I have officially been in Japan for one week, but it feels like it has been at least a month. Each day is packed with something new, be it stumbling upon a small town’s sacred ritual, meeting with Japanese experts, eating an octopus pancake, or exploring the many wonders of Tokyo. The day’s adventures always come to a close with a rejuvenating traditional Japanese bath at our home away from home, the Tokyo Olympic Center. There have been countless reminders of the IG themes throughout the week, but I’ll choose some of my favorites to describe in this post.
Today we took a trip to the coast to explore Enoshima’s rich cultural history first-hand. As we began walking along the pilgrimage route to a legendary cave on the other side of the island, we heard the deep vibrations of Taiko drums along with some rhythmic chanting. As it turns out, we happened to come on the one day that the seaside town was having a traditional ritual to celebrate the sea deity. We watched as a parade of men, women and children dressed in traditional Japanese clothing played flutes and drums. Following them came a group of about thirty men carrying a shrine the size of a small car on their shoulders, down steep stone stairs and through throngs of people. After they made it down to the beach, they proceeded to walk straight into the ocean with the shrine on their shoulders. They walked into the sea until they were chest-deep, and after performing more rituals in the water, they marched back out and returned the shrine to the land.
We have been learning a lot about the difference between Japanese and American perceptions of nature from various lectures and readings, but seeing the ceremony today solidified my understanding of what that means. When Seiichi Kondo, the former Commissioner of the Agency of Cultural Affairs, came to speak with us, he told us that Japanese people feel they are one with nature in contrast to a Western belief of being separate from nature and controlling it. The incredible sight of thirty grown men wearing nothing but a traditional white loincloth while wading into the sea was unlike anything I have ever experienced before. Many cultures have a unique way of combining nature and culture, but Japan is particularly interesting since it has preserved many of its traditions through the centuries. The ritual I experienced was a great example of that: since the Japanese worship deities that are specific to certain locales (i.e. deities of the sea, the sky, or volcanoes), they are able to worship them more directly by actually visiting the area the deities “inhabit.”
Walking along the ancient pilgrimage route was another interesting mixture of nature and culture. My western idea of a pilgrimage is a somber, solitary journey through untouched land, but this is far from what I saw today. Although the curving path wound up the mountain and through a forest, it was lined with gift shops and restaurants. Women wore skirts and high heels as they climbed the steep stone steps that their ancestors climbed hundreds of years before. Nature here caters to human comfort – people appreciate the stunning views while eating mouth-watering food and texting pictures of themselves to friends and family.
After discussing Japanese and American views of nature in more depth, the highly populated paths of the pilgrimage made more sense. According to Stephen Kellert’s research on Japanese views of animals, Japanese people prefer animals and nature to be domesticated. The idea of “wilderness” isn’t valued as much here in Japan as it is in America. According to William Cronon, “there is nothing natural about the concept of wilderness,” and I am beginning to agree with him (Cronon 1995). Just as the Japanese value a certain aesthetic, Americans do too, and they work just as hard to maintain it.
Cronon, William. 1995. “The Trouble with Wilderness; Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” In Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Kellert, Stephen R. 1993. “Attitudes, Knowledge and Behavior Toward Wildlife Among the Industrial Superpowers: United States, Japan, and Germany.” Journal of Social Issues 49 (1): 53–69.