Monday, December 14, 2009

Monitored: a visit from Japan's Forestry Agency

Image source: Makino, H. and M. Mitsuo (1953).
付知川に於ける材木伐出の沿革と檜解 (History of timber extraction in Tsukuchigawa).
Tsukuchigawa, 付知川営林署 (Tsukuchigawa Forest Management Office).

As I mentioned in my last post, a recent article in a Nagano newspaper, the Shinano-mainichi-shinbun 信濃毎日新聞, about my research and recent paper presentation in Philadelphia promoted the local Forestry Agency office to give me a call and set up a time to talk. Yesterday, I met with two officials from the Forestry Agency: the heads of the Agematsu 上松 and Setogawa 瀬戸川 offices (the latter is located here in Otaki).

I've used the word "monitor" in the title of this post and I intend the full range of meaning that the word embodies--from innocent watching to menacing surveillance. It seems to me this is the nature of monitoring; one never knows how closely they are being watched, or to what ends. In this instance monitoring came to mind for two reasons: 1) the swiftness with which the Forestry Agency suddenly expressed interest in my research, and 2) the sense I gained of the Forestry Agency's desire to closely control information about National Forests.

As concerns reason number one, the Forestry Agency contacted me the day after I returned from Philadelphia; they were eager to chat. To explain reason number two I'll briefly discuss the meeting we had yesterday.

I had met each of the two officials that came to visit me yesterday. The head of the Agematsu office (the senior of the two) I had met at a function hosted by Asahi Beer, who sponsors some forest maintenance projects in the village. The head of the local Seto-gawa office I had met previously when I went to interview him as part of my research. In our meeting the senior official did all of the talking, while his junior took notes. We sat across from each other--the two of them on one side and me on the other--in a small meeting room at the school I work at here in Otaki.

The senior official began by explaining that they were interested in hearing about my paper presentation. What seemed to be of particular interest to the official was how forests in the Kiso Valley and the Forestry Agency were perceived by other scholars in America (since I had presented at the American Anthropological Association meeting). This intrigued me. Why the concern over the "external gaze". . .perhaps the agency also feels monitored.

I explained my research a bit. I talked about forest history and changing conceptions of landscapes and the impact on local residents as actors and potential actors in arrangements of co-governance. I tried to emphasize the point that I do not think the Forestry Agency is useless, but that current governing arrangements are too lopsided and that there is room for more local involvement in forest governance. It seems to me this last part is the hard part for the Forestry Agency to swallow. I don't know for sure, but it seems to me that they are low on the governmental totem pole at this point and therefore feel threatened in their position. Again, I don't know this for sure and plan to look into it more.

The senior official next asked me if I thought that I had been misrepresented in the article that was published about me. I explained that since I am conducting research that will become a 200-300 page disseration, that yes, a 250 word article was likely a misrepresentation. However, I also suggested that I agreed with what was said in the article (the need for more local involvement in governance). The official explained to me that the Forestry Agency is also wrestling with issues of local involvement and that a 5 year plan for forests in the Matsumoto area (city about 90 kilometers north of Otaki) will include a survey of local citizens. He went on to explain that the 5 year plan for the Kiso Valley will come out a year later and will also have a similar component. "Good stuff," I thought, "but enough?"

"Hopefully you can look at those when the come out," he concluded. I told him that I'd love to and that up until now I had done most of my research about the Forestry Agency online and admitted that I had done little 'face-to-face' work, which I view as a bias in my research. He took this opportunity to explain that there are a lot of people on the ground doing forestry work and that it is hard to get a sense of it. Just as it is hard to get a sense of the history of a particular village like Otaki. He wondered if I really understood the whole system. Admittedly, I don't--no one does. . .and that's my main argument for more local involvement. All of this is too complex for any one of us to get a grasp on alone. So why leave governance and management solely up to a single agency? At this point in my notes I wrote: "Mr. ________ is trying to tell me that I don't know." I found, and find, this position quite paternalistic and see it as an attempt to control information about the agency and about forests in Otaki. I had heard this sentiment once previously, during my interview with the junior official who had told me that Forest Agency personnel know more about the forests than local people, with the implication that co-governance makes little sense.

Our meeting wrapped up soon after this. Bows and thank yous were exchanged with a slight air of awkwardness. I told the officials that I'd like to have a chance to come talk with them again and do more research. It's something I hope to do.

So, what does this little event tell us? Well. . .I don't know really. For me "monitoring" immediately came to mind and is a concept that I hope to explore further in this context. Foucault's theories of power, which I have been using to think about socio-natural environmental change here in Otaki, complicate ideas of monitoring by teasing out the subtle ways that actors are MONITORED, but also how they MONITOR themselves and each other. This is intriguing to me in that my opinions about the Forestry Agency developed partly out of conversations with local residents. However, I've yet to hear any comments about the newspaper article that prompted this meeting. Perhaps talking about such things is something that local residents don't feel willing to or capable of doing. Monitoring?

Talking about different ways of living in the environment is the first step. . .yet, perhaps the hardest.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Post-Philadelphia: the writing life

As anyone who glances even intermittently at this blog will know. . .my posting prowess has all but non-existent as of late. I will blame this on "the writing life". Since mid-October perhaps (I don't remember exactly) I have been living this life. Writing. Preparing funding applications and presentations for two conferences.

In November I attended and presented a paper at the Anthropology of Japan in Japan (AJJ) conference at Temple University Japan and this last week I attended and presented a paper at the American Anthropological Association (AAA) meeting in Philadelphia (hence the Liberty Bell picture).

I've debated putting the paper that I presented online, because it still feels like a work in progress. But, think I'll go ahead and do it. . .perhaps some feedback will come my way (but be nice please).

