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.