Friday, May 30, 2008

The Politics of Resiliency

A recent trip to the Takigoshi 滝 越 section of the village got me to thinking about "resiliency", a concept I employ in my current research.

Located about 10 kilometers to the southwest of the central part of the village near Nagano's border with neighboring Gifu prefecture, Takigoshi is the smallest of Otaki's hamlets. One gets to Takigoshi by using a small, paved road laid out in bends and arcs in order to fit in a narrow canyon between the Otaki River and a steep embankment of vegetation and crumbling rock. When a large earthquake struck the Otaki area in 1984, an enormous section of earth broke free from Ontake-san and slid down the mountain's southeastern face taking with it a section of the road leading to Takigoshi, which it deposited in the riverbed below, forming a new lake in the process. The residents of Takigoshi, one of whom had watched his own house crumble from it's previously envied perch above the hamlet, had to be airlifted by Ground Self-defense Force helicopters to nearby shelters.

Thinking about resiliency on a previous occasion, I began writing the following:

Resiliency is an idea that stems from theories of systems—economies, ecologies, societies—as operating within transient webs of causes and effects, which guide behaviors and repel change--and yet all systems inevitably change . Preventing change, enabling change, recovering from change—this is the realm of resiliency thinking.

Change, then, becomes the operative word. Merriam-Webster defines the word, “a: to make different in some particular, alter; b: to make radically different, transform; c: to give a different position, course, or direction to” ( On TV, U.S. presidential candidate Barrack Obama talks for the need for “change” in American politics, while Republicans lament a “change” away from traditional American values; in the background we hear “climate change”. So, there is change we hope for, change we fear, and change that is inevitable—at times all at once.

How then are we to think about resiliency? Do we promote it, or actively strive against it? Well, it all depends on which “we” one is talking about. Defining “we” has always been a political act, which brings me to my topic: the politics of resiliency.

Temporality plays a role, in that causes and effects operate at. . .

. . . I’ll attempt to pick up on my train of thought from here. Temporality plays a role, in that causes and effects operate at a variety of disparate temporal scales--some fast, others slow. Making matters even more complicated, systems are not independent, but rather interdependent, meaning that systems interact with one another--again at different temporal, as well as spatial, scales. This will make more sense as I discuss the particular example of Takigoshi.

In Takigoshi I interviewed I-san, who was born in Aichi prefecture, which lies to the south of Nagano, and came to Otaki about a decade ago. I-san is in his thirties and lives in Takigoshi with his wife
and young daughter. I wrote about I-san in a previous post, he runs a park/eatery called suikouen. After our interview, I-san offered to take me up into the national forest that sits above Takigoshi and extends into Gifu prefecture. We had been talking about the heavy deforestation that had taken place in the past and I had wanted to see some of the areas. The landscape that I-san showed me there in the misty hills above Takigoshi graciously articulates, in more concrete form, some of the abstractions about resiliency that I've been babbling about thus far.

From the campground that I-san manages we headed southwest up a narrow forest road leading into the mountains. In the lower part of the forest we saw fresh cut trees--thinning to allow light in and to give space to surrounding trees. Further up we saw areas that had been replanted with cypress trees after being cut completely bare; probably about 30 years ago. These reforested areas are similar across Japan: simple two storied forests, a thick crown of pine on top and a blanket of bamboo grass (a remarkably adaptive plant) on the bottom; there's little room for anything else. Most animals can't forage well in this type of forest, so they have an eerie stillness to them.