Before I left for Philadelphia a newspaper reporter from a Nagano prefecture paper known as the shinano-mainichi-shinbun 信濃毎日新聞 came to Otaki to interview me about my research. The article came out in the December 12th edition of the paper. Apparently it was noticed because the day after I returned from Philadelphia I received a call from the local Foresty Agency office asking if they could come talk to me about my research. I'm a bit nervous about the meeting because I was critical of the agency in the interview and this came through in the article. However, I hope that something good will come out of the meeting. At least my research has been noticed! There's a desire among many Japanese to maintain social harmony. . .it's seen as a virtue. But, not being Japanese, I'm perfectly happy to stir up the social stew.

I'll defer to Cactus Ed again.

"Society is like a stew.
If you don't keep it stirred up,
you get a lot of scum on top."

I'll update after I meet with the Forestry Agency folks on Monday.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

bears and bells

IMG_6093, originally uploaded by taintus.

There has been a lot of talk about bears in the village recently. I've heard that there is an overabundance of chestnuts and acorns in the Kiso area this year (though I've heard conflicting reports of low volume), which means more bears.

Regardless of this particular factor, many people in Otaki suggest that bear-human encounters are increasing. There may be many causes, but a general ecological shift is likely the main culprit. Wartime over-cutting in backcountry areas, followed by heavy planting of timber trees has limited nutrient rich habitat for many animals, including bears. Forests around many villages, which tend to be locally managed for mulitple uses, on the other hand are often comprised of diverse trees, including a variety of fruit-bearing broadleaf varieties (including chestnut and acorn trees). So, guess where the bears are going for food?
We've had several bear sightings in Otaki recently. To the point where all elementary and junior high students have been issued bear bells, called "kuma-yoke-suzu" くまよけ鈴 (bear repelling bells). My bell isn't a bear bell per se, but rather a bell used in Buddhist practice. . .my friend picked it up while hiking Ontake-san. It's got a nice ring to it (I've received compliments).

I took the above picture of acorns on the road one morning last week. Seems to me there are more acorns than I remember there being last year. So, for now the students and I clang clang clang our way to school--at least until the winter.

first snow

During a walk in Otaki's backcountry today I was greeted with the wonderful sight of Otake-san donning its robe of white for the first time this season. Rain yesterday in the village had translated to a light blanket of snow down to about 2,500 meters.

As I gazed upon the mountain cool breezes rolled down the canyon and whispered in my ears. . ."winter is on its way". I walked back to town through shafts of soft light that filtered through tree tops at the canyon's rim while papery leaves whirled clumsily about me like a team of drunkards.

My last Otaki autumn for a while. The snows will be coming soon.

Goodnight Ontake-san.

Monday, October 5, 2009



riceThe days have cooled considerably here in Otaki, and the hillsides are beginning to blush. Stalks of rice, which were planted in May, have begun to hang their heavy heads. They look tired, having spent their days stretching to grasp the sun, which sits so impossibly far away, yet always taunts with its warm embrace.

Because of Otaki's elevation, the growing season for rice is quite short. As a result, I've heard, that rice grown here is not so delicious. However, I've received rice from people in the village before and found it to be quite tasty.

In the past rice was not heavily grown in Otaki. Millet, buckwheat, and other grains appear to have been more common. In Takigoshi, a hamlet located in the back of the Otaki valley, it is too cold for rice. At points in the past rice was purchased by residents who earned money hunting and selling skins--particularly bear.

riceI'm not sure when rice came to be more commonly grown in Otaki, but I imagine it's probably a post-war phenomenon. However, Otaki's physical geography has never allowed for a whole lot of paddie land in Otaki. Moreover, a World Bank funded dam project completed in the mid 1960's cut the villages paddy land by half.

Japan is talked about as a "rice culture", but this is not entirely true (particularly historically) in many upland villages, such as Otaki. Rather, the food economy in mountain villages was likely much more diverse: wild vegetables and game, mushrooms, river fish, grains, chestnuts, acorns, small birds, and, occasionally perhaps, rice.

Anyway, no matter its wider context, I love the season of rice harvesting. The drying stalks are a beautiful sight. After the grains are dislodged, cleaned, and stored. The rice straw will be twisted to make ritual ropes that will hang in the entryways of homes and shrines in the new year season. Later, in the still whiteness of winter, this straw will be piled up, along with boughs of pine and bright red, round statues of Bodhidharma, and set ablaze to ensure health for the year.

Then, in the spring, the rice will return--young and green, reincarnate--to begin life again.
Though I wouldn't call it a "rice culture", the lives of Otaki's residents are intimately bound with rice in a perennial dance that unfolds as a magnificent display upon the landscape.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ontake-san in fall 秋の御嶽山

Over "silver week" (a series of holidays that lined up this week in Japan) Aki and I climbed Ontake-san with a couple of friends. This was our first time staying in one of the mountains several lodges; it was a great trip.

The 20th boasted perfect weather--not a cloud in the sky--but a drinking party on the night of the 19th had dissuaded me from thinking about climbing that day. So, our friends arrived on the 20th and we set out the next morning--the 21st. The weather was not as brilliant as it had been the day before, but we were able to stay above the clouds for most of the climb.

Some highlights from the climb:

Just above Ta-no-hara 田の原 (the highest point you can reach by car--about 2200 meters) we encountered this group of Shingon Buddhists chanting as they descended. I have previously met the monk that was leading the group and he explained to me that the red cords that the worshipers wear at their waists symbolize umbilical cords that tie them to their "mother", Ontake-san.

The summit, with ni-no-ike 二の池 (second pond) in the background (Mt. Norikura 乗鞍 and Hotaka-dake 穂高岳 are also back there somewhere).

View of san-no-ike 三の池 (third pond). There are five ponds on Ontake-san, and the third is perhaps the most famous. It's waters are known for their medicinal properties.

This fellow was meditating above the second pond.
I wonder how many years he's been there.

Walking on walking,
under foot earth turns.
Streams and mountains never stay the same.

