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.
Salamanders, Shugendo, Sustainability and the Sea of Japan
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.
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.
The elemental allure of onsen
Japan is synonymous with onsen – hot (mineral) springs. As it should be. Volcanoes, which Japan has in abundance, play a key role in the formation of hot springs. Fire (magma) heats water. Earth adds minerals. Nature provides a magical setting with most hot springs originally being in the open air. People traditionally bathed communally. The very hot water provides relief from the humidity in summer and warmth in winter. These characteristics bring many health benefits. It is no wonder that hot springs are such an important part of Japanese culture. Onsen also draw many tourists to Japan with one-third of visitors recently indicating it was one of their main reasons for travelling. I can understand the elemental allure.
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.
Kyushu, Land of Fire
Visiting Kyushu, the most south-western of Japan’s main islands, is on the top of my itinerary when I next travel to Japan (written in December 2016). It is a very elemental place. Kyushu is known for its active volcanoes, lava beaches and hot springs. The 2016 Kumamoto earthquake captured the world’s attention and highlighted the unstable nature of the island. Both Kumamoto and Kyushu are referred to as the ‘Land of Fire’. The origin of that name was an eye-opener for me, as is the fascinating history of the island called ‘The Gateway to Japan’. I am delighted to say that I was able to spend 3 weeks in Kyushu in June 2017. After introducing Kyushu, some photographic impressions of that wonderful time are shared below.
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.
Japan – a destiny drawn by nature
‘A destiny drawn by nature‘ is the first chapter of a book titled ‘The Dawns of Tradition‘, published by the Nissan Motor Company in 1983. I knew that this publication was an important discovery when I read the introductory words “Even more than most peoples, the Japanese have been shaped by their environment. From the dawn of their history, close communication and an oftentimes precarious coexistence with nature have dominated almost all aspects of the national character and culture.” Viewing Japanese culture through the lens of the environment (in my case using the elements as a framework) is also the focus of my book and blog on elemental Japan. While the approaches taken differ in many ways, the basic sentiment is the same.
Feel the energy
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 story waiting to be told
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.