Monday, September 29, 2008

Japan and the art of sports festivals

For those living in Japan, you know it's that time of year--sports days abound.

For those not familiar with this Japanese custom, allow me a brief explanation. Sports festivals are held by most schools at all levels in Japan. Some municipalities, Otaki included, also do general sports festivals that everyone can participate in. The festivals consist of a variety of events: races, tug-of-wars, relays, etc. that are all done in good fun--though you do get serious competitors at times. Prizes are also usually awarded. Oh, and there are almost always strings of international flags hanging above the ground (I've always thought it would be interesting to research the origins of and cultural beliefs surrounding this custom).

From what residents have told me, Otaki used to have HUGE sports festivals that everyone participated actively in. The festival would take weeks to prepare and allowed residents the opportunity to get together, have some food, and drink. These days, however, Otaki lacks the financial (and human?) resources to make such a big production out of their sports festivals.

Still, this month I attended and participated in two festivals: the village festival and the pre-school festival. However, my camera has died on me so I have only cell phone photos of the village festival and a link to a friend's blog for the pre-school festival (here).

As the photos attest, costume races and face-diving for candy in pans of flour are legitimate sports in Japan. Or at least in Otaki.

Good times.

Good night Ontake.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Finding a balance of being

A post called "Shareland" on KenElwood, a blog that I follow regularly, touched on a theme that I've been thinking a lot about lately--the balance between nature and society--or, a bit less abstractly: the balance within each individual between being in nature and being in society.

KenElwood made a good point about extremes: being too much in nature and being too much in society. This is a fascinating dichotomy to explore--though I wonder if, ultimately, it's not a false dichotomy; I think KenElwood is leaning towards this view as well (though I don't presume to speak for him).

Perhaps "false dichotomy" is the wrong phrasing, because I think the dichotomy is real. However, I'm inclined to say that the dichotomy is a recent creation; one that stems from the development of the capitalist socio-economic system. Those who have talked about the extreme of being in society have referred almost exclusively to capitalist society. I'm thinking mostly about the social theorists of the 19th century: Marx, Durkheim, and Weber, to name the big ones. So, "alienation", or "anomie", to use Durkheim's term, seems to be the symptom of being in society that I and others are addressing. What is important to note is that these notions of alienation developed in response to the appearance of labor--the commodification, selling and purchasing of human activity--as a social phenomenon, not as a response to social life itself.

At the other end of this dichotomy is the extreme of nature, which is also, I'm thinking, a creation of modern society. Obviously, nature, as in the natural environment, is not a human creation per se (though there is a growing body of literature in the discipline of Historical Ecology arguing against this), but notions and ideas of nature--of what is and isn't natural--are constructions that vary across cultures. In my home-country of the U.S., nature has become "the wild", "wilderness", a place where humans go, but don't remain; an antithesis to modern society often loaded with moral tones of righteousness, truth, and purity. Of course, this is all very Biblical: the fall from the garden. So, here we see nature as a response to the rise of capitalist society and feelings of alienation. Nature becomes something separate, original, pure, and morally right.

Accordingly, the U.S. has produced a string of writers, poets, artists, and regular folk who have sought to escape the ills of society for a life in nature: John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, and Edward Abbey, to name a few. Famous for losing himself in the void in my home-state of Utah is Everett Ruess, an artist who disappeared into the red-rocks of the Escalante desert in 1934. Just last night I re-watched Into the Wild, a wonderful movie based on a true story that was told decently by John Krakauer in a book of the same title. Watching the movie brought a rush of emotions because I identify in many ways with the subject, Chris McCandless, who sought to flee into the wild from what he perceived to be a morally corrupt society.

I'm going to spoil the movie and book here, so skip the next paragraph if you don't want to read about what happens.

Chris' story ends tragically when, after wintering in the Alaskan backcountry outside of Fairbanks, he mistakenly eats some poisonous plants and, due to spring runoff, is unable to forge a river and make it to the nearest road. He died alone in a converted city bus that he had been living in. The true tragedy of Chris's story is that, at least the way the movie tells it (it's been a while since I read the book), before his death he understands the folly of his attempt to flee from humanity and yearns to return to the people that have enriched his life. So, a couple of lessons here: the return is as important as the journey--the comfort of coming back just as precious as the rush of setting forth; and humans are social beings that need contact with other people. Chris wrote the following in a book before his death: HAPPINESS IS NOT REAL UNLESS SHARED.