-Gary Snyder
(from the poem "The Mountain Spirit")

Sunday, September 13, 2009

a rememberance

On the way to my job at Otaki's combined elementary/junior high school I stopped to take a shot of this buckwheat (soba) field. It was a beautiful morning.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the nagano-seibu-jishin 長野西部地震--Western Nagano Earthquake. The magnitude 6.8 earthquake struck at 8:48 AM on the morning of September 14th, 1984. The epicenter was located about 5 kilometers from the center of Otaki village. The jolt caused a section of earth from Mt. Ontake's southeastern slope to dislodge and it roared down the mountain and into the Otaki Valley at a ferocious pace. 29 people lost their lives in the quake.

This morning, at 8:48 AM
a siren rang out in the village
and we all hung our heads in
silence to remember the dead.

On the southeastern slope of Mt. Ontake, a mountain that is beloved and revered by village residents, there remains an enormous wound of crumbling rock, which serves as a reminder of the unpredictible power of the natural world.

As the siren rang this morning I thought of the dead, of nature's power, and of all the beautiful wonders that there are.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

stability and turbulence

After a turbulent summer of rainy weather the skies over Otaki have stabilized, bringing to the heavens blues as deep as lapis lazuli.

Temperatures, on the other hand, have de-stabilized, a pattern I recognize from last year's fall and this year's spring--a battling of the seasons that we humans get caught in the middle of. Although I know the ultimate winner of the scrimmage now under way--fall and then winter--the bright rays of the noon sun pelt down and fool me into thinking the outcome might, just this one year, be different.

Warm days
cool nights
farmers worry, survey, adjust, re-adjust, worry;
like crossing a river upon slick stones.
Simple greetings:
"how's the weather?"
take on weight
and bend like stalks of rice
in the flat light that
crawls down the Otaki valley.

Monday, August 24, 2009

back to the forest

"Probably with my generation the village will go back to forest."

This quote is from an August 23rd Japan Times article by independant journalist, Winifred Bird, in which she offers an account of what she dubs "Japan's creeping natural disaster"--the loss of satoyama 里山 landscape in Japan's rural areas.

Find the original article here.

In her article Bird points out what I would argue are the two major causes of rural landscape transformation in Japan. The first, heavy over-cutting of mixed and broadleaf forests followed by afforestation using timber varieties in the second half of the last century. The second, rapid urbanization accompanied by mass migration of residents from rural to metropolitan communities. The result has been an unprecedented conversion away from human-managed satoyama landscapes, which fostered a mosaic of diverse eco-tones, to often uniform, un-managed plantation-style forests that are increasingly overgrown. The abandoned homes of dying villages are literally consumed by the expanding forest.

The anthropologist John Bennett wrote about humanity's use of the natural world as a transformative process in which nature is made social through human use. He labeled this process the "Ecological Transition", and suggested that it results in "socio-natural environments." Historical ecology is an approach to the study of human-environment interactions that draws on Bennett's ideas. One of the central tenets of the approach is that nearly all the earth's environments have been shaped by humans, often for thousands of years.

Bird makes a similar point, writing that:
In Japan, contrary to what may seem logical, much of the richness of its biodiversity flourishes where humans have followed traditional rural lifestyles for thousands of years.
This contradiction to what may seem logical--that humans and their activities can be benign or even beneficial in terms of the natural world--is an important point for the Japanese, and indeed all of us, to understand.

I must admit that I cringed a bit while reading other parts of Bird's article where she appears to locate the most drastic environmental transformations in the activities of humans in the satoyama, while only noting in passing that "natural forest in remote mountain areas was in some cases logged". Conrad Totman, among other scholars, has argued differently, suggesting that historically the desire for timber by Japan's elites has brought drastic ecological changes to forests. . .in some cases many times over. So, there are also political dimensions to take into account when considering the differential impacts that Japanese have had on the natural environment. Arguing that Japan's farmers have been the major transformative agents is a bit misleading.

Overall, I really liked Bird's article and applaud her efforts to interogate and raise awareness about Japan's mountain forests and human communities. Going back to Bennett's idea of the ecological transition it's interesting to think about how Japan's environments are presently changing. One might be tempted to call it an "un-transitioning", or perhaps a "reverse transitioning", in which the natural world pushes back against the social world of humans. However, my hope is that discussions of such issues can get away from nature/culture dichotomies. I find it useful to think of "ecology" in terms of its etymological Latin root "oikos", meaning house or household, as the study of a set of interrelated elements, not specifiying or limited to the environment. Bennett's "ecological transition" therefore becomes a transitioning of relationships between humans and the natural environment, rather than transitioning of one element into another.

In Japan, as elsewhere, beginning to emphasize the diversity of relationships that bind humans to the environment is an important step to make in forwarding discussions of how to manage and protect the environment. Bird's article points out the important role that the human species can play in a given ecosystem. A failure to place human activities in broader ecological contexts has created distortions surrounding questions of environmental protection and management. Here in Otaki this has resulted in a stubborn refusal on the part of the national forestry agency to recognize the local human community as part of the larger ecosystem they are tasked with managing.

I feel it's important that we begin to consider the potential losses that come with allowing the village to go "back to the forest".

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A map of common ground

This bill increases wildness, protects endangered species, and detoxifies — once and for all — the word “wilderness.”

In an op-ed piece by Yale Environment 360, a publication of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, writer Rick Bass offers a look at the collaborative process that has resulted in the “Forest Jobs and Recreation Act” (known as the "Tester Bill" after Senator Jon Tester", which would be the first wilderness legislation, the author claims, in Montana in 26 years. Find the original op-ed here.

I would love to see such collaboration here in Otaki Village. In a recent Asahi Shimbun 朝日新聞 article (no longer available online, but I can send copies to anyone interested--Japanese only), the author quotes residents as saying that national forests are "foreign country" and that local people have little or no say in management decisions. On the other hand, officials from the forestry agency are quoted in the article as saying that they consult with village residents once and a while and that they are listened to. Obviously there is a disconnect.

