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.
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 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.
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.
Ninja are immediately recognisable in the west, their imagery and behaviour in most cases only loosely based on the original Japanese qualities. Movies, TV series, comics, video games and a whole world of merchandise demonstrates the continued interest in these mysterious action heroes. Not surprisingly my interest in the ninja is their connection to the elements. That gave me a reason to see the 2017 Lego movie ‘Ninjago‘, ostensibly a movie for children, where the elements are featured. My interest has also lead to reading translations of the original ninja manuals and sourcing other information from Japan. Comparing the different representations of the ninja (west and east, modern and traditional), the ninjutsu they practice, and their relation to the elements has been intriguing – and complicated. These are my impressions so far.
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).
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.