we gained a bit of elevation the scenery changed: mixed forests dominated by broadleaf varieties, bright and noisy with birdsong. A few hundred feet higher and the forest transformed once again, shrinking this time--stunted pines with patches of taller broadleaf trees and huge patches of bamboo grass. I-san suggested we stop at a small turnout. Pointing west, I-san told me we were looking into Gifu prefecture (we were essentially standing on the border). A broad valley stretched out below us, the brilliant greens of newly leaved broadleaf trees were cut in places by huge swatches of dark pine. I-san motioned towards nearby pines that stood little higher than me. These trees had probably been planted about 15 years ago, I-san guessed; he suggested the pines should be much taller, but have little protection against the cold. Ideally, I-san continued, a forest like this would begin with broadleaf varieties, pioneer species that improve soil quality with fallen leaves that provide nutrients and deep roots that create stability. The pine varieties planted by the government forestry agency tend to develop wide, shallow root systems, which are unable create stable slopes in Japan's steep mountains. Furthermore, said I-san, the forestry agency tends to see broadleaves as nuisances and usually lops them down to make room for pine varieties. What kind of pines? Hinoki--cypress, sugi--cedar, and to a lesser extent, sawara--sawara cypress. Why? These trees have the potential to produce money through their sale in the future--never mind that currently no market exists in Japan for domestic timber, as the importation of cheap timber from abroad has increased since the 1960's.

east I saw Ontake-san sitting stern and proud above the blue hills that clamber below its white throne. I-san pointed out slopes to the south that I can best describe as the results of a serious royal fuck-up by the forestry agency. They've been doing their best for some time now to get trees to grow over there, but it's just not working, said I-san. One steep slope was comprised almost entirely of exposed dirt, with a few scattered pines hanging on for dear life. On other slopes a pine tree or two or three stood awash in a sea of light green bamboo grass--I-san suggested the forest agency had probably given up those spots.

The natural ecological system operating in Takigoshi, as elsewhere, has existed for millennium. Of course things have changed--at times drastically--but the biological processes that generate and sustain the area have been in effect since long before humans arrived on the scene. Surely there were vulnerabilities and rapid changes in this system prior to humans: lightening strikes and accompanying fire, pest damage to trees, et cetera; the biological system developed partly through these processes, and thus achieved a state of resiliency.

Human presence in this area appears to stretch back at least 4,000 years. Early humans had their own uses for the forests in Takigoshi. They likely hunted, gathered wild foods, and collected wood for fuel. Thus, the non-human biological system humming along in Takigoshi also became historical, with humans adding and subtracting through actions based not only on biological factors, but also social, cultural, and political.

The transition of this once purely biological environment to a partly humanized--a socionatural landscape--continued, I would imagine, at fairly low levels. Fire was likely used to help clear forestland, either for agriculture or to promote the growth of wild plants; trees began to be felled for human use; and foreign biological species were most certainly introduced. In other words, humans began to modify the environment in ways that met their needs, addressed their vulnerabilities, and created resiliency for them. Still, the tempo of these changes remained slow; the breadth of them narrow; and the intensity of them low.

About 250 kilometers south of Takigoshi, in the 8th century, a socially and politically elite group emerged and consolidated power in the Kinai Basin, modern day Nara. As with other civilizations, monumental architecture became a central aspect of social and political life. Heavy deforestation began to radiate in concentric circles from the capital city of Heijō-kyō, and by the 16th century the Kiso Valley, where Otaki and Takigoshi are located, had begun to be utilized for it's wealth of timber; before long powerful daimyo lords had claimed the forest resources as their own. During the political stable Edo Period that lasted from the 17th to the 19th century large parts of the Kiso Valley were controlled by the Tokugawa government. During this era the influence of human social, cultural, political, and economic processes in the Kiso Valley, including Takigoshi, increased in size, scope, and pace. Resiliency was redefined largely through the lens of the Tokugawa government whose excessive felling brought about new methods directed at reforesting and protecting valuable timber resources.