The quote at the top of this post is from Rick Bass. I like his choice of words when he talks about "detoxifying" the concept of wilderness. I'm not sure if it is his intention, but I'd like to think that he is posing a critique of "wilderness" as it is used in the U.S., as an area untouched by humans. In Japan, it's 自然 shizen, usually translated as "nature", that is the conceptual stumbling block that impedes discussions of how to best use lands.

Terms like "wilderness" or "shizen", with there associated conceptual baggage, are too easily grasped upon, purified, politicized and used by one group or another to forward their own agenda while attempting to intellectually pulverize "opposing" agendas. It seems to me akin to the increasingly willy-nilly use of the term "Nazi" to express dissent of the Obama administration's healthcare proposal.

Good democracies, like good ecologies, demand open space and diversity. Our human languages, unfortunately, are often not geared to this. It's important to employ critique and self-reflexivity to make sure that we don't get bogged down in the world of words. . .which is often much more complex than the physical world.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Mountain opening ceremony 開山式

On Friday July 10th I climbed Ontake-san for the first time this season. July 10th is the date of the annual "mountain opening ceremony", known as kaizan-shiki 開山式 in Japanese. This year was my second time to climb Ontake-san for this ceremony (you can read my post about last year's ceremony here).

The weather was not agreeable to the ceremony this year. My friend R-san, a Belgian philosopher currently living in the village, and I began our ascent at a little after six in the
morning. The weather at the ta-no-hara 田の原 parking lot was rainy with a bit of wind--most of Ontake-san was cloaked in dark swaths of cloud. But, we had both been prepared to meet bad weather. So, we slid our packs on and passed through the immense stone torii that marks the entrance to the mountain.

The rain wasn't too fierce, and we only encountered a bit of heavy wind towards the first (Otaki) summit (王滝頂上). In hindsight it would have been best to push to the true (ken-ga-mine 剣ヶ峰) summit right away, but a friend was working in the mountain hut at Otaki summit and so we stopped in for a coffee.

There were a handful of other climbers who had come for the ceremony. One, a Shingon monk, whom I had seen last year, was there drinking warm sake. R-san asked the monk about some of his gear, which included a conch shell, a bell, and a long red cord. The red cord, the monk explained, represents an umbilical cord that ties him to his mother, Ontake-san. I didn't catch the explanations for the other items . . . my attention was drawn by the increasing howls of wind outside. "Gonna be a wild ride to the top," I thought to myself.

After a few more minutes we prepared for our departure to the Ken-ga-mine summit--only about a 30 minute walk on a good day. The monk suggested we climb together. "OK," I agreed. The shrine that sits upon the Otaki summit is surrounded by a stone wall that blocked the majority of the wind. I knew, however, that between this wall and the Ken-ga-mine summit lay only a naked ridge, with nothing to offer protection from the winds screaming sideways across Ontake-san's wide slope.

The monk blue his conch at the Otaki summit shrine; a salute to the mountain. We were ready. Stepping out from the shrine wall was like stepping into a fast flowing river--the wind pushed mightily and threatened to undermine each step. We crouched and slowly made our way up the rocky ridge. I looked back to check on the monk who was coming up behind us. He seemed to be having trouble. The wind came in strong, quick gusts pummeling my body with Ali-esque force. Rain pelted my face, stinging like shards of glass. I tried to keep looking back to check on the monk, but eventually lost myself in my own struggle and couldn't keep track of him.

We made fairly good time to the Ken-ga-mine summit and quickly jumped into the mountain hut there. The ceremony there was to begin at 10 AM, in about 15 minutes. We rested alongside white-clad worshipers; drank some tea. At 10 we climbed the stone steps that lead to the summit. Worshipers were crowding into a small hut next to the shrine. I saw S-san from the Otaki community center and he informed me that the ceremony was going to happen inside this year. "I'm heading down for the ceremony at the Otaki summit," he said.
"Can we join you," I asked.
"Sure". S-san is a seaoned veteran on Ontake-san, so I felt relieved to be going down with him.

As we began out descent the wind exploded upon us with even greater force than before. I knew that to my left sat a steep gully, which drops away for about 1,000 meters and ends in a series of massive waterfalls--one misplaced step could mean a quick ride to the foot of the mountain. The wind was coming from my right. I moved my legs one at a time, placing each firmly and then leaning my body into the wind. A rope that runs the length of the ridge connecting the Ken-ga-mine and Otaki summits provided some stability, but at one point I accidentally uprooted one of the stakes connecting the rope to the mountain . . . not much help there.

Even with the wind we made fairly good time down from the summit and arrived back at the Otaki summit just before the ceremony was to begin at 10:30 AM. The villagers who had climbed for the ceremony gathered within the small shrine. The priests, who wore their full ritual attire, emerged from the hut and the ceremony began. As the priests chanted and intoned the spirits of the mountain gusts of wind continued to slam the shrine, threatening to overturn the sake, vegetables, and other offerings placed on the alter. At one point a gust tossed the hat off from one of the priests' head, but he didn't skip a beat and kept on chanting while someone tied it back on.

The ceremony was cut a bit short, but representatives from various groups in the village were able to make their prayers to Ontake-san. We all retired to the mountain hut, stripped our wet clothes and feasted on fried fish while drinking newly sanctified sake.

R-san's and my descent was uneventful. The trail had become a small flowing stream. We reached the car in no time and drove to the nearest onsen for a bath. As we sat in the hot, iron rich waters sunlight began to filter, and then pour, into the forest as the sky cleared . . . the timing for the ceremony had been just off. Oh, well. We sat happy and warm in the bath, laughing about the wild winds and the driving rain.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Forgotten roads

There is a landscape that lays like lattice-work across the mountains and deep valleys of Otaki. This landscape is spiritual in nature--attuned to the sacred Mount Ontake, which stands at its center. Once well trodden roads articulate with points of power or significance where statues or other markers stand. However, these markers and roads are disappearing into forests that are now rarely visited by humans.

