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.
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.
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.
Daikan, the coldest time of the year
January 20th is one of the significant days recorded on my 2019 Japanese eco-calendar. It is described as the ‘Coldest time of the year’, known as Daikan (Great cold). This period covers January 20th to February 3rd and is the final of the 24 major divisions (sekki) of the traditional Japanese calendar. In Kyoto it was raining on the first day of Daikan in 2019 and the temperature reached 11 degrees celsius. Elsewhere in Japan the conditions would differ considerably, as I discovered in the winter of 2018 when I travelled from Okinawa in the south-west to Hokkaido in the north-east (see here). Wherever one finds oneself, paying attention to these finer changes in the seasons and natural world brings us closer to the elements around us. At an even finer level the 24 divisions can be split into 72 ko that last around five days each. As an example, the first five days of Daikan are called ‘Fuki no hana saku‘ (Butterburs bud). This attention to detail to the environment has many merits.
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.
Typhoons on my mind, the extraordinary 2018 season in Japan
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.
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.