With the overthrow of the Tokugawa government and the "restoration" of the Meiji Emperor in 1868 Takigoshi's socionatural system faced a succession of rapid and dramatic changes. The majority of the forests in the Kiso Valley became the personal property of Emperor Meiji and thus resilience was again redefined. The Meiji government had been brought into existence partly through the aggressive actions of the U.S. government who had sent Commodore William Perry, along with many "black ships" to gently convince Japanese elites to open their ports for trade. In response to this vulnerability (whether real or imagined) the Meiji government took on the industrialization and modernization of Japan as their task. The light from this dawning of a Japanese nation carried the new country into the 20th century where it experimented with colonization, imperialism, and warfare. These new pursuits--a search for national resiliency in an international environment--were purchased (in small part?) with the natural capital that had accumulated slowly over time in the hills above Takigoshi. One person's resiliency is another's vulnerability.

The post-war era has brought new changes to the forests of Takigoshi; efforts
at reforestation, as I noted above, have been less than successful. In areas where trees have taken root, the varieties planted have almost overwhelmingly been pine varieties selected for their potential monetary value, rather than their ecological value. A lack of broadleaf varieties has forced animal species (Japanese macaques, Japanese deer, Asiatic black bear, and Japanese serow) towards villages in search of food. The residents of Takigoshi, whom, I apologize, I've largely left out of this narrative, continue to live with the outcomes of decisions regarding the forests that surround them made by bureaucrats who define needs, vulnerabilities, and resilience based on criteria that are often rooted far from the small hamlet itself. The people of Takigoshi are not powerless to influence the environment around them in order to guarantee their own resilience; indeed they always have, it’s just that their activities have been largely concealed beneath the larger movements of Japanese history. It's the busy forest soil, often overlooked, that allows the much admired trees to stand so tall. However, the soil, like the people, is often vulnerable to the goings on in the trees above them.

I wondered about all these things as I looked out at the scraggly slopes in front of me. The political nature of resiliency means that reforesting a mountainside requires more than clearing away bamboo grass to make room for pine trees. Resiliency is increased with diversity. On a mountain slope this means promoting a variety of tree and plant species. In a mountain village this means finding ways to promote democracy by listening to the various voices that hold stake in the forests. In Takigoshi the first voices heard should be those of the dozen or so people who live their lives along the forest's edges, at the base of the mountainsides. In other words, resiliency can be increased by broadening the “we” (the stakeholders involved) that define what exactly resiliency means.

I-san suggested we get going. He wore a warm smile on his round, dark face. I agreed, so we hoped into my car and began winding our way slowly down the forest road. After dropping I-san back at the campground I worked my way through newly planted rice paddies back to the main road leading to the village center. I was soon zooming through the tunnel that passes through the remains of the landslide that cut Takigoshi off from Otaki that day the earthquake hit in 1984. I'm sure the people of Takigoshi are thankful to have a road linking them to the rest of the village. Clearing the tunnel, I gazed up at the steep wall of the canyon and the noon-day sun filtering through the forest canopy. I dreamt of a future me visiting Otaki some years later and found myself hoping that the road to Takigoshi will still be open then.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

In the Garden

Chizuko started it all. Our patch of weeds out back was no match for the garden she was imagining. So, several long hours later--time spent in the sun, pulling weeds--our house now boasts a modest garden. Luckily, Chizuko also pulled me away from my transcribing (the boring part of fieldwork) for a couple of adventures. From the banks of the river that flows through the Seto and Noguchi sections of the village we pulled stones, smoothed by silted waters tumbling from the slopes of Ontake-san. Deep in cedar forests we dug past rotting leaves and other litter to pull dark soil, wet and fragrant from recent rains, that would bring nourishment to our garden.

At home, Chizuko and I spent the afternoon clearing the last of the weeds that clung stubbornly to the rocky soil. We placed the river stones in lines to demarcate our new garden, and also to create a small flower bed. Plants and flowers that have been suffering in small plastic pots for some time seemed happy to finally stretch as Chizuko and I pulled them free and placed them in fresh soil. A tomato plant; iris we dug from the roadside; a white flowering plant whose name I forget; and a small tree we brought home from a walk in the hills, all sit now, just beyond the tatami mats that line our living room floor. In a planter nearby, the small tips of green onions stand up in rows.