A series of etched stones depicting the Buddha Kannon roughly denote the geography of a road that once connected the hamlet of Kashimo with the hamlet of Takigoshi. This road continued on to Mount Ontake and was used heavily by pilgrims. The stories, goods, and even marriage partners of local residents also traversed the road.

Most of the Kannon stones remain, though a few have still yet to be found. Local residents on both sides are working to keep the road visible. . .to maintain it as part of the landscape. Few, however, know of its existence. Without taking the time to walk the road, one only sees a forested hillsides.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The rainy season

It comes every year to Japan. It's both a nuisance and a pleasure. The rainy season. Any excursion includes a clunky umbrella, uncomfortable rain boots, and a jacket that is too much in the hot, muggy air. At the same time the rainy season landscape is undeniably beautiful. It's a mystical landscape where the lines between sky and earth become blurred and clouds haunt the hillsides like wandering spirits. When the rain lifts the earth swells, as if breathing sighs of gratitude for the few precious months of warmth and moisture afforded it each year. When the rains come I am always reminded of what a wonderful season this is.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The evolving debate over devolution.

Today the wonderfully insightful and remarkably detailed blog, AMPONTAN, contained a post outlining the growing debate among Japanese politicians over "devolution". The term refers to the simplification of Japan's current system of governance based on provinces and municipalities, as well as a centralized government.

Find the original post here.

I'm not sure how I feel about the prospect of devolution. I like the idea of more power and control at the regional level, but wonder if this will extend to the local level. Also, I fear the idea of a bureaucratically slim, yet powerful central government--more authority concentrated in fewer places.

Would be interested to hear thoughts.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The depths of Shizen-ko 自然湖: a kayak tour of Otaki's little known lake

For details about Shizen-ko and kayak tours please call or visit the website of Ontake Adventure (おんたけアドベンチャー).


Some landscapes lend themselves to the aloof gazing of observers. For example, California's Yosemite Valley with its enormous walls of granite, or Japan's Kamikochi, which offers sweeping views of some of the Hida Range's finest alpine cirques, come to mind. Otaki's Shizen-ko 自然湖, meaning "natural lake", is not such a landscape. Rather, its beauty and grandeur come only from patient exploration and observation. The lake invites intimacy and refuses to welcome those who are unwilling to engage it, both physically and mentally. There is no overlook; no viewing from afar. In fact, much of Shizen-ko is hidden behind bends of trees or within vertical canyon walls. The landscape is, therefore, defiant of the insouciant looks of passers-by. In order to gain any sense of it, one must enter the lake and sit directly upon its waters. A kayak (called カヌー, pronounced ka nu-, in Japanese, a phonetic translation of the word "canoe") is a tool well suited to such an undertaking; it allows one to interact with Shizen-ko in a way that is deeper, and more equitable, than a gaze ever is. Ontake Adventure (おんたけアドベンチャー) of Otaki, runs kayak tours on Shizen-ko that offer this kind of deep experience-something rare in the Japanese tourist landscape of today.

N-san, a young "I-turn" (which is a term referring to rural transplants from the city . . . and of course doesn't denote a "turn" at all), is in his fifth year of conducting kayak tours on Shizen-ko. He had agreed to give Aki and me a tour of the lake, and so on a clear and cool Monday morning we made our way to Shizen-ko along the Otaki River, enjoying the mosaic tapestry of bright greens that comprised the forests lining the road on either side. N-san, a steadfast man with a passion for his work and a dedication to the Shizen-ko landscape, was waiting us, having made all the preparations. When we arrived the waters of Shizen-ko were dancing and shimmering in the morning light, while casting up reflections of the world around. Kayaks lay in wait on the shore, their brilliant red color defying the green of the hillsides around them. N-san greeted us, "ohayou". His partner, K-san, also greeted us and took our bags for safe-keeping. A soft, cool wind was blowing off the lake, and because our hosts had taken care of everything Aki and I were free to simply take in the scene, which affected a welcome calmness within us both.
We geared up and stood next to the kayaks overlooking Shizen-ko. N-san stood with his back to the lake and began to tell us a bit about its creation, history, and current condition. Shizen-ko began its existence on the morning of September 14th, 1984 when a magnitude 6.8 earthquake struck Otaki and dislodged an enormous slab of Mt. Ontake's south-eastern slope, which then tore its way to the valley bottom at an incredible speed. Earth from the landslide covered a portion of the Otaki River, forming a natural dam that obstructed the flow of water. Shizen-ko was born. The lake began to take shape as rising waters filled the steep valley above the landslide. The trees, rocks, and everything else that had once comprised the landscape of the valley bottom were consumed by the rising waters. N-san didn't take too much time for his initial explanation, believing that the only way to get to know Shizen-ko is to spend time exploring it.

Without delay, N-san passed Aki and me paddles and began explaining the basics of maneuvering our kayaks on the lake. The kayaks are extremely steady, so there is little chance of taking a swim, but N-san makes sure his guests know that this is totally their responsibility, and so accordingly instructs them diligently on how to use their kayak properly. He is marvelous as a guide in this respect; he is there to guide, but not to lead. I gained from N-san that he expects and hopes that guests will take the initiative to explore the lake for themselves--he is there to offer support and an in-depth knowledge to help with the journey. He's not, however, going to lead his guests there--the journey is theirs.

After N-san's brief introduction to the lake and the kayaks it was time to get on the water. For a first timer, like my wife, stepping into the kayak can be a bit nerve-racking, but there is nothing to be afraid of, the kayaks are quite stable. With small pushes from N-san Aki and I were out on the lake in no time, with N-san and K-san right behind us. It's difficult to put into words the feeling of first gliding out onto the lake. One's center of gravity is low, down close to the water's surface, and so the world feels as if it is opening vertically above and below you. Instead of the apodictic feeling of terra firma beneath your feet, the sensation is one of disembodiment--your body and mind are free to drift where they will within the floating world. Of course the action of paddling brings you back into your body, but there's little need for strenuous effort; Shizen-ko is placid and so you are able to move smoothly through its waters with little effort, like strokes of a calligraphy brush.