In Chris' case, the reality is that he wasn't as deep in the wild as his imagination had placed him. Apparently he was quite near a road, in an area that hunters frequented. However, for him it was the wild--and in the end it was just a little too far. I'm not trying to criticize or belittle Chris or the any of the numerous other wanderers who have sought out nature or places of wilderness in the landscape. I make these points simply because I too have long pondered these questions and have sought to find a balance between society and nature.

In my university days, like Chris, I increasingly found the larger society troubling and sought solace in mountains and forests. I would spend my weekdays itching for the weekend when I could escape. There would be 2 or 3 days of bliss up in the cool breezes of the hills or down in the stark silences of the desert and then my heart would ache as I made my way back to the city. I began to despise industrial society and yearned only for wilderness; my views also began to radicalize along the lines of Abbey's Monkey Wrench Gang and the ideology of Earthfirst! (Un)fortunately I was a lousy eco-saboteur and only got as far as cutting down a sign or two and one meaningless hurling of a rock through the window of a road-grader.

It was only when I came to Japan for the second time in 2002 that a middle way began to emerge. I was teaching English in Matsumoto, Nagano and, like in Utah, my weeks were spent gazing at peaks from my office window, longing to be out among the rocks and trees the, solid earth moving under my feet. It was a rare occasion that I could find a friend disciplined enough to give up a Friday night on the town in order to wake early for a Saturday hike--rarer to find one willing to sacrifice a whole weekend. This irked me to no end, but never kept me from roaming the ridgelines above the Azumino Plain--in fact, I revelled in my solitude. Still, I valued my friendships and enjoyed telling stories of my walks up in the clouds. On weekends, from my high perches I could still hear the chimes ringing in the towns below me. I watched all the activity below me: farmers in their fields, cars crawling like bugs on branches, twists of smoke rising from the valley floor; all of this would have annoyed me to no end in my earlier years, but there in Nagano the activity seemed harmless, benign, and natural. A Gary Snyder passage began to take on deep meaning for me. I can't recall it at the moment, but it's essence was that for all that we humans have done to the earth, our etchings and scratchings are still relatively minute; barely visible in grander scheme of things.

Later, during a backpacking trip in Hokkaido, I vowed to strive for a balance between my being in nature and my being in society. I embraced the return and made it part of the journey--the courage to leave the hills and go back to the dusty world below. As my ramblings denote, I'm probably earning about a C- on my balancing act; anyway, it's a work in progress. I don't know that my scattered words here have conveyed my thoughts appropriately, but after reading KenElwood's post, I felt compelled to write. I particularly liked his suggestion that nature is like other needs (our need for food, water, sleep, human company, etc.), because I feel the need for nature all the time.

Also, like KenElwood says, our modern social system doesn't allow for the balance and so extremes develop. In my opinion, the potential to create this balance is one of the greatest assets rural communities have available to them. KenElwood's idea of creating sharelands is quite novel and I would like to see it develop more. However, as he points out it would also require the restructuring of current socio-economic systems to allow "labor" more time to spend pursuing other activities. Japan's tourism, whether "eco" or otherwise, occurs for the most part in massive flows revolving around the working world's holiday schedule. This has led to the commodification of the natural world to create "nature" that can be conveniently enjoyed at the pace needed to meet the demands of society. However, spending time in nature requires more time--the dust of the working world cannot be sluffed off so easily, nor the intricacies of the natural world discovered so quickly.

There is the potential for balance. I keep struggling for it.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A visit to Dogen's Eiheiji 永平寺: thinking about mountains and waters

These mountains and waters of the present are the expression of the old buddhas. Each, abiding in its own dharma state, fulfills exhaustive virtues.
During a visit to Hokkaido in the summer of 2003 I developed a relationship with Dogen's san-sui-kyou (山水経)--Mountains and Waters Sutra. The words of the sutra solidified within me during a hike of Hokkaido's Asahi-dake; I've held a deep affinity for Dogen ever since.

So, it was with great joy that I recently had the chance to visit Dogen's temple, Eiheiji (永平寺), for the second time. Eiheiji is located in the low foothills above Fukui City in Fukui Prefecture. The temple is one of the main of the Soto-zen sect and practicioners from around Japan still come to study there. Lay practicioners are also allowed (you can find more information here).

Don't know that my words will do much justice to Dogen or Eiheiji--and surely not to the mountains and waters of the world. So, I thought I would just offer some of Dogen's words, along with some photos.

The mountains lack none of their proper virtues; hence, they are constantly at rest and constantly walking. We must devote ourselves to a detailed study of this virtue of walking.

