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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Feel the energy: five years exploring the (five) elements in Japan

Five years ago today I hit the ‘Publish’ button on my first post about Elemental Japan. Titled ‘A story waiting to be told‘ the post introduced and set the context for my upcoming travels to and within Japan where the prime focus would be on the elements.  With my travel companion Suki (a soft toy dog) by my side, and a mind map and copious notes at hand,  an incredible and life-changing journey was about to begin. Reflecting on the last half decade – the places visited in Japan, the friendships made, the experiences experienced, the blog posts written – provides an opportunity to share the lessons learnt and look to the future. It is a milestone worth celebrating and contemplating. There is a lot to cover, so find your favourite reading spot, grab a drink if you so desire, and enjoy this story about Elemental Japan…so far.

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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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Gorinto: a uniquely Japanese five element stupa

The gorinto is fundamental to my explorations of Elemental Japan. Composed of stacked geometric forms that represent earth, water, fire, wind and space this Buddhist monument embodies the interconnectedness of all creation in tangible form. It has deep spiritual symbolism and significance. Largely found as a grave marker in contemporary Japan, the gorinto has a long association with meditation, medicine, memorials, martial arts and use as a reliquary. In modern times the beautifully balanced and striking form of the gorinto has seen the imagery and elemental connections adopted more widely. From Koyasan – the Shingon Buddhist pilgrimage site that is the ‘home’ of the gorinto – to Kyushu, Kamakura, Zentsu-ji and beyond, my fascination with this form has taken me across the length and breadth of Japan, as well as tracking down related material wherever I can.

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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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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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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 (C. Yinyang) and the Five Elements/Phases, was at the Nihondo Kampo complex in Shinagawa, Tokyo. This bought home the continuing relevance of Kampo, and the Five Chinese Elements/Phases, 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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Ninja go! The elements in action

Ninja are immediately recognisable in the west, their imagery and behaviour in most cases only loosely based on the original Japanese qualities. Movies, TV series, comics, video games and a whole world of merchandise demonstrates the continued interest in these  mysterious action heroes. Not surprisingly my interest in the ninja is their connection to the elements. That gave me a reason to see the 2017 Lego movie ‘Ninjago‘, ostensibly a movie for children, where the elements are featured. My interest has also lead to reading translations of the original ninja manuals and sourcing other information from Japan. Comparing the different representations of the ninja (west and east, modern and traditional), the ninjutsu they practice, and their relation to the elements has been intriguing – and complicated. These are my impressions so far.

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