Due to the nature of its violent birth, Shizen-ko exists now as a newer, and rapidly developing, ecosystem nested in a much older, established one. On the near shore of the lake is a young forest comprised mostly of fast-growing broadleaf varieties, while on the far side there stands a much more mature mixed forest where cypress and cedar trees tower majestically above a lower story of deciduous trees and a variety of shrubs. The younger forest sprouts from the flow of dirt and debris left after the earthquake and so one finds mixed in with the trees twisted strands of metal from a guard rail that had once lined a road traversing the upper part of the valley through which the Otaki River had flowed (and still flows, beyond Shizen-ko). There's also a tunnel that sits adjacent to the lake, slowly being consumed by the forest. A hot spring inn that sat in a canyon leading up the face of Ontake-san was also washed away in the landslide; the bodies of several individuals, therefore, also remain forever a part of the landscape, buried somewhere in the debris. In this respect, the Shizen-ko landscape is at once shocking and violent, but also wondrous, and above all . . . peaceful. N-san understands the multi-faceted nature of Shizen-ko; he respects this nature and tries to impart it to his guests.
Shizen-ko's aquatic ecosystem is also evolving. During his five year relationship with the lake N-san has observed this evolution diligently and he therefore holds a subtly crafted knowledge of it. When I ask about a water plant occupying considerable portions of the lake's southern end, he tells me that the plant is known as hiru-mushiro 蛭莚 (Nymphaea tetragona) and is a perennial that grows well in stagnant waters. He surmises that the plant will continue to thrive and occupy more of the Shizen-ko ecosystem, helping to create habitat for fish. I'm impressed with N-san's analysis; those with a shallower understanding of the lake's ecology might try to eradicate the seemingly noxious weed.

N-san gave an account of all these various aspects of the lake-not in an overt way, but simply as things came into view or as questions arose. Again, this is the strong point of Ontake Adventure kayak tours of Shizen-ko; N-san understands the value of the lake's silence, as well as the importance of personal exploration and interaction on the part of his guests. He respects these things and tries to protect and encourage them--explanations come only when questions come floating, like fallen leaves, along the water's surface.

Having reached the southern tip, we turned our kayaks around and headed back towards the dock in the lake's mid-section. I steered my way to the far side of the lake, where older trees stand and gazed up, admiring the gentle movements of their swaying. Next, I maneuvered close to a group of tree stumps poking out from the lake just beyond the shoreline. N-san had explained to me that before the earthquake these trees sat high on the valley wall, overlooking the Otaki River. As the waters of Shizen-ko began to rise the trees were cut for timber. He also suggested that the trees which remain under the water may some day be harvested because their cores have not been penetrated by water and remain viable as timber. In my mind I recreated the landscape before the earthquake: drained the waters, pulled the vegetation a bit further down the hillside, and replaced the ghost trees upon the stumps before me.

When I caught up with the others in the middle of the lake N-san was telling Aki about two small islands, which are actually clumps of fallen trees supporting small-scale biotic communities. Moss, plants, and even young pine trees stand on the horizontal trees, like participants in a log rolling contest. This image, I learn, isn't far off; N-san recounted how in past years the fallen trees have become top heavy and spun in the water, forcing the vegetation standing upon them to twist and contort in an attempt to keep their "heads" above water.

We continued on, paddling our kayaks under a bridge, once part of the main road running to the center of the village, but now used only to get from the new road to the small piece of shoreline where N-san runs his tours from. Just beyond the bridge we landed our kayaks on the dry river bed of shimo-kuro-zawa 下黒沢, one of Otaki's many small streams. From a basket, K-san pulled water to drink and small treats made of acorn flour and sweet red bean paste to eat. The water was straight from a nearby spring that is fed by groundwater flowing underneath the earth of Ontake-san; it's cool and clean with a hint of sweetness that comes only with fresh spring water. As we drank and ate our snacks we could hear the calls of Japanese white-eye coming from the bushes nearby. The calls started as low warbles that eddied near the ground and then sprung up into the air in final high-pitched crescendos.
N-san tells me that there is a waterfall he wants to show me later. He says that we can hear the waterfall from where we sit; we stopped talking and tuned our ears until we could hear the soft rumbling of water pounding rock. I'm a bit perplexed, because judging by the sound of the waterfall it doesn't appear to be too far away, and so there should be a steady flow of water entering the lake right where we sit. N-san explained that just below the waterfall is a shu-sui 取水 station. The characters 取水 mean literally "take" and "water". I had known prior to this time that a large tunnel runs through the mountains above Otaki, and that the tunnel was dug prior to WWII using forced laborers from China and Korea. I also knew that tunnel is used even know for transporting water to a power station where it turns turbines in order to generate electricity. This electricity is then transferred for use in the greater Osaka metropolitan area. The enormous tunnel (apparently, for maintenance purposes, a small truck can be lowered into and driven inside the tunnel) intersects all of the major streams flowing on the north side of the Otaki Valley. One of the aforementioned shu-sui stations is located at each of these intersections in order to divert water into the tunnel. The project is operated by Kansai Denryoku 関西電力, one of a two large power consortiums operating in Otaki. "Why don't Otaki's residents have rights of access to the water flowing in their village", I wondered to myself, gazing, a bit sternly, at the dry streambed. N-san said that he had wanted to tell me about this for some time. I sensed that he understands and cares deeply about this and other projects in Otaki and elsewhere in Japan-their lack of logic, equality, and justice. Truly, Otaki is a political ecology.

