldest time of the year’, known as Daikan (Great cold). This period covers January 20th to February 3rd and is the final of the 24 major divisions (sekki) of the traditional Japanese calendar. In Kyoto it was raining on the first day of Daikan in 2019 and the temperature reached 11 degrees celsius. Elsewhere in Japan the conditions would differ considerably, as I discovered in the winter of 2018 when I travelled from Okinawa in the south-west  to Hokkaido in the north-east (see here). Wherever one finds oneself,  paying attention to these finer changes in the seasons and natural world brings us closer to the elements around us. At an even finer level the 24 divisions can be split into 72 ko that last around five days each. As an example, the first five days of Daikan are called ‘Fuki no hana saku‘ (Butterburs bud). This attention to detail to the environment has many merits.

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Gogyo (Wu Xing) in contemporary Japan

Gogyo is the Japanese term for the five Chinese phases/elements (wu xing), a concept that was introduced to Japan around 1500 years ago.  Since arriving in Kyoto in early  December 2018 I have come across a number of contemporary examples utilising gogyo.  In describing these I return to the original intent of my posts in Elemental Japan. That was, to record my impressions as I travelled Japan to experience the elements in person. Beginning in May 2016, the posts were designed to be informal, a way to share ideas that would be refined at a later stage. As I learnt more about the elements in Japan I’ve found myself spending much more time on my posts to try and capture the nuances of this complex and fascinating topic. That is the research scientist coming out in me. As a consequence the frequency of my posts dropped dramatically. My plan to address that is to be less concerned with the detail and get back to spontaneously sharing the elemental expressions that have caught my eye along the way. This is my first ‘rough and ready’ instalment .

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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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