Wood weaving & forest bathing in Nagano, Japan

Last weekend, I co-organised a trilingual forest retreat weekend in Nagano, Japan I helped to organize. Yes, trilingual 😃. At some point I was mixing Japanese, Spanish and English 😅. On the program we had wood weaving, yoga, core tuning, hot bath (onsen) and the forest therapy session – which I guided. We stayed in a 200 year old wooden house. Japanese style in the countryside. It has an irori, a sunk fire pit in the wooden floor. In this blog I will share some impressions about wood weaving and forest bathing.

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This forest weekend retreat was hosted by the yoga studio Mind Body Space in Nagoya.

Wood weaving

Hinoki is one of the most elegant types of wood in Japan. This tree is a type of cypress that is considered sacred and only grows in this part of the world. Hinoki has been used since ancient times in Japan as a construction material to build temples and shrines and is considered as one of the 5 “forbidden woods” in the time of samurai. You could lose your hand or head if you cut down this wood. In other blogs I wrote (indirectly) about hinoki wood and the sustainable silviculture practices introduced by samurai in the 17th century:

It is not only the durability that makes this wood amazing. Yes, some constructions made from this wood are more than thousand years old, like the Horyuji temple, the oldest wooden structure in the world. What I like the most about hinoki, is the scent. Even after some years you can smell the scent. Another application is to make strips of it, and weave it according to some patterns into hats, baskets and other useful stuff. Last Saturday afternoon, somewhere in Tsumago (Nagano), with the help of patient professionals, we made coasters. It was quite therapeutic, to use your hands, and focus on the patterns for 1,5 hour.

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Forest bathing in a gorge

On Sunday morning it was my task to wake up everyone at 05.30 to do a silent walk next to the river. I asked them to leave their phones and cameras (but I took mine to take some photographs in the end, although I also felt difficulty in the beginning to not take my camera and look for “good pictures” instead of looking for the nature in myself).

First we sat in a circle at the entrance of a path, and I explained them some differences between Japanese forest bathing and western school of forest therapy. I told them that for me forest bathing is not the same as meditation, but more about finding pleasure. We will open up our senses to feel sensuality. I told them to listen -like elephants- and observe – as owls- for five minutes, and then to share one thing they  noticed and how it made them feel inside. After this exercise I asked them to be silent from the moment we will enter the forest. It felt like we entered one of the magical forests depicted in the Japanese popular anime movies from Miyazaki, like “My Neighbour Totoro”.

Some people expressed they felt very nostalgic to a connection they had with nature when they were a child. Someone admired the resilience of trees, even in a landslide we passed, and that she wants to be more like this. Another participant felt the suffer of a tree when she touched its trunk. Forest therapy is not always about getting “good feelings”. It is about restoring the relationship between nature outside us and the nature in ourselves. And then we see we have been bad to trees, rivers and nature. For me, forest bathing is also a way of environmental activism.

At 07.00am we were back in the 200 year old house where we stayed, to share corn tea from a Mexican friend who stayed behind to put away the futons and prepare the meal. After a breakfast, I hold a second session where the participants were invited to go back into nature and create art, like a collage of things they found, a haiku or a song. Our youngest participant made a haiku about how the moon and the stars became friends.

It was a beautiful weekend. I am grateful.

This is the poem I wrote during my own forest therapy:

When the sun invites the moon,

I hear the drums of the forest.

The colours start to dance to it’s swan song .

Shades hug trees and rocks like old lovers,

too busy during the day. Only time for an embrace,

when the sun invites the moon.

The colours fade away. My heart beat stops.

The moon arrives. A new journey begins.

I only breathe when I listen.

Interested to participate?

I will leave soon Japan for three months, for a training in Colorado and data collection and other projects in Belgium and Sweden.

However, in late autumn, when the trees in Kyoto color deep red, I will return and plan more moments of forest therapy. If you are in Central-Japan, and like to hang out with international company (trees and humans), send me a message of contact me through Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/wereldwoude_verhalen/.

Ha en god dag! 

Poison Ivy Teachings

The Druid's Garden

Sometimes, as druids and as nature-oriented people, we focus only on the fuzzy and happy parts of nature: blooming edible flowers, fuzzy soft rabbits, cute animals, soft mats of green moss, and shy deer. But nature isn’t just about things that are comfortable to us and that bring us joy and peace–nature is also about survival of the fittest, about defenses and predators, about huge storms, floods and destruction. I think its important that we learn about all aspects of nature, even those that don’t always make us comfortable.  Part of this is because nature is a reflection of ourselves–we have our dark parts, the parts we wish we could avoid or forget. And understanding these many pieces of nature, I believe, helps us better understand the complex mosaic that makes up any human being. But another part of this has to do with honoring nature–without connecting with the many…

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Lugnasadh: the first corn, rice and berries

Lugnasadh, also known as Lammas- is the start of the harvest season, marking the point where the first fruit of the land has ripened. This is also the time of Lugnasadh, a festival my ancestors held on August 1st, to celebrate the first harvest and the hard work they did. They made bread and were grateful they saw the first fruits of their work. It is mostly celebrated on August 1st.

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We’re starting to see summertime efforts, but the reaping is not yet complete. It is both an opening and a closing. It’s the in-between time just after the heat of the day and right before sunset, it is a crossroads. It is also a great time for transformation, reflection, introspection and reconnection – with the earth, ourselves, and the other living beings.

My first mental harvest

Coincidence or not…  the day before, I had the intermediate defence of my PhD in Japan.  As some know, I do a PhD of systems thinking in sustainable development at Nagoya University. I had to share what hard work I had already done.  This intermediate check happened on actually a good timing when you look to nature and the seasons (in the northern hemisphere), because I had to talk about my “summer of hard work” and explain what will be the fruits that will be harvested in my final year. I also know a lot of work is still waiting. This is just the first harvest, but it is a sign that more harvest will come, as long as I keep working a bit longer.

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During that defence, I realized again how tough and emotional a PhD can be. There are so many uncertainties to embrace, so much to consider and to decide, and especially if you go for an interdisciplinary topic, and want a social robust outcome, you have to expose your work and ideas and yourself. And you do not always get the feedback you like to hear. 

Everyday there are so many questions that arise. Living in a country so far from your home, where they speak another language, where you have to rebuild your social support and personal life from scratch, makes it not easier. I share mostly photographs of my weekend trips in nature, but I should share maybe also more pictures of my confused face, or my apparently angry looking face when I focus on reading literature or trying to decipher Japanese electricity bills. 


But it is worth it. I feel everyday I develop myself more, so I can become a better academic, change agent and individual.

Grateful

And I am also so grateful for the people here that are my support system, help me with my life in Japan, translations, interpretations, finding solutions and locating things for me, arranging VIP seats and mountain cabins so I can experience unique Japanese things in my weekend, borrowing books or eyeliner, even giving me once in a while a cup of tea, a great speech and/or hug.

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Moon circle

The evening after, together with friends from Japan, Thailand and Mexico I did a girl’s circle during the new moon. We mixed some Mexican and European traditions, so for instance, we worked with corn from Mexico and linden wood from my home country. Since it’s harvest time, we worked with ideas around harvest, human craft and skill. 

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We made a special amulet using herbs and spices that are associated with this new moon’s power (cinnamon, rosemary and linden wood on which we dropped orange aroma). It was the first time in years I was using the needle again to sew the the little bag of the herbs, and I enjoyed it to use my hands, and create something, and not my mind which I use (sometimes too much) during my academic work. I asked for my wishes and and asked for more creativity and discipline so I can finish this adventure in a good way. In the end I shared home made corn bread and tea with these beautiful women. I am ready for more harvesting.  

Medicine Making and Sacred Herbalism at Lughnassadh

Today it’s Lugnasadh and it’s new moon, the start of a new moon cycle. This evening some friends from Japan, Mexico, and Thailand I planned a moon circle where we will share home made corn bread and celebrate the first harvest of rice, corn and wheat. What will you do during Lugnasadh?

The Druid's Garden

I love celebrating the druid wheel of the year.  Its just an amazing experience to dedicate eight days to magic, ritual, being outdoors, studying, reading, meditation, gardening, and other sacred activity. I had the most wonderful day today making so many medicines from fresh ingredients. Just like at the summer solstice, Lughnassadh is a fantastic time for gathering bright, beautiful herbs, so today I spent most of the day gathering and preparing plants for medicinal use. I thought I’d share so that you have a sense of what herbs are in season right now and what they can be used for.  Since I’m trying to replace any over-the-counter medicine with locally gathered or my own home grown herbs, I’m trying to lay in a really good stock of herbs before winter (then I can continue to make things in the wintertime).  Once I have a better sense of…

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What did a visit to Japan’s suicide forest teach me about forest therapy?

Unbalanced society

Once upon a time, Japanese society was more a forest civilisation than nowadays. People used the wood to build castles, temples and houses, or made bowls, cutlery and furniture. Today, most Japanese no longer live in castle towns and cities surrounded by forests, but in megacities such as Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka and Nagoya. As a result, they no longer come into contact with the roots of their culture and nature. Especially in Tokyo, the overcrowded daily life is also a headache for millions of people.

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Some have probably already seen videos about the overcrowded trains and subways, in which pushers with white gloves push the last passengers into a wagon. The Japanese call this the commuter hell or ‘tsukin jigokin’. There’s also ‘karoshi’, which means overwork suicide.

I myself also wrestle with this culture of many working hours. I only try to work for forty hours, but I also feel feelings of guilt when I leave the laboratory at seven o’clock and see that my colleagues are still at work. Most of my Japanese friends work seventy hours a week.

Japanese companies also do not indicate all hours, such as transport from the company to an assignment on the field, otherwise the statistics of overtime would be a bit too high. Since 2014, the government has been trying to change this by means of a law, but the Japanese are not getting the highest points for quick changes. What I also hear, as excuse from workers itself,  is that overwork happens because to to lacking skills from their side, being “not trained” enough and need to be more familiar with the job, or because they think they are irreplaceable and cannot let their company down.  Japanese people are very bad in “resting” or “quitting”, even if something seems it is not good. According to some scholars, it’s in their “culture”. There is even a story that when it was clear they would not won the second world war but they did not surrendered, a high positioned man said with a big sigh: “We do not know how to quit.”

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Suicide Forest

Aokigahara is  the most ‘popular’ place in Japan to commit suicide. The day before I organised the forest therapy expedition, I visited this forest at the foot of Mount Fuji, with my Norwegian and a Thai friend. Because of the volcanic soil the trees have a very strange shape, which looks like they can walk.

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Along the way, we saw that someone had put a package of flowers on a rock. We stopped for a while and wondered. The site’s popularity for suicide has been attributed to Seichō Matsumoto’s 1961 novel Nami no Tō (Tower of Waves). However, the history of suicide in Aokigahara predates the novel’s publication, and the place has long been associated with death; ubasute may have been practiced there into the nineteenth century: elderly were carried in the woods to die here, a more cruel version of euthanasia. Although they do not publish numbers of how many people die here every year to stop the association with suicide (and discourage), the last recordings say they find here annually 100-200 people.

Forest therapy

After I told the guesthouse owner that I am into forest therapy, he recommended me to visit Aokigahara. He told me that this forest is very enchanting and a walk can be very therapeutic. I was a bit surprised, because I knew this forest already, as the suicide forest, and also I have been there 2,5 years ago, during my first holiday to Japan, with my brother. Actually, my first novel (sorry, only in Dutch, will be released in couple of months), starts in Aokigahara and is based on my first visit back in the winter of 2016-2017. I still remember my brother and I had not a good feeling about this forest. There was almost no sound when we stopped walking and listened. It was very eerie and we were both sensitive to the negative energy around us. Hence, my brother and I decided to leave the forest as soon as possible.

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Memories and constant change

This second time was different. Maybe because I was there with a Norwegian guy who is very cynical about these kind of things. Maybe because I was in another phase of my life. In forest therapy, not the “guide” but the forest is seen as the therapist. Often, when we look for flows in nature, to synchronise with our own flows in our body, like our blood pulse, we look into a mirror. 2,5 years ago I was still new to Asia, but now it is already 3 years ago I live (most of the time) in Asia. I found a lot of time to develop myself and deal with my anxieties. I notice it in the way how I cope with failure, broken hearts, constant changes in spaces, apartments, job projects and people around me. It is different than some years ago. Or let me quote the brilliant  Hannah Arendt :

“Loving life is easy when you are abroad. Where no one knows you and you hold your life in your hands all alone, you are more master of yourself than at any other time”

We walked for like 40 minutes and did not exchange many words. It was raining a bit, and I also wanted some time to think and actually find strengths and arguments to enhance my resilience. As I mentioned before, I still feel guilty that I “do not do more” in the domain of work, about actually that I have a more healthy work-life balance than most of my colleagues here. But walking here, and reflecting upon what dark things these trees have witnessed, reaffirmed that being enough time in nature is good for us.

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Birch wood

Later, during the walk, it seemed my Norwegian friend and I were observing the same things. I had taken a pictures of birch wood that looked like they were chopped and put next to the road to rot there. Only birchwood. Later I wrote it down in my journal: It seemed all birch trees where the ones who died first. What got them killed? Why birch trees? I took also a photo, because I want to remind myself to figure out why this was the case.

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I had not noticed that 2,5 years ago, but then I also did not know the title of my book was going to be “Berkensap” (In English: Birch Water). My Norwegian friend asked me if there was a Japanese custom about birchwood. Norwegians, especially rural woodsmen like him, do have a cultural connection with birch, but yes, I had to disappoint him. Afterwards I did a short search on the internet, but the search was fruitless. If you know the reason why, please let me know in a comment.

Ghost stories

The forest has an historical reputation as a home to yūrei: ghosts of the dead in Japanese mythology. Like wisps, they lure passers-by off the path. Because of the magnetic bottom your compass doesn’t work and the density of the trees, passengers can easily get lost. My Thai friend comes also from a culture where spirits inhabit their horror stories and folklore (read this blog about Thailand for more insights), but before we entered the forest, she was not scared. Her comment:

“The ghosts talk Japanese, so it is ok. I do not understand them.”  

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Parts of this blog come from my article for a Belgian magazine. I translated and adapted them: https://www.mo.be/zeronaut/bosbaden-op-samoeraipaden

Birch cake and the colonization of Hokkaido’s nature and Ainu

Last month, my Norwegian friend and I explored Hokkaido, the northernmost