This past week has been a culmination of all three themes we have been focusing on during this trip. After spending a few weeks doing field research in the countryside around Mt. Fuji, we finally climbed up the mountain, climbed down, and then went our own separate ways for four “vacation days” in Kyoto.
Riding the bullet train perfectly crystallized my understanding of the interaction between the local/global theme and Giddens’ article, “Consequences of Modernity.” I was able to travel 381 kilometers from the small town of Fujinomiya to Japan’s old capital of Kyoto in just under three hours. This time-space compression that occurs while taking the bullet train, or the “movement and communication across space… the geographical stretching-out of social relations, and our experience of all this,” is something that would not have been possible until the 1960s (Giddens 1990). By taking the bullet train, I entrusted myself to an expert system while I sat back, relaxed, and casually chatted with my friends halfway across the world. Upon my arrival to Kyoto, I experienced some of the best French and Chinese desserts I have ever tasted, despite having traveled to both France and China to try these foods in their native land. It was hard to fathom that this phenomenon of “glocalization” had become so strong that food from different cultures could not only be found everywhere in the world, but actually taste better somewhere else, but there it was, hitting me straight in the taste buds.
I was able to witness continuity/change firsthand while walking through the Shin Kyogoku shopping mall in central Kyoto. Nestled among the posh clothing stores, cute or “kawaii” gift shops, and bustling arcades, there were small shrines dedicated to various gods or “kami.” After a few hours of shopping, I began to feel tired and over stimulated so I ducked into a small shrine next to a discount shoe store. Similar to other shrines I’ve visited, there was a special vase burning incense next to a candleholder in the front. As I approached the main shrine, instead of a statue of a kami, I saw octopuses staring back at me. Slightly confused, I made my way to the right of the shrine and was instantly confronted by a small path lined with whiteboards filled with octopus doodles that other visitors had contributed. As it turns out, I had inadvertently entered Eifukuji, dedicated to the Octopus Buddha who helps heal illness. Each step I took brought me into a different world; the hustle and bustle of the shopping mall a few meters behind me began to fade. By the time I got to the end of the path, there was no sign of being in the middle of a mall: I was transported back in history, surrounded by mini shrines and a lush green garden. Walking into the shrine gave me a first-hand experience of continuing old traditions in a changing world. Although modern times brought a giant shopping mall into the area, the octopus shrine remained there, adapting to the changes. According to Giddens, tradition is “a means of handling time and space, which inserts any particular activity or experience within the continuity of past, present, and future, these in turn being structured by recurrent social practices” (Giddens 1990). The changing times amplify the juxtaposition between the old and new. This shrine only seems old and traditional because it’s compared to even older times.
A huge integration of nature and culture I experienced was climbing Mt. Fuji. It was definitely very different from the “nature” I’m accustomed to in the states: I was used to hiking in the Pacific Northwest rainforests and seeing the occasional photographer, or backpacking in the back country of Yosemite and not seeing a single soul for days. Climbing Fuji, however, was definitely a cultural experience. We hiked for eleven hours and saw huge hiking groups the entire time. At each station, there was a place to get a stamp on your hiking staff, use a flushing bio toilet for a few hundred yen, and buy your favorite drinks and snacks or a steaming hot bowl of ramen. We stayed in a mountain hut stuffed with 250 other climbers and all woke up to watch the sunrise together. At the summit, 3,776m in the air, there was a shrine, a weather station, a post office, and (of course) a good selection of vending machines. Initially, I thought I wouldn’t like this kind of cultured nature after experiencing the serene solidarity of “wilderness,” so I was surprised at how much I enjoyed myself on Fuji. It wasn’t just a hike, it was a journey that everyone we passed was a part of. There was a strong sense of camaraderie and solidarity on that mountain; everyone was in it together.
After five weeks in Japan, it has become increasingly easy to detect these themes, but with each example I realize the complexity of the situation even more. What seems like one thing on the surface might have a completely different historical significance, or a seemingly local tradition might have origins somewhere else. I now see these themes on an inseparable spectrum where one cannot exist without the other.
Giddens, Anthony. 1990. The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.