In July 2022 the famous Gion Festival in Kyoto was held for the first time in three years due to the COVID pandemic. The roots of the month-long festival originate in 869 AD when people were suffering from a terrible pestilence. For more than 1100 years the Festival has survived many natural and man-made disasters. It is seen as a great symbol of sustainability and the enduring human spirit. July 24th, the day of the second 2022 Gion float parade, coincided with a Zoom event where I shared stories from my eclectic and extensive library of ‘Things Japanese’. My library includes a selection of physical and digital publications, photographs, mementos and experiences guided by the relationship between nature and people in Japan, through the lens of nature’s elements and two five element cosmologies. This was the fourth event in an ongoing series where Writers in Kyoto (WiK) members share their libraries (the first three events were held in physical libraries, not a virtual one). My Zoom presentation described the genesis, evolution and use of the library intertwined with my increasing engagement with Japan. It featured stories and lessons learnt through selected publications (including my own) and the people and experiences related to them. This post draws on the Zoom event, includes links to relevant sources (bolded), and incorporates additional material based on my reflections and questions asked by the audience. There are many stories to tell, so grab your favourite beverage and settle in.
Sustainable Daisen is a Non-Profit Organisation (NPO) promoting sustainable practices to help ensure the survival of the endemic Japanese Giant Salamander, Andrias japonicas. This rare species is threatened by habitat destruction/modification, population fragmentation, hybridisation and climate change and listed as ‘vulnerable’ in the Red Data Book (published by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment). The heartland of Sustainable Daisen is the Nawa River Basin, on the foothills of Mt Daisen, close to the Sea of Japan. The unique breeding population of the Japanese Giant Salamander (JGS) found in the basin is facing extinction if business-as-usual continues. Water, and its cycling through land, air and sea, is the element most critical to the conservation of this aquatic species. It is also the key element in the long history of worship of Mt Daisen. Within this rich cultural setting a holistic approach to managing salamander habitat is being implemented, focusing on rivers, forests, farmland and villages. Sustainable Daisen has built an impressive team, website, and many productive collaborations including with the research community. This and other initiatives to save the JGS in the region have received national and international attention. It was my pleasure to meet Richard Pearce, the CEO of Sustainable Daisen, in Tottori Prefecture in May 2018. Since then our lives have been intertwined through our shared enthusiasm for nature, Shugendo and forging a sustainable future for our planet.
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.
Experiencing winter in Japan is a must for someone exploring the elements in this remarkable country. Many people associate this season with the ice crystals we know as snow. Snow does not blanket the whole of Japan in winter though, not by a long shot. And where there is snow – the amount, type and timing of occurrence vary considerably. To experience the great diversity of environmental conditions and activities that occur in winter in Japan I have designed a trip that begins in subtropical Okinawa and ends in subarctic Hokkaido. My Japanese winter will include many special expressions of ice and fire along the way. Continue reading
The Teshima Art Museum provides an organic setting where water, wind, wood and light are works of art. I learnt about this enticing concept from a French couple I met in Japan in mid 2016. Sibylle and Bernard called it the Raindrop Museum – an evocative description. They were close to the mark. The brief given to the architect Ryue Nishizawa and artist Rei Naito was to create a design of free curves, echoing the shape of a drop of water. Knowing my interest in the elements, my French friends strongly recommended that I make the Museum a priority to visit. So in early October that’s what I did. The Museum has other attractions – its location on an island in the Seto Inland Sea provides an experience of some of the coastline, waterways and islands of Japan, an important part of the elemental story. The Art Museum is also a major draw-card of the Setouchi Trienniale, an art festival designed to reinvigorate local communities that has many lessons to teach us.
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 2016. 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.
It’s the fourth week of June 2016 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.
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.
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 six 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. While many refer to Kyoto as the ‘City of Water’, in my minds eye it is the ‘City of Fire’.
Japan’s elemental story is waiting to be told. It’s such a remarkable story that I’ve decided to write a book and a blog about it. I’d love you to join me on my exploration of the elements in the Land of the Rising Sun. It’s a journey of amazement and beauty, spanning traditional and modern Japan, where the elements are both friend and foe. The recent earthquake in Kyushu is a telling example of damage that can be caused by the forces of nature. The expression of the elements, both benign and destructive, helps makes Japan the nation it is.