Yakushima is the wettest place in Japan with annual rainfall between 4 metres around the coast of the island and 10 metres in the mountains. It is famous for its ancient moss-covered forests, abundant waterfalls and rivers, island-adapted wildlife and providing inspiration for the Studio Ghibli movie Princess Mononoke. The forests also inspired the artist Yuko Takada to write and illustrate a book called Water Forest (J. 水の森; Mizu no mori). I bought this striking publication, which is entirely in Japanese, when I visited the World Heritage listed Yakushima in 2017. The sublime watercolour illustrations capture the intensity and beauty of life in the forests on the island. It is this celebratory book that I chose as the first to read in my quest to learn the language of Japan. In doing so I felt even closer to these remarkable rainforest ecosystems.
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.
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.
The extraordinary 2018 typhoon season in Japan has been playing on my mind. The frequency, size and trajectories of typhoons this year, and the level of disruption and damage, has drawn the world’s attention as well. It’s not just that I was going to be back in Japan soon after after the destructive Typhoons Jebi (Typhoon number 21) and Trami (Typhoon number 24) made landfall, with another typhoon on the way. Something is different. Two catalysts have led me to delve more deeply into typhoons as one of the elemental forces that have helped shaped Japan and her people: 1) hearing reports from my friends in Japan about living through these Super Typhoons, and 2) seeing Typhoon Trami from space. From the ‘Kamikaze’ typhoons that were crucial in the defeat of two Mongol invasions of Japan over 700 years ago, to modern interpretations of the Gods of Wind and Thunder at Narita Airport, typhoons play a critical role in the history and culture of 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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.