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.
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.
In search of gojunoto, the five element Japanese pagoda
The Japanese five-storied pagoda (gojunoto) is a remarkable piece of Buddhist architecture that represents the five elements of earth, water, fire, wind and space/void. It has played a significant role in Japanese culture for over 1400 years and continues to do so. Built to enshrine Buddhist relics and as a focus of devotion, the towering form of the gojunoto captures and captivates the imagination. Their layered wooden grooves ascending in stages towards the sky evoke a spiritual connection. The metal spire at the top completes the structure and symbolism. The sophisticated wooden architecture of the pagoda provides resistance to the elemental forces of earthquakes and strong winds, a design that has informed modern multi-story architecture. With it’s origin in India, and influences from Chinese architecture, the Japanese pagoda has developed into a distinctive form. My search for gojunoto and the way they are represented has opened up a new and exciting dimension of Elemental 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.
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.
The power of the five elements
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.
Being careful of fire, Kyoto style
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. While many refer to Kyoto as the ‘City of Water’, in my minds eye it is the ‘City of Fire’.
Of Kukai and mountains
Japan is a land of mountains, the most iconic, recognised and depicted being Mt Fuji. Formed from volcanoes and tectonic activity, the mountains are clothed in forest. They influence the weather and form catchments that provide water for life on the plains. Plains where most Japanese live and rice, the basis of the traditional diet, is grown. Earth, fire, water, wind, wood – the mountains are a significant feature of elemental Japan. It is no wonder that they are considered sacred and are a focus of spiritual activity.