Still lots of work to go. . .but we're proud of our humble project. The greatest part of the experience for me has been watching Chizuko--a woman deathly afraid of all things creepy and crawly--get her hands dirty. . .with only the occasional scream of disgust. My childhood memories of pulling weeds in the family garden have always been dear to me, so I cherish making new ones with my wife.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Gomaishura 五枚修羅

On Friday Chizuko and I used our last day of sunshine before the rains of a typhoon expected in the Tokyo area came to go back to the Akazawa National Forest, our favorite spot we've discovered so far. This time we stopped at a place on the river called gomaishura. Shura 修羅 in Japanese means, "timber chute". This particular location was used up until the early part of the 20th century for drawing out logs that had been floated down the river from forests further upstream. The unique rock formations here apparently look similar to stacks of aligned logs that were counted using the character mai 枚; there are five (go 五 in Japanese) rock layers, hence gomai 五枚. So, altogether the name becomes gomaishura 五枚修羅--five stack timber chute (or something like that).

At gomaishura the river flows--tumbles really--down a channel at the bottom of a large outcropping of granite that comprises the river bed. On some of the rock faces, one can still see old drill marks from where slabs were removed to make room for logs. Small puddles of water that lay in crevices away from the river were teaming with small black tadpoles that scattered when I approached. I had another brush with "wildlife" when a very large bee used my leg as a resting place; no sudden moves, but plenty of time to take a photo.

Laying and watching the river roar down the rocks below was a great way to while away an afternoon.

Friday evening I attended a hanseikai 反省会 (reflection meeting), presumably to reflect on the festival that our section of the village put on last week. However, like other "meetings" I've attended, it was merely a pretense for eating and drinking. The reflecting was over in about 5 minutes. . .just time enough to see that we had made enough money to cover food and booze for the night--good enough for me. Seafood from Awaji island near Kobe had been bought for the occasion and so we all got busy downing a feast of shell fish, fish, steak, and chicken. Unfortunately, I went heavy on the Korean liquor and was basically in a comma for most of the day today. But, fun as always. . .

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

"The Wifey"

Today I received a bit of constructive criticism--well, not criticism really, but an honest question--from a person whose opinion I hold in very high regard. This person. . .OK, it was my mom. . .asked why I always refer to my better half as "the wife" or "the wifey" or "the missus", a term that had misogynistic undertones where she was raised.

I don't know that I had ever felt these terms to be misogynistic. . .a bit old fashioned--at best, I thought I was being "folksy". However, I take the point and thank my mom for asking a good question.

My reason for using the terms was, as I said, not misogyny (I'm misanthropic. . .I despise equitably), but my allegiance, I guess, to some unwritten rule I seem to have in my head about not publishing names on the internet. This is likely a Japanese unwritten rule, as privacy is highly protected here.

Don't know that my reason for not using real names makes any sense, but still, not having a good answer to the above question, I've decided that a pseudonym is in order.

So, "the wifey", I hereby dub thee. . ."Chizuko". For those who know "Chizuko"--I hope this will not confuse.

Thanks Mom!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Sawataritouge 沢渡峠

Yesterday the wife and I joined an outing organized by the village hall. Along with about 20 other villagers we hiked along a trail used in the past by pilgrims on their way to Ontake from Kiso-Fukushima, which is located about 20 kilometers to the east.

We all loaded on a village bus and left the hall at about 9:00. Our first stop was at a small stone monument that sits on the side of the road near a bridge that connects Otaki with Mitake, the next village over. T-san, who's lecture I attended last week, gave some background on the monument which dated from the Meiji-Era (late 19th century). On the other side of the road, and up a small hill stood another monument, also form this era. An nearby bridge, painted a fierce orange, spanned a section of the Otaki River where a boat used to carry pilgrims from one side to the other. This was the only spot deep enough for a boat. Later, nobles from Tokyo built a bridge as a gift to Ontake, the holy mountain.