Our thirst quenched and hunger appeased we pushed off from the rocks and headed out, westward, up valley and into a narrow canyon with a steep earthen slope on the south side and a vertical wall of rock on the north. N-san explained that prior to the earthquake a sacred waterfall with healing waters had flowed in this canyon. The Chinese character 王, pronounced "ou" and denoting royalty, he continued, is not often associated with place names in Japan. The village of Otaki 王滝 (written with the 王 character, and 滝 taki meaning "waterfall") is exceptional in this regard. As we drifted our kayaks over the now silent waterfall N-san recounted a local story that tells of the daughter of a royal family in Kyoto who fell ill and was near death. Her parents were powerless to help their daughter, until one night a waterfall appeared to the mother in a dream. The waterfall was located in a deep valley near the base of the holy mountain Ontake-san. The family dispatched a servant to bring water from the falls, which was given to the daughter. After imbibing this water the daughter soon recovered from her illness. Obliged because of the miraculous recovery the grateful family bestowed upon the waterfall the character "王"-making it 王滝, ou-taki, romanized as Otaki. This name was later adopted by the village of Otaki.

Apparently, in the past the geography of this canyon made it a difficult area to traverse. N-san suggests that it is for this reason that Otaki's most remote hamlet, Takigoshi (which is said to have been settled by a defeated samurai clan in hiding), got its name. The characters for Takigoshi, 滝越, mean "waterfall" and "cross"--one had to get past, or cross, the waterfall "Otaki" to reach Takigoshi. The water in this part of the lake exuded a brilliant, almost florescent, green color, and although it was somewhat opaque, I could make out the jagged rock formations that had previously formed the crest of Otaki Waterfall. Looking closer I began to notice tonal changes in the water's color that denoted, like a topographic map, the vertical drop of the waterfall. I could imagine the canyon as it had existed before the waters of Shizen-ko consumed it, with jagged rock walls, falling water pounding the rocks below, and a swift flowing river. I shook from my head thoughts of what once was and looked around, imbibing the landscape around me as it was. The sun was straight overhead now, setting down forceful rays that illuminated the bodies of yellow wagtails that flew from upstream, tracing perfect arcs in the air with flicks of their quill-like tails.

A bit further on the river became shallow and I could see clear to the bottom where the rays of sunlight spun on upon smoothed stones. At this spot the flow of the river was split into two channels. A third channel was located in the middle of the river, but no water flowed here. I was not sure why (another water diversion station?). N-san informed us that the headwaters of Shizen-ko lay just up ahead. There's actually a dam located there--one of several in village. This particular one is named "Otaki Dam" after the waterfall, or perhaps the village, either way it's too good a name for a damn dam. We stopped and rested on a patch of sand spreading out fan-like from the dry river bed. The clear waters of the lake (or river? it was hard to judge here) tempted me with a swim, but the day was cool enough to dissuade me. I was content to remain where I was, looking out over the water and up at the rich blue sky where clouds billowed like fresh milk in tea.

N-san suggested we head back. I was, as always, a bit reluctant to leave such a calm and beautiful spot (perhaps we all were). I reminded myself, however, that all journeys require a return, it's a seed germinated in the departure and required for the end harvest of the whole experience. So, we slid our kayaks once again into the glassy water and headed off down the narrow canyon. The silence of the landscape was disturbed only by our paddles breaking the water's surface, which made sounds that rippled through the air before effervescing into the space around us. Comfortable now in the movements of our kayaks, Aki and I spun ourselves in circles and ran our hands in the cool waters. Overhead clouds mimicked our play, spinning in the blue sky.

Before heading back to shore I stole a few last moments to take in the scene around me. I watched the swaying of green trees giving shape to unseen winds that swirled down the hillsides. My eyes followed birds that rode these currents of wind: hawks higher up and cormorants lower down near the water's surface. They were all in search of a meal, I guessed, and I wished them luck in their hunts. Finally, I looked back towards the ghostly trees that stick leafless and skeletal straight out of the waters on the western part of the lake, hauntingly beautiful reminders of the earthquake and the birth of Shizen-ko. I took a deep breath, exhaled, and then dug my paddle in deep, heading for shore.
After putting away the kayaks and gear we rendezvoused on the road above Shizen-ko and then walked to the waterfall that N-san had mentioned before. The waterfall was marvelous, but that's a whole other story. Driving back to the village Aki and I hung our arms out the windows of the car and used our flattened palms to surf on the rushing wind. We smiled and talked about what an experience we had just had. Both of us had been surprised at how serene, peaceful, and calming our time on the lake had been. We marveled at the sights we had seen and the detailed knowledge we had gained from our guides. In silence I said a "thank you". To god, perhaps, or the cosmos . . . to life? I'm not sure exactly, but I said "thank you", over and over again.

For details about Shizen-ko and kayak tours please call or visit the website of Ontake Adventure (おんたけアドベンチャー).


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Early rice

This photo was taken about a week and a half ago. The paddies in Otaki have been flooded to allow for rice seedlings to be planted. This is known a ta-ue 田植. The process creates in the landscape a set of parallel worlds stacked vertically upon one another. I wonder, sometimes, if one is truer than the other.

Rice seedlings sprouted early this year and so ta-ue was also moved up about a week. Residents continue to tell me how unusual this year is. Global warming tends to be the favored culprit as I probe deeper with questions.

How will the Otaki community respond to a changing climate? Will it be as simple as planting a week early? How can human members of the community predict some of the changes ahead? What can they do now to prepare?

Contemplations sprouting from rice paddies.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Takibi 焚き火

Coolness descends as darkness crawls from the valley-bottoms to consume the earth. Storm clouds abate, leave us merry. We drink sake and stumble over river rocks--roar with laughter and stare wide-eyed at stars burning holes in the stratosphere. The world takes on a warm familiarity as I post myself assuredly upon the apodictic earth unwavering beneath my feet. I watch the smoke rise from the fire and realize how fleeting life is.

