Monday, November 26, 2007

Spirit and forests

A second opportunity to volunteer in a local forest here in Nagaokakyo has spurred thoughts of spirit in relation to the ways that humans connect to forests, mountains, and other landscapes.

My wife accompanied me to this volunteer course that took place on Saturday, November 24th. The course was held this time in the neighboring municipality of Oyamazaki 大山崎. The morning was spent sitting at a community center listening to various officials (who may have outnumbered the volunteers) speak of forests, economics, and management plans. The language was predictable: talk of watershed management, inactive landholders, and large amounts of funding from a national beverage company with a beer and whiskey factory in Oyamazaki.

The speakers maintained an air of authority as they spoke scientifically and bureaucratically about forest management. The volunteers were left to listen and shuffle through a small mountain of paper. By lunchtime all of us were itching to get outside--not so much to be in the forest (as was the supposed goal of the day)--but just out of sure boredom.

After lunch we did finally begin our small trek up to the bamboo forests at the top of what is known as Tennozan (天王山)mountain. At the foot of the mountain was a shrine whose bright orange paint managed to pierce through the blazing red of the Japanese maples. Bamboo stands also resided near the shrine and we visited a makeshift studio used by local volunteers (exclusively middle-aged men) to make various trinkets using the trees they have harvested--and also, presumably, to escape their wives and children for an afternoon.

About halfway up the mountain the bamboo forest gave way, quite starkly, to stands of akamatsu 赤松 (red pine). A few more vertical meters, followed by a sharp turn to the south, brought us back into the bamboo forest. Stands on one side off the small mountain path were clean and spaced so that someone walking with an opened umbrella could make their way through, while those on the other were crowded and strewn with deadfall. I saw several trees marked with a Japanese sa サ, which I latter learned stood for sa-n-to-ri (Suntory), the local beer brewery.

After about a half an hour's walk we gathered within the bamboo to listen to instructions from an experienced forester. The forester was an 82 year old gentleman who had lived his entire life in a house near the base of the mountain. He talked to us about the history of the forest, how bamboo had not even existed in the location until after the war, and stressed the need for thinning. As he began to discuss felling techniques, I looked around and saw the markings of wild boar that had been digging for takenoko 竹の子 (bamboo shoots)--a local delicacy for boars and humans alike. The old forester exhibited how to fell a bamboo tree, and how to use ropes in order to release it from the grasp of neighboring branches and gently slip it to the ground.

Next, each of the volunteers had a chance to fell a couple of trees. After each tree fell we stripped its branches and cut it into 2-3 meter lengths, which we stacked on existing piles. Having volunteered two weeks in a row now, I can tell you that it is great fun to fell trees. After our destructive tendencies were satiated we made our way back down the mountain, cleaned saws, and said our goodbyes.

So, how did this experience get me thinking about spirit? Partly these thoughts came as I pondered what it is I want to accomplish with my research in Otaki. However, more concretely, it came as I compared this experience to one I had in Hawai`i just before I left for Japan.

In September the Anthropology Graduate Student Association at the University of Hawai`i put together a field-trip to a farm on the Waianae coast of Oahu. The farm is called Ka`ala and it is an ongoing project to create a community center where people have a chance to reconnect with the local land through the cultivation of taro, the staple of the Hawaiian diet in the past. My description of Ka`ala intentionally simple, because I don't know that I can convey all that the place really is. The following is a link to photos of the field-trip taken by a friend that will give a sense of the place:

Though the structure of these two experiences, at Tennozan and at Ka`ala, we're similar, the content and the results were quite different. Structurally, both started with descriptions of the activity to be undertaken, and its meaning in the broader community (whether local, regional, national, or international), followed by the activity itself. However, while at Tennozan this description was rooted almost exclusively in scientific, technical, and economic terms, at Ka`ala it was based first in spiritual terms--though also included speech related to science, technical, and economic terms (though not in the sense we might usually think).

Another way to describe the difference between these two sites is to look at the focus of the activity. At Tennozan the volunteer activity was viewed as part of a larger socio-political system of which forest management was a small part, whereas at Ka`ala the activity of the volunteer itself was the focus--with the individual's connection with the land contextualized within the broader society. In other words, the focus at Ka`ala was on the individual spirit and the deep interconnection it has to the spirit of the land. The experience in Hawai`i, for example, began with the volunteers learning a chant that we would repeat at the farm site to request that the land permit us entry and to open ourselves to the teachings held there for us.