Back on the bus we turned off the main road and drove up into the mountains. Our guides pointed out more stone monuments along the road. At one point someone pointed out a home and everyone on the bus, except the wife and I, seemed to know exactly who lives there. Before long the paved road we had been traveling on gave way to a dirt road, narrow and rutted. Luckily for my wife, whose face was showing panic, we stopped before long. We began on foot along a small creek up a narrow gorge that climbed quickly up and into the hill above us. It wasn't long before we reached our next destination: hachi-ban-taki 八幡滝. Hachi-ban-taki is a dry waterfall where, as an ascetic practice, believers would meditate as the waters pounded their bodies. The waterfall itself is, at least in part, human-made. A small rock outcropping is topped by stacked rocks with a grooved section at the top to channel the water. The site also boasted a number of statues, monuments, and shinto altars, as well as a stone wall. Nearby stood a small mountain hut that had apparently been used in recent years.

After a short rest we continued up a dry creek bed, stepping from rock to rock. As we traveled along I learned from various people the names of a variety of plants and was told to sample several of them. I was amazed by the amount of knowledge the villagers had. The mountain became a buffet counter as I was instructed on how to eat a variety of wild vegetables. Some for now, others to take home and prepare later. Japanese knotweed, called itadori, was like a treat , said one man, remarking that there was no candy or sweets when he was a child. One can peel the tough outer skin of itadori, which looks like wild asparagus, and eat the soft and sour center.
We emerged onto a dirt road and continued up the mountain. On a slope to our left several members of our group noticed four flowers growing that brought vocalized expressions of marvel. Apparently the flower, called yama-shakuyaku 山芍薬 in Japanese, is quite rare. Judging by it's scientific name, paeonia japonica, the flower is a Japanese variety of paeony. The flower is wonderfully delicate looking and appears to float upon the flat green leaves that protrude beneath it's petals.

A stretch on the mountain road brought us to another small pathway leading through the trees towards the top of the mountain that we'd been climbing thus far. The vegetation here was low and thick; this section appears to have been cut sometime in the post-war era--perhaps the 1960's and so there were few taller trees. Within an hour we had reached our main destination for the day: sawataritouge 沢渡峠. The area is located in a small clearing at the top of the mountain. Prior to our departure we had each received a sheet of paper containing historical photos of the places we were to visit. As depicted in the photo we received, which was dated 1921, the area where we stood had once been used as a resting spot for pilgrims. The location once afforded a fantastic panorama of Ontake, but broadleaf trees now block most of the view. In the past, framing the view of Ontake, was a large torii gate, like that found at the entrance of most Shinto shrines in Japan; now all that remains are the stone "feet" that the wooden gate once stood on. On either side of the gate stood stone lanterns, which some Otaki residents unearthed last year and put back together as best they could. To one side of the gate also stood a station for washing hands, and next to that a small mountain hut. On a hillside below the location where the mountain hut stood, there is a large scatter of beer and other beverage bottles, bowls, and other bits of "trash". At the urging of some of our companions, we picked out some of the bottles to take home with us.

After eating our lunches and taking time to chat, share treats, and dig for treasures we began our decent. We made our way down the opposite side of the mountain, away from Mitake and towards Otaki. The forest we descended through was much more mature, broadleaf forest comprised of beech, chestnut, sawara cypress, and other varieties. Again we were treated by our guides to a wealth of lessons in natural and human history. S-san, whom I had not met before that day, pointed out two different sumi-gama 炭窯, which are earthen ovens where logs were burned for days to create charcoal.

I was amused and amazed by the love and joy that my companions showed for the natural world. Trees that exhibited some unusual form, or that were particularly old, were greeted with awe and respect--often accompanied by smiles and touching, as if they were old friends. The women in the group used small digging tools to collect plant specimens they planned to carry home and place in their gardens.

