Feng shui, the Chinese art of promoting the felicitous flow of chi or “positive energies” through buildings, gardens, even the rooms of our homes has, of late, attracted considerable interest all over the world. Books on do-it-yourself feng shui are current bestsellers. Experts in this hoary art of Taoist sages have been consulted when designing everything from baby nurseries to massive skyscrapers, from Kuala Lumpur to Manhattan. Perhaps the next form of Asian geomancy to capture the attention of the West might be a Japanese version called inyogyo.

Probably not, however. Not according to Minoru Suzuki. “Are you crazy?” he said. “Not even any Japanese today care about inyogyo.” That’s not entirely true. Experts like Suzuki, a retired carpenter in Kiso-Fukushima are knowledgeable in its rituals and details. But like predicting weather by the behaviour of animals or dowsing with hickory rods to find underground water in America’s Appalachia, the ancient Japanese beliefs of inyogyo appear positively quaint in a modern context. Literally, inyogyo means the gyo–“teachings” or “accumulated wisdom”–of yin and yang, which in Japanese are in and yo. The basic notion is that complementary forces ebb and surge through the natural world. Arrange your life in harmony with their currents and you’ll be prosperous, safe, your children achieving far above average. Ignore or defy them and you’re in flirting with a disruption in the natural tides of the universe. Or at least, as Suzuki explains, some really nasty upper respiratory tract infections.

The importance of the dual elements of yin and yang suggest accurately the Taoist contributions to the art, imported to Japan from the continent. The ancient capitol city of Nara was laid out in a neat grid precisely according to the dictates of feng shui, planned with the advice of visiting Chinese experts who doubtless influenced inyogyo. Inyogyo teachings, though, have evolved over the centuries to be a unique part of Japanese folk culture. And unlike feng shui, the presence of inyogyo in traditional and modern Japanese life is usually subtle, invisible unless you know what to look for.

Wonder, for instance, about those coloured tassels hanging from the eaves of the big roof that’s suspended over the sumo ring? No, you haven’t. You’d probably never notice them, in fact, in all the panoply of a professional sumo tournament. But from each corner of the eaves are thick brocade tassels representing energy forms of the cardinal directions. The one facing north is black, a symbol of the turtle god. To the south, is red, the colour of a sparrow spirit. The west tassel, symbolizing a tiger deity, is white, and that of the dragon god, facing east, is green. Their positioning is in accordance with the dictates of inyogyo, channeling good energy all around the ring.

The Japanese science of inyogyo may have inherited the mystical elements of Taoist divination from China. But a homegrown Japanese practicality unmistakably marks the art. For instance, suppose you were a Japanese real estate broker four centuries ago, with a client of the samurai caste. As Suzuki explains it, the samurai’s going to be looking for a little more in a house than its proximity to a good school or lots of closet space. “Flat fields in front, facing south. Behind, at the north, mountains or hills. A road to the west, running water to the east.” Why? Suzuki is cadgy about explaining the western road and water to the east. We’ve just met and the secrets of inyogo are not casually revealed, even today. But he explained that the north and south arrangement met the esoteric requirements of inyogyo–simultaneously it offered maximum security and comfort. Mountains to the rear were a natural barrier against a surprise attack. Since most mountain ranges in Japan run northeast to southwest, this layout also insures protection from the Siberian winds that roar across Japan from the opposite direction. Fields in front meant the crops growing there would get the maximum amount of strong southern sunlight. They would slow any charges from that direction from an enemy having to work its way through the muddy muck of a paddy. (The Imperial Palace in Tokyo contains the original, 16th century Edo Castle, constructed exactly according to this scheme.)

Inyogyo was most often employed, as it still is in rural parts of Japan, in selecting a home site and erecting the building on it. Mr. Shimizu, a retired carpenter, descended from a family of inyogyo experts from the Kiso valley. As he explained it, the particulars of placing a house to take advantage of inyogyo’s positive influences are complicated. Sketching on a scrap of paper in his workshop, he laid out a compass rose. The axis running northeast-southwest marks a “demon gate,” he showed me. (That’s why, Suzuki insisted, you will virtually never see a household Shinto or Buddhist shrine shelf on a home’s southwest corner.) A toilet or a storage space built along this line brings calamity, as will putting a kitchen to the north, since that it’s that direction from which danger is most apt to enter a house. On the other hand, put a kitchen or the bath to the west, the “pleasure gate,” and prosperity and health are encouraged. Entrances and stairs to the northwest, the “heaven gate,” are equally auspicious, while a northern extension to an existing house courts misfortune.

That last admonition Suzuki had given to some neighbours a few years back, he recalled, but ignored. Given the shape of their property, the Wajimas had no choice but to build on in that direction. “Next winter, the whole family had colds all the time,” he said. They finally appealed to Suzuki when Grandmother Wajima was hospitalized with pneumonia. Fortunately, inyogyo, ever practical, has a system of “overrides” employed. Suzuki instructed them to install a small pond behind the extension. The shape and depth of the pond counteracted the evil influences. So the Wajimas, I asked, have been fine ever since the pond was built? No more colds, Suzuki insisted, but…

Well, it seems one of the Wajima boys who’d been away going to college in the US had returned home for a visit. It had been his habit to dash out after dinner to visit a girlfriend whose family lived–to the north. “He ran out in the dark the first night he was home and nobody’d told him about the new pond. Fell right in.” Suzuki smiled. “There are some things even inyogyo can’t control,” he said.

Copyright ┬ęDave Lowry. All rights reserved.

This article first appeared in JAL: Winds.