As a result, I came away from Tennozan feeling happy about what I had learned, but quite unimpressed with the meaning of the activity within the larger social and natural environment. It seems to me that, in essence, local governments are hoping to capitalize on volunteer labor to supplement managment activities in the face of dwindling government funding and absentee landowners. On the other hand, after Ka`ala I had a deep sense of my connection to the other people I had worked with, to the land I had worked on (and in), to the Hawaiian islands, and indeed to the entire cosmos. This was the frame within which Uncle Butch, our guide at Ka`ala, had painted the meaning of the work.

Ecological anthropologists, and others who investigate human-environment relations, have thought about these relations in myriad ways: social, economic, political, et cetera. However, what first brought me to studies in ecological anthropology was my desire to better understand my own spiritual connections to the Earth, to seek out such connections elsewhere, and to posit ways to cultivate these connections. It was for this reason that I enrolled at the University of Hawai`i to work with my current committee chair, and though my research has taken me along somewhat divergent paths, the essence of this research is still the pursuit of these spiritual connections.

My experience at Tennozan, with a local government effort to recruit volunteers within a culture where people have largely forgotten their connection to the forest, has revealed again that the spirit is of great importance in our relations with the Earth. Indeed spirit is the key to our continuance as a species on the Earth. The world today is full of distractions, and it is easy to forget that every breath we take connects us inseparably from the Earth. Yet each breath is the essence of spirit--each breath is the wealth of the world--each breath is the future. A breath is a breath. It is crucial to keep spirit at the center of our efforts to understand, protect, and be nourished by the Earth. Spirit keeps us connected. Otherwise it's just volunteering. . .which I don't think is sustainable.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Forestry and fall leaves

This last weekend I was able to get out to see some parts of Kyoto I hadn't seen before.

On the 17th I joined a volunteer course on forestry offered by Nagaokakyo City where I live. The course took place at a place called 西山 Nishiyama on land that belongs to a nearby temple (Youkokuji 楊谷寺).

In the morning we learned about thinning techniques, known as kanbatsu 間伐. This includes felling trees to create space for nearby trees to grow and to open the canopy so that more sunlight can come through. We did the cutting with little hand saws, which was quite tiring, but they don't let the rookies have chainsaws.

I felled two trees myself, which was quite satisfying I must say. We cut the trees into sections about 3 meters long and laid them perpendicular to the hillside so that the forest could "take them back"--a glossy phrase that conceals the fact that there is no market for wood in Japan (hence volunteers are used to "manage" forests).

The second half of the day was spent inside one of the halls of the local temple where we listened to lectures about the local forests, forestry, and volunteer programs. In the end the purpose of the courses seemed to be to raise awareness about volunteering for forestry activities. Again, this reflects larger trends in Japan of forest abandonment.  In Otaki-mura, where the majority of my fieldwork will take place, the number of government-employed foresters has shrunk from about 500 to 10 over the last forty years. Ecologically, it's hard to say if "hands off" approaches to forest management are beneficial or not, however it's apparent that such approaches can have negative impacts on human communities, particularly mountain communities located in proximity to forests.

Unfortunately, this perspective is not what is championed by government officials in charge of forest management. Instead, what one hears--indeed what I heard during this course--are appeals to broader concerns about clean water, prevention of natural disasters, and combating global warming. While none of these benefits is entirely absent when speaking of Japanese forests, however the belie the particular histories of local forests and the communities that have utilized and lived alongside them for many years. In other words, they link ideals of cleanliness, protection, and beauty directly with notions of "natural" forests, so that the presence of forests becomes the only factor influencing these ideals. Concealed in this rhetoric are broader elements that impact negatively on the natural world, for example: water pollution and the paving of Japan's rivers with concrete; Japan's contribution to global warming through voracious consumption of foreign forest resources; and the decline of village communities in rural Japan.

Anyway, volunteering was fun, and I will be going to work in the forest again this weekend. However, I hope that those in positions of power in Japan can begin to think beyond volunteerism for managing Japan's forests in the future.

My wife's friend was here for the weekend and so we took some time on Sunday to visit a temple to see the fall colors. We visited Tofukuji temple in the south of Kyoto. It's a Rinzai Zen temple that has origins in the Heian Period (700 a.d.). However, like most temples in Japan, the buildings that stand now date from the Meiji Period (late 19th century).

The temple is famous for it's momiji 紅葉 (Japanese maple); in particular, there is one valley that runs up the temple's grounds that is filled with momiji trees which were ablaze on the day we went. I was really impressed, but, as is it always is this time of year, the temple was packed with people, so much so that you have to walk in a line with the other sightseers. Also, have to beware of the mean old women (they stalked us because we were taking too long to take a picture)--scariest people in Japan.

Next weekend should be even better for kouyou 紅葉 (fall leaves), so hopefully I'll have some more to report then.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Cold nights

Not really too much to write about this evening. But, I have a couple of things to comment on.