M-san, who was our driver for the day, met us on our descent. He had moved the car to our finishing point and started up the mountain from the opposite side. When we met him on the trail he informed us that lower down he had encountered a bear. The group seemed as excited as they were concerned about the news; several of the men joked that there were enough of us to take on the beast. As we continued down the mountain we found signs of the bears passing, trees stripped of their bark--hunting for grubs perhaps. In addition, we found pools of mud where wild boars had been wallowing.

The forest changed forms as we moved through it. Lower down on the mountain the trees became more and more uniform--probably locations once used for harvesting firewood. On our way out of the forest we passed a small house where an elderly woman was cutting weeds. We informed that a bear had been spotted and she asked where exactly. This woman, as well as the older women who had accompanied me on the 7 kilometer trek we had just finished, dominated my thoughts; I was in amazement at the vitality and strength they exhibited.

Back at the village hall, our guides offered some closing words. One man said that the village is hoping to develop these historical trails so that other people can enjoy them. T-san closed with an urging that we all take time to remember the people that made their life using these pathways and consider the conveniences we now enjoy, especially our cars.

Thank you Ontake.

Friday, May 16, 2008

新緑 "New Green"

The hills around Otaki are fully green now. One can easily distinguish squared patches of planted pine trees among the more brilliant greens of the broadleaf varieties. The snows-lines on the Southern Alps and on Ontake-san creep ever higher, as if enticing me to see what lies in wait.

The few paddies in Otaki are now being prepared and planted. The rich, muddy waters, having been thoroughly stirred with the stern whisks of tractor rotors, sit in contemplation, reflecting the azure of the sky and the slow crawl of the nimbus clouds. Playful shoots of rice, unsteady as fawns, wiggle in the breezes that flow down off Ontake-san's smooth slopes.

Earlier in the week, I attended a lecture by an older resident who is a history buff and has, over the years, amassed a vast knowledge of Otaki's past, as well as a trove of artifacts. During the lecture I attended T-san talked about the history of Ontake-san as a religious mountain. Ontake-san was first "opened" as a religious mountain (meaning a deity was identified and named) in the late 18th century by a monk named Fukan 普寛. From this time on Ontake-san has been revered as a reihou 霊峰--sacred mountain--with pilgrims, who dress in white, coming each year to visit the mountains many shrines or to stand beneath frigid waterfalls as meditation. T-san had brought with him wonderful artifacts that revealed part of Ontake-san's sacred history: notebooks containing orders for stone tablets to be erected; logbooks signed by devotees; and woodblocks depicting the gods that dwell in the mighty mountain itself.

This week also brought my first interview. It went well enough, but I think I should revise some of my questions. Also, I've only been able to get through transcribing about 10 minutes of the 50 minute interview!!!

My next interview will likely be with a gentlemen whom I met during the drinking party after the festival last weekend. He invited me to his house to introduce the work of friend, an ecologist who works in Kyoto. Both the friend and the man who invited me--Tan-San-- seem like very fascinating individuals and I look forward to being able to talk with them both. I met with Tan-san in his home, an old two story farmhouse. His entryway was as large as my living room and led into two tatami rooms divided by rice-paper screens. A set of screens at the back of the room opened up to a wonderful garden with a pond. I was very impressed. . .I've always wanted to live in an old wooden house.

OK, it's getting late, so I'd better say goodnight.

Goodnight Ontake-san!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Last Sunday a festival was held in Kami-jo, the section of Otaki where I live. For those involved festivities began the day before with a drinking party after we had made preparations.

Many events in Otaki are followed, inevitably, by drink and food. I met with the mayor of the village when I first moved here, and he asked, "do you like alcohol?" My answer came back in the affirmative, and he remarked, "ah, then you'll be OK here."

On Sunday festivities began at 11:00. Various food both lined the street in front of the Kami-jo community center. There was barbecued fish on skewers, steak, stew, fried squid, doughy balls with bits of octopus in the center, fried noodles, a ring toss for the kids, and of course beer. It was a miniaturized version of festivals that occur all over Japan. The difference being that most food stalls at bigger festivals are run by yakuza--Japanese mobsters. I like the local community version better.

