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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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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Winter in Japan: a world of ice and fire

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 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.

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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.

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Kyushu, Land of Fire

Visiting Kyushu, the south-western most of Japan’s main islands, is on the top of my itinerary when I next travel to Japan. It is a very elemental place. Kyushu is known for its active volcanoes, lava beaches and hot springs. The recent Kumamoto earthquake captured the world’s attention and highlighted the unstable nature of the island.  I have seen both Kumamoto and Kyushu 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’m pleased to say that I was finally able to spend 3 weeks in Kyushu in June 2017 – at the end of this introductory post I have included some photographic impressions of that wonderful time).

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The power of the five elements

On October 29th, 2016 I made a pilgrimage of sorts from Kyoto to Sohonzan Zentsu-ji Temple 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 void are an essential part of the teachings and practices of Shingon buddhism. As Zentsu-ji Temple has been identified as one of the top three temples associated with Kobo Daishi (the others being the Koyosan 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.

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Elements on tour

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.

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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.

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Wood generates fire

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.

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