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.



Ojisanjake said...

The concept of Kannabi, a mountain where the kami dwells within, rather than descends upon, would seem to come from Izumo. The Fudoki lists dozens in Izumo. The kannabi that exist in the kansai area are all ones that Izumo Kami moved to when Izumo ceded to Yamato.
We are lucky in my area as we have many sacred mountains, but almost no recreational use of them, and the tree farms of sugi are not quite as dominant :)

Taintus said...

Thank you Ojisanjake for your always interesting comments. I'd like to come see some of those sacred mountains. I especially like the idea of their lack of the ubiquitous Japanese sugi.



Ojisanjake said...

we do have some sugi..... I think the mountains of Chugoku are not particularly high, but steep :)we do have lots of concreted mountains :(

Chris (i-cjw.com) said...

Sounds like a fascinating lecture by Tj-san. You're lucky to have such a font of local wisdom.

I spent a lot of time this winter in the Kiso area, and quite fell in love with it. Although I have not yet been to Ontake-san, it continually graced the vistas I had from the more southerly peaks of the region.

I admit, though, I wasn't entirely sure of the argument you were making in your post. Are you saying that the overwhelming attitude towards the mountain is one of commercialism? If so, that's very sad indeed.

Taintus said...


Thanks for the comment.

Sorry, I think my argument is a bit convoluted. . .I must admit I use the blog as a place to work some of these ideas out.

I don't know if I would use the term "overwhelming"; perhaps "prevailing" attitude--of course this may be little more than semantic preference.

I tried to note the difficulty with attempting to track any sort of broad discourse, but suggested that Tj-san's and Wigen's approaches may be one way.

Anyway, in the end, yes, I suppose I am saying that the attitude towards Ontake-san has become more and more commercial oriented. However, I recognize that discourses do not bump each other out of the picture like billiard balls, but rather interact, comingle, and mutate. Members of the Ontake-kyo faith, for example, who come to pay their respects to Ontake-san, more often than not use the ski hill's gondola while cursing the existence of the ski hill on the ride up. It's an odd merging of world views and practices that is often contradictory and always complex. . .as is all social life, too be sure.

Have really been enjoying your blog by the way. Everyone should check it out (you can reach it from my side bar).



Project Hyakumeizan said...

Many thanks for these very interesting thoughts on how mountains come to lose their mystical or religious status in the glare of modernism. (And thanks also for linking to the One Hundred Mountains post!) Fukada Kyuya also has some sharp things to say about the 'de-sanctification' of Japan's mountains in his afterword to Nihon Hyakumeizan. Here's the passage:-

"A peak that people admire from morning to night, that they crown with a shrine, necessarily qualifies as an "eminent mountain". A true spirit of reverence inheres in such places. Unfortunately, the crowds mobilised by mass tourism have debased some of these mountains, hallowed by tradition though they once were, driving the mountain gods from their haunts. Such mountains are no longer eligible (for inclusion in the 100 Mountains)."

PS - If I may, I will link to your post from my own essay on Ontake.

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Taking another look at this interesting post, I read how (according to Karen Wigen) " the rise of academic geography in Japan ... 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..." That might be true on a macro scale, but at least one academic geographer wanted to assign Japanese names to Honshu's major mountain ranges - and it seems likely that the real promoter of the "Japan Alps" label was none other than banker, mountaineer, writer, and Japan Alpine Club founder Kojima Usui ... It was a complex age full of mighty and influential egos....

Great post: very thought-provoking.