Hiking & Nature in Japan

On Sunday I went hiking. Hiking in Japan is not too different than hiking in other parts of the world. The main difference as far as I can see is the wonderful accessibility to nature. Hiyoshi is right between Tokyo and the coast in Kamakura, which means that a mere 45 minute train ride takes you to an area that is not only home to nature hikes, but is also on the coast. Incidentally, Kamakura is in Kanagawa (not confusing at all), which is the location of that beautiful big wave you think about when you think about Japanese art.

One of my research interests is the perceived spectrum of human exceptionalism. In other words, how different people/cultures/times think of humans as being separate from animals and, more broadly, nature. In a time of rising technology (and potential future human-technological integration), I am curious about how that technology is changing our relationship to the natural world and the way we see ourselves in relation to that world. Although I would hardly advocate for living fully in the wild, the sense of peace I feel when surrounded by trees and bird calls scores some points for the not-that-exceptional team. After three weeks of trying to see as much as possible of sprawling, urban Tokyo while juggling class work, and the time difference of doing a project with a team in NY, it felt great to be surrounded by trees. Nature is restorative, which is not only obvious to anyone who likes hiking, but has also been studied at length.

While here, I am curious to see how these themes play out in a Japanese context. So far, I can see fascinating contrasts. I frequently hear about the difficulties ahead for a society that faces both a declining birth rate and a rising ageing population. Conversations and documentaries tell me this is combination is (broadly) due economic difficulties having changed the dynamics between the sexes, leading to young people being uncomfortable with the opposite sex and a decline in the traditional family structure. Almost half of Japan’s millennials (18–34) are virgins. When walking in the Akihabara neighbourhood in Tokyo, this doesn’t strike me as necessarily surprising, with its many maid cafés and videogame arcades. Meanwhile, this is the same country that is known for ‘forest bathing’ and historically being in balance with nature. Is it possible for technology to progress in a way that is harmonious with nature? I believe so, but for this we must look also at how technology affects our human nature and what role culture plays in this.

Much of the West was shaped by Christian values, which see humans as separate and superior to nature, while much of Japanese culture was shaped by Zen Buddhism, which holds the respect for all lifeforms in its core philosophy. While hiking in Kamakura, we came across many Zen shrines. The most impressive of these was Kencho-ji. Founded in 1253, the shrine is comprised of a series of temple buildings and paths. The first temple hall after the main gate is the Butsuden (Buddha Hall) which displays a statue of the Jizo Bodhisattva. Behind it is the Hatto (Dharma Hall), which happens to be the largest wooden temple building in eastern Japan. The centre of the shrine is also home to a 750 year old Juniper tree, with a wide, imposing trunk and magnificent foliage. It was easy to imagine the past in this place. It was also, happily, easy to be at peace.

The hike itself was not long, and culminated in a visit to the famous Daibutsu, or giant Buddha, of Kamakura. We then visited the beach, which held its own surprises. Earlier in the day I had been excited to see a hawk circling overhead. Later, I noticed a few more of them flying. By the time we got to the beach we saw over a dozen of them at a time. Beach. Water. Sand. No seagulls, but lots and lots of hawks. Or, I should say, lots of tobi or black kites, as I later found out they were called. This time, when I saw more Japanese dogs being carried around I wondered if it was to keep them safe from these diurnal raptors.

Yesterday, post-hike, my colleague Theresa gave me an article on the relationship between nature and technology in pre-industrial Japan by Tessa Morris-Suzuki. It taught me of the rift between Meiji and Tokugawa approaches to nature. The former is aligned to what I think of on the harmony between Japan and nature, while the latter followed the concept of kaibutsu, the opening up of nature by humans to fulfil its potential. There is a striking passage quoted in the article from Sakatani Shiroshi, who wrote in 1875:

‘When looking down from an elevated position, affairs of the universe seem to be entirely encompassed by Heaven’s Reason and Nature without room for human contributions. On the other hand, when one looks up from the humble position… it appears that matters of the universe are wholly human and wholly contrived and that nothing depends on Nature. Yet the fundamentals of Nature and the human way are one, and the two function by mutually assisting one another.’

Clearly, this is not non-intervention, but an acceptance of the need for mutual understanding between humans and nature. Though kaibutsu finds little use in nature left to itself, it recognises the importance in upholding a natural balance in order for humans to thrive. This is hardly the ideal many current environmentalists seek, but it is a vision of balance that is important to remember today, even if it seems ultimately selfish. To me, it seems connected to the ecomodernist manifesto approach. Kaibutsu judges ‘ecological destruction by its negative effects on human welfare rather than by its effects on the aesthetics of the wilderness.’ Of course, these were both pre-industrial ideologies, but their shadows can still be seen today as I attempt to understand Japan’s relationship with its natural environment.

That’s it from me for now.


PS: here’s a list of other things I saw in Kamakura: Hidden art ateliers in the woods. Yam & soy sauce treats that looked like mochi and caramel treats (that was a surprise!). Sesame seed ice cream. An organic/vegetarian restaurant that served shark meat. Many stunning kimonos.