Although the walking of the blue mountains is faster than "swift as the wind", those in the mountains do not sense this, do not know it. To be "in the mountains" is "a flower opening within the world".
Those who would know their own walking must also know the walking of the blue mountains.
It is because of the baseness of the common person's point of view that we doubt the phrase "the blue mountains walk"; because of the crudeness of our limited experience, we are surprised by the words "flowing mountain". Without having fully penetrated even the term "flowing water", we just remain sunk in our limited perception.
The tips of the mountains' feet walk across the waters, setting them dancing.
The foolish common folk think that water is always in rivers, streams, and seas, but this is not so: [water] makes rivers and seas within water. Therefore, water is in places that are not rivers and seas; it is just that, when water descends to earth, it works as rivers and seas.
Nevertheless, when dragons and fish see water as a palace, just as when humans see palaces, they do not view it as flowing. And, if some onlooker were to explain to them that their palace was flowing water, they would surely be just as amazed as we are now to hear it said that mountains flow.
However many great sages and wise men we suppose have assembled in the mountains, ever since they entered the mountains no one has met a single one of them. There is only the expression of the mountain way of life; not a single trace of their having entered remains. The "crown and eyes" [of the mountains] are completely different when we are in the world gazing off at the mountains and when we are in the mountains meeting the mountains. Our concept of not-flowing and our understanding of not-flowing should not be the same as the dragon's understanding.
An old buddha has said, "Mountains are mountains and waters are waters."
These words do not say that mountains are mountains; they say that mountains are mountains. Therefore, we should thoroughly study these mountains. When we thoroughly study the mountains, this is the mountain training. Such mountains and waters themselves become wise men and sages.
P.S. All's well in Otaki.

Good day, Ontake-san!!!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Seto-gawa (瀬戸川): little known jewel of the Kiso Valley

I've been away in Kyoto for the past week, busy with university busi-ness, so haven't had the time to post. However, just before I left for Kyoto I took an afternoon to walk into the Seto-gawa (瀬戸川) area here in Otaki, and have wanted to share a bit about the place ever since.

I heard about Seto-gawa soon after I arrived in the village. People told me if I wanted to see a more "pristine" forest, that was the place to go (I recognize "pristine" is a problematic word; here it means that SOME of the trees haven't been cut since the Edo Period (1603-1867)--so, 200-300 year old trees perhaps). Anyway, I had wanted to see the place since that time, but never seemed to find the right time. Well, a week ago I had one of those moments when I knew it was time to go. . .nigiri-ed some onigiri, grabbed my pack--a few essentials, and flew out the door.

The Seto-gawa (gawa, or kawa, by the way, means river) tumbles down a steep mountainside to join the Otaki River from the south-east. I took a long road that winds along the southern shore of Lake Ontake (a reservoir) on its way out of town. From here I turned south onto a smaller forest road that clung tightly to the mountainside and gained elevation quickly. The road passed through straight lines of planted trees, probably 20 years old--their eery symmetry gave me goose bumps.

When I woke the sky had been overcast, but by mid-morning patches of blue were tempting me to go walking. As I wound my way up through the forest, the sky remained partly clouded. Before long I reached a gate--the entrance to the Seto-gawa area--only Forestry Agency personnel allowe beyond this point; the selfish bastards. I parked the car and flung myself into my pack. The familiar sensation of the weight of the pack settling onto my frame was a welcome relief from the recent days I had spent huncked down in front of my computer, typing interviews.

I stepped over the gate and began up the dirt road before me. A couple of days prior an announcement had come across the village radio cautioning that there had been a bear sighting recently. Although I was wearing a bear-bell, I felt compelled to practice my rendition of "Amazing Grace"--I figured that would drive away nearly any beast.

After about 20 or 30 minutes walking on the road, signs appeared denoting a path leading into the woods along an old forest rail line; they also promised large trees (大樹)--this is what I was looking for. Inside the forest it was damp and cool. I followed the path as it wove its way along a small stream, criss-crossing it with small wooden foot bridges. My feet were light as I bounded up and into the forest.

About a half an hour in the trail in front of me ended abrubtly; to my right a small path led into a narrow stream bed. I discerned a faint trail leading up the stream, so I forged ahead. I would learn later, on my descent, that I had made a mistake here--lost the trail completely. However, for now, I was happy using fancy footwork to move myself from rock to rock--half slipping and falling, half stepping.