The wife and I both volunteered to work at the fried noodles booth, called yaki-soba 焼きそば in Japanese. I've made yaki-soba at home, but this was a bit different. I was thinking "no problem" as O-san talked me through the process, but when I took a break for beer, I found my hands shaky and hard to control.

Beer. . .the cups kept coming as we continued to cook. Bits of food followed soon--samplings from the other food booths--all delicious.

We wrapped up the food at about 1:30 PM and had time for a nap before the festival moved to the local shrine for a prayer ceremony. Two priests in traditional garb led the prayers and local leaders, including the mayor, made their introductions to the god of the shrine and presented sakaki branches.

After the doors of the shrine's kamidana 神棚 (altar, or literally: shelf of gods) were closed, those who had participated in the prayers moved to the edge of the shrine area and threw rice cakes (mochi) to the crowd.

Back down the hill and to the community center. . .the drinking party was next. Our first toast was made with omiki お神酒--sacred sake blessed at the shrine. Soon we were on to beer. . .and, of course, plenty of food. I was given an opportunity to introduce myself, and took a chance to sing a song on the karaoke machine (this was much later in the evening).

the night ended after a "2nd party" at the house of the section chief--more beer. . .and more food.

Going back to the section chief's house tomorrow. . .for my first interview.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Festival Preparations

Rain today in Otaki. . .the temperature has dropped as well. Hard to believe it's May.

Returned yesterday from Kyoto and found the hills around Otaki dressed in a new robe of green. On the upper slopes there are still mountain cherry trees--yama-zakura (山桜)--in full bloom.

Today the wife and I went to the community center in our section of the village--kami-jo (上条)--to help with preparations for a festival that will be held tomorrow. I assisted in setting up tents, tables, barbecues, chairs, and such, while the missus worked with other women from the village to cut vegetables for making fried noodles.

There were about 30 people there today to help with preparations. The villagers do everything themselves, from cooking to making price signs complete with pictures. I continue to be impressed by these cooperative efforts and with the closeness I see between the villagers. Many have been doing such things together since they were young, so the relationships feel almost family-like.

As on previous occasions, the work was short and it wasn't long before food and ample amounts of alcohol came out. The alcohol brought with it red faces, stories and laughs. Everyone was watching closely to when I would scribble notes, and soon it was almost a competition to see who could tell something interesting enough that I would jot it down. The truth is, I was purposefully delaying what I wrote so as not to bring attention to any one topic in particular. Most people would probably be surprised by what I write anyway; it's difficult for anyone to understand why another person might want to study things that seem so mundane in their own daily life.

Anyway, here's hoping for clear skies to bless tomorrow's festival. . .Ontake-san, YOROSHIKU!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Back to the Mountains

Tonight is my last night in Kyoto for this go around. My time here has been pleasant, but I've been anxious to get back to my fieldwork, so I've been on edge. Perhaps it's more that I'm itching to get back to the hills. I've already begun to fall in love with Otaki. Here in Kyoto I miss the bird's songs in the mornings and the deep blue of the sky as it rides on the blue mountain ridges.

This weekend there is a festival being held in our section of Otaki. There will be lots of food, followed by lots of drink--as is the way of festivals in Japan. I'm just excited to have a chance to meet more people. I need to get started on interviews. . .hard to do in Kyoto.

See you soon Ontake-san!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Back in Kyoto

Been back in Kyoto for the last few days--taking care of business, signing for money, and taking a break (perhaps more of the latter than anything else).

Went into the city today with my wife for lunch: excellent, cheap Indian food at Kerala just north of Sanjo-dori on Kawarachi. After that we decided to visit Nazenji, the temple we were married at.