. . . good night Ontake-san.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Freeing the Elwha. . .could it happen in Otaki?

An April 22, 2009 article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer describes how the Obama administration's stimilus package will speed-up a project to remove two dams on the Elwha River, located on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. The river used to be one of the Pacific-Northwest's most productive salmon rivers, but the dams now block them from all but the river's lower five miles. You can find the original article HERE.

Breaching dams. . .a late modern idea that has taken way too long to put into practice. I've never met a dam I liked, and have a few in particular that I'd like to see come down.

1. Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona, USA

2. Miura Dam in Otaki, Japan

3. Makio Dam in Otaki, Japan

It seems to me that humans are smarter than dam-building. If we can engineer things that are as horribly marvelous as dams, we should be able to think of a better alternative to them in the first place.

Fish numbers apparently continue to drop in Otaki. . .that's the word from fisherman on the ground at least.

In today's Shinano Mainichi Shinbun 信濃毎日新聞--drawings of a plan for a new dam.


Take it away Ed. . .

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Losing faith on the mountain: a changing vision of Ontake-san

While the days here in Otaki have begun to lengthen and warm, the nights remain cold. Stable weather has ensured clear vision of the myriad stars that burn above the village each night. It was on such a night that I joined other village residents at the community center to listen to a lecture by resident historian, Tj-san. Though his oratorical skills leave something to be desired, Tj-san is a living library with the ability to draw forth a bibliographic wealth of knowledge concerning the history of Otaki and the Kiso region.

During this night's presentation Tj-san concerned himself with the status of Ontake-san, the volcano that sits above Otaki, as a sacred mountain. He particularly focused on changing perceptions of the sacred mountain as evidenced in guide books and other historical texts. Tj-san's main argument was that a lack of information coming from local residents, whom are intimate with Ontake-san, has caused a conceptual shift, moving the mountain from the realm of the sacred to that of the profane. This shift has occurred, he concludes, because of outsiders overlooking, in their textual "mapping" of the mountain, many of its sacred stories and associated locations. To support this conclusion, Tj-san set forth a historical timeline of books and other publications exhibiting a lack of knowledge concerning sacred aspects of Ontake-san on the part of most authors. This text-based (mis)mapping of Ontake-san has contributed not only to a transformation of the mountain's conceptual, but also its physical spaces, from ones in which human activities take place within, to ones in which they take place upon.

Geographer Karen Wigen (2005) traces a similar process of transformation in a broader analysis of Nagano's broader mountain complex: the Hida, Akaishi, and Kiso ranges. She notes how processes of state-formation and the crafting of a national character during the Meiji Period spurred the rise of academic geography in Japan, which took as one of its projects a conceptual mapping of the archipelago's major mountain chains as grand geographical elements of the newly emerged nation. These geographers used Western alpinism as their tool; going as far as to dub their native mountains the "Japanese Alps". Comprehending-or even perceiving-conceptual shifts related to the physical environment is exceedingly difficult. Tracking how such shifts manifest in the physical environment is more difficult still. However, textual archaeologies, like those offered by Tj-san and Wigen, can provide powerful insights that can help to foster further inquiry.

In modern Japan, perceptions of landscapes such as Ontake-san as resources, rather than sacred places, have grown in prominence. I agree with Tj-san that a conceptual framework that views Ontake-san as a destination to be gone to, climbed, and remembered with souvenirs, rather than a space to be dwelled in, actively engaged with, and respected with devotion has been fuelled by literature that is delocalized and generalized to meet the needs of superficial visitors. This conceptualization of Ontake-san is then engraved onto the physical mountain itself through practices of visitation. Of course, as this framework has solidified, even local actors have begun to participate in the physical alteration of Ontake-san, which is known locally as O-yama 御山-"venerable mountain". To meet the needs of tourists, the residents of Otaki, as well as other local villages, have constructed ski hills on Ontake-san's flanks, with all the accompanying roads, rest stations, and parking lots. Ontake-san as O-yama is a perspective that has by no means ceased to exist, but it has been largely subverted in order to meet the needs of Japan's modern citizens, at the local, regional, and national levels.

Tj-san's excavation of literature pertaining to this conceptual shift regarding Ontake-san reminds me that O-yama still sits there in the Kiso Valley, solid in its eons long meditation. In the thick forests that blanket the mountain's lower slopes are monuments-both seen and unseen-that speak of a sacred history. Unused footpaths, long ago grown over, are the etchings of pilgrims and worshipers who came great distances to fellowship with Ontake-san, approaching with patience, diligence, and respect. I do not deny the perspective that envisions Ontake-san as a destination. I do not begrudge those who would come only to exit their cars and gaze upon the mountain's magnificent slopes for a few precious moments. I do not challenge the right of local residents to use the mountain in order to gain some desperately needed economic benefit. What I do deny; what I do challenge and begrudge, is a conceptual monopolizing of Ontake-san. Recognition of Ontake-san's various conceptual incarnations is not a right, but rather a responsibility. I charge all who interact with O-yama to take on the responsibility of knowing and respecting the mountain. However, I feel that local residents in particular have inherited a responsibility to understand, care for, and protect Ontake-san. Part of this responsibility is to gain knowledge of the mountain, and to share that knowledge with the broader society.

None of this is for the benefit of Ontake-san; come what may O-yama will continue its long meditation. Rather, caring for Ontake-san benefits those of use blessed with opportunities to gaze at its lofty form as it floats on the summer haze of the Nobi Plain, to feel its cool summer breezes, or to ascend its ancient slopes. Let us take time to dwell in the mountain, to learn what we can there, and to share this with others.

For a related post see the One Hundred Mountains blog entry entitled "Inventing the Japan Alps"

Wigen, K. 2005. Discovering the Japanese Alps: Meiji Mountaineering and the Quest for Geographical Enlightenment. Journal of Japanese Studies 31.