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.
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.
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.
Feng shui has become a phenomenon in the west over the last few decades, as discussed here. To cover the wide range of subjects and styles associated with the approach, there are now over 40 feng shui books sitting in my bookshelf. All are based on the ancient Chinese art of placement used to create harmony in our environment through the manipulation of energy. In Japan feng shui is called fusui (wind-water). Fusui has had a long history and wielded considerable influence from ancient to contemporary times. Like other practices that incorporate the five Chinese elements in Japan, such as traditional Japanese medicine, the art of fusui has had limited exposure outside of the country. Based on the information I’ve been able to find in English, a summary follows of what I have learnt so far. It represents the first steps in an ongoing journey of discovery.
On October 29th, 2016 I made a pilgrimage of sorts from Kyoto to Sohonzan Zentsu-ji 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 space are an essential part of the teachings and practices of Shingon Buddhism. As Zentsu-ji has been identified as one of the top three temples associated with Kobo Daishi (the others being the Koyasan 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.
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.
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.
The subtitle of the book that I’m writing on elemental Japan was originally ‘the energy of a nation’. I chose these extra explanatory words carefully, words that would best portray the essence of the elemental story of Japan. From the energy of the powerful natural forces that have literally shaped the island nation, to expressions of ‘ki’ (the life-force or flow of energy that sustains living beings) – I feel that understanding energy is key to understanding the elements in Japan. In November 2016 I changed the subtitle of the book to ‘Feel the energy’, the title of this post. On reflection it sits better with the intent of my explorations, inviting readers to engage personally with the elements.
A week has passed since I wrote my first post. Over that period I have come across many expressions of the elements in Japan. The following ten brief examples, all experienced in the last seven days while in Kameoka, Japan, illustrate some of the diverse pieces in the puzzle that constitute Elemental Japan. The exciting challenge will be piecing them together into an engaging story that adds value to the voluminous material available on Japan. As my introductory post noted, I feel that it is a story waiting to be told.