Didn't go to the main temple this time however, but rather a smaller garden-villa called Tenjuan 天授庵. The grounds consist of a dry rock garden and a wonderful pond. We had visited here earlier when we first started dating and had loved it, but hadn't been back since.

We were happy to have a chance to see the place again. . .beautiful garden.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Akazawa 赤沢

I’m in Kyoto now. It’s still the “golden” week and so everyone’s out for BBQs, sightseeing, and what not. I also have to check in at the university and sign for some money. . .well stipend. . .David St. Hubbins of Spinal Tap once explained that: “a stipend is like money; only it’s such a small amount that they call it a stipend”—I concur.

Anyway, don’t wanna bore with details of that sort. Rather, I wanted to write a bit about a little fieldtrip Aki and I took a few days ago. We visited the 赤沢自然休養 (aka-zawa-shizen-kyuuyou-rin) in Agematsu; one town over from Otaki. 赤沢自然休養林 is translated as “Akasawa Natural Recreational Forest” on the official pamphlet—but you also see a lot of references to fo-resuto serapi- (forest therapy). Not totally sure why one forest is more capable of therapy than another, but. . .

Driving from Otaki we turned to the south from Mitake and headed along the Otaki river until we reached Agematsu. From there we turned back west towards the mountains, following a small river littered with large granite boulders. A few terraced fields, cradled within walls of rounded river rocks, gave way to steep rock cliffs and stands of hinoki (cypress) and karamatsu (larch).

The road continued into forest, absent of much apparent human intervention compared to other areas in Japan. By this I mean river channeling, terracing, homes, etc. The trees in the area, however, I would imagine, were planted in the post-war area; though some areas may have more history than that.

Rounding a bend we saw a section of river channeled naturally by large slabs of granite—too beautiful not to stop. I parked the car and we descended from the road for a brief look—we both giggled as we took in the scene around us. Mountain water, clear as gin, ran over granite sculpted in abstract waves, troughs, and abatements. The river tumbled in places down the steeper slopes, but also took time to pool and eddy, allowing Aki and I to spot fish. I placed my hand in the cool water and waved it upstream to feel the tension of the current. As they often do when I kneel at a river, the words of Barry Lopez popped into my mind—his ponderings on the mathematical impossibilities of charting the course of flowing water.

Back in the car and another few kilometers of winding road brought us to the 赤沢自然休養林. A guard shack met us at the entrance to the forest; 600 yen to park . . . we asked if we could just use the restroom. On our way out we requested pamphlets so that we could come again as soon as I could figured out where to park for free. The forest’s main “attraction” is a forest railroad that visitors can ride—one of many 林道, or “forest railroads” that used to carry timber instead of tourists.

After exiting the forest we drove back down the road and stopped at a shrine that we had noticed on our way up. The shrine is called hime-buchi 姫渕 and is dedicated to the soul of a princess who fled to the local town some 800 years ago after her family lost power in Kyoto. The local villagers did not protect the princess when soldiers came looking for her, so she fled to the area where the shrine stands and killed herself. We crossed a small wooden bridge hung over the river and turned to the right under a torii gate. A small mountain path continued about a quarter of a kilometer leading to a small shrine. Another torii stood before a covered stage area made of wood. Behind was the main shrine that held a small alter with a mirror. Aki and I bowed and prayed—I gave thanks for the day and all that was around.

Aki and I returned to where we had stopped before, having both secretly promised we would . . . promised to each other? the river? the rocks? Descending back to the river’s edge we took a seat on the rocks next to the clear, green-hued water that continued to slip over the stone riverbed like a set of silk sheets. We ate cookies and chips, and drank coffee we had prepared at home and brought with us. I pulled out my Wild Birds of Japan book and began searching for birds I had seen in the past few days.

The sun began to climb into the trees, sending a warm arc of sunlight onto the canyon slope opposite Aki and I, and a cool breeze began to flow down mountain. We packed up our things, and also grabbed some mementos of rocks and tree branches.