On each side of me were steep, grass-covered hillsides where a variety of broadleaf trees grew in mixed stands along with giant sugi and hinoki. Light filtered through the canopy at a low angle, giving vibrancy to the varied hues of green.

Soon the trail was completely gone, but I kept kidding myself that I could see faint signs of it; in reality, I was blazing a new trail straight up the stream. I was, by this point, intrigued by the stream and the narrow ravine that cradled it, so nothing was going to stop me from finding the source of the water. Hunger finally did stop me once. I gobbled down three onigiri and washed them down with a generous amount of water.

Weary of bears, my singing continued--my repertoire had expanded beyond "Amazing Grace" to include: Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty", "Jesus Gonna Be Here" by Tom Waits, and "I Never Cared for You", a Willie Nelson tune. I was also clapping my hands. I allowed my eyes to shift, for brief moments only, from the maze of rocks below me in order to scan the hillsides above for signs of danger--I felt like an extremely easy target. I could almost hear the bears talking to one another, "look at this asshole singing Tom Waits."

Fallen trees had created dams in some sections of the stream, and I was made to go up, over, through, or around them. Before long I could discern a series of ridges running perpendicular to the ravine; I knew I was topping out. I never did find the "source" of the stream (Seto-gawa is a watershed so the streams just sort of flow outta nowhere), but was soon on a ridge looking down into the ravine I had ascended. On the other side of me was another ravine, and another on the opposite side of it, like I was standing at the head of a ruffled curtain; I made sure to keep my ravine to my left.

The top ridge of the mountain I had been climbing was in sight, so I continued upward. I figured I'd keep going up as long as there was "up" to go. My figuring was overrun, however, by stands of bamboo grass that towered above my head. The stuff was miserable to walk through and limited my vision to the point that I wouldn't know if I'd stumbled upon a bear or a cliff until it was too late. Still, the ridges above me were alluring enough to keep me moving--but they were illusory: false ridges, always seeming to be just over the next rise. Reluctantly, I stopped and squatted my sweaty self on a large tree stump.

The forest was quiet; wind rustled the bamboo grass and insects buzzed around me, but there was no sound otherwise. I sat there for some time facing the forest, also being quiet. Unlike below, this forest consisted of only two layers: a high canopy and a low covering of bamboo grass. The area before me had been cut and replanted--probably several times over--likely because it is more readily accesible than the ravine I had emerged from. How fascinating, I thought to myself, us humans and out interactions with the natural environment--how complicated and wonderful, these historical ecologies.
Sipping the the last of the coffee I had brought with me, I shouldered my pack. These quiet moments always end. I swam back through the bamboo grass until I found the ridge I had climbed, my ravine now to my right. Soft dirt gave way to my boots as I stepped hard to maintain my balance while descending to the stream. My ballet started once again as I made my way, rock by rock, back down the ravine.

Near the bottom of the ravine I finally realized the mistake that had led me scrambling up this particular stream. After descending into the stream bed from the main trail I was supposed to cross and pick up a trail on the opposite side--I had gone straight ahead, never looking back. Feeling a bit tired, I started back on the trail I had started on, but abhorred the idea of leaving without having made my original destination. I turned back, descended back into the ravine and then climbed up the other side--a well worn trail awaited me.

The trail followed what used to be a rail line, part of series constructed in Otaki by Japan's Forestry Agency (then called the eirinsho 営林署) to haul out timber logs in the middle part of the last century. The trail, therefore, passed several collapsed bridges that had once been part of the line. Each had an eery feel about it--I wondered about days past. It was getting late, so I kept my pace up as much as possible.

A few larger trees remained in the area, but most of it consisted of plantation style forests, complete with signs denoting the date of the planting. The forest was intriguing, but the thick canopy allowed little light, which made the place feel unwelcoming. At one point I came across the shoes of a junior high student, surely just forgotten, but nevertheless a bit of an unsettling sight. I continued as long as I could up the path, until encroaching darkness and pit-pats of rain finally convinced me to turn back.

Places like Seto-gawa are, in my opinion, the best natural resource that Otaki has to offer. How best to use this resource is a critical question--one that villagers should be actively involved in answering. As it is now, the Seto-gawa area is owned and managed by the national Forestry Agency, which has little stake in the area: economically, culturally, or ecologically. Seto-gawa is a place of amazing natural beauty--one of the best I've seen in Japan--on top of this, the area is historically and ecologically significant. It helps to tell the story of resource use and abuse surrounding Otaki's forests. For these reasons I think the area is important for the village, and so residents should be allowed to play a more active role in making and implementing management decisions.