Yesterday I presented a summary of my research to the grad seminar that I have been attending here in Japan at Kyoto University. The presentation went alright (thanks to gracious editing by my wife), questions, however, were another matter. I struggled my way through answers, but find it very frustrating to not be able to express myself. From experience with others speaking English as a foreign language, I know that it's hard to judge someone's ideas through the vocabulary of a pre-school student--so I'm annoyed at having to be the "little kid". Anyway, it's over now.

An interesting thing the other night. Two gentlemen came to my door, one was a neighbor and the other a construction company representative, to explain that they were going to be beginning a remodel on the house directly behind us. They passed me a schedule of the renovation that also explained potential disturbances. Along with this I received a small gift from each. Another of those glaring examples of differences between Japan and my country of birth (well, country of my upbringing). I would be hard pressed to find any American that would take the time to inform their neighbors of construction that was going to be taking place in their house. And if any neighbors complained about construction, I would expect the attitude to be something like, for lack of better phrasing, "fuck off". If it's on your property, hell with rest of them. I'm not saying that either of these approaches is better than the other--sometimes the Japanese way can be nice, but there are times when I wish I could just say "fuck off". Of course, in Japanese you would probably have to say something like, "please allow me to humbly say fuck off."

Let's see. . .well, bit of a disappointment. I had gotten my sister-in-law's wee scooter up and roaring again, and was all excited to wheel myself across town to the university, but realized there's no insurance on the thing. . .so my hopes were dashed. I'm just trying to live-out the fantasy I had when I was about 18 and wanted to buy a Lambretta (spelling is probably all wrong there) scooter, but mum wouldn't let me. Hmmmmm. . .another day perhaps.

Well, I suppose that's all for this dispatch from Japan. The leaves are beginning to change here in Kyoto--really the best season.

Cold nights.
Hot tea.
swirls of steam
testing the cool air,
then running away.

Kotatsu table,
a draped blanket
keeps warm of attached stove
wrapped around my legs.

Crawl into bed,
wife's feet slide over
plant themselves on my legs
send chills climbing up my spine.
I pull her close
and her breath warms my face.
"Give me kiss."

good night.

cold night.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


Last weekend I was able to make a trip to Nagano for an Autumn Festival in Otaki village, where I am planning to do fieldwork. I was really impressed by the beauty of the village. It's located in the southern part of Nagano in a valley known as Kiso. The Kiso valley itself has been famous for its forests for hundreds of years in Japan--the Tokugawa government controlled it strictly in the Edo Period (1600-1868)--and this continues today with the majority of Otaki village under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries as national forest.

According to the village head, this situation doesn't bode well, either ecologically or socially, for the village itself. Part of the problem is that in 2005 most villages in Japan were amalgamated into larger, administratively simpler, municipalities. However, because of a ski hill that had been built some years earlier, Otaki's yearly revenue wasn't low enough to be considered for amalgamation by the national government. Therefore, the village has essentially been left to its own devices to generate tax revenue and provide services for its citizens. This is difficult, as the town has NO access to about 80% of the surrounding land because it is designated as national forest.

Fortunately, the village head recognizes that Otaki does possess a wealth of social and natural resources and provides a legitimate function for the nation by maintaining its surrounding environment. The struggle, according to him, is finding a way to get the rest of the nation to understand this. In line with this thinking, he is attempting to establish relationships with businesses and communities located on the Nobi Plain (Nagoya City and Toyota's main offices are here), which depends on water that flows from the Kiso Valley. It seems to me this could be a dangerous line to walk--a Faustian pact in the making--however, there are few options for Otaki.

Otaki's population is a little over 1,000, with about a third of residents over the age of 65. There is no high school in the village and the combined elementary and junior high school has only about 50 students. From what I could see in the couple of days I spent there, most of the residents still participate in agricultural and forestry activities to some extent; though most probably make their living through some form of employment. Radishes are the major agricultural crop, which the residents prepare in various ways, including pickling. Many homes had piles of firewood next to them and I heard from residents that many people use wood burning stoves to get through the winters, which sound as if they are extremely cold.

Everyone I met in the village was really nice. All of the residents seemed to care deeply about the village, but seemed worried about the future--I gained a sense of desperation. Otaki is located at the bottom of a sacred mountain called Ontake; one of Japan's tallest. From what I experienced, the residents of Otaki still revere the mountain and I was surprised by the amount of people (including pilgrims) I saw when I visited the mountain's shrine located in the village.

I really hope that my research will be of some value to Otaki and its residents as they seek to find pathways into the future. The village is truly beautiful and the people are really warm. It is important that the people and government of Japan begin to recognize the value of these communities as part of the national landscape. Indeed, this is an issue that is prevalent across the globe in the late modern age.

Here's to the past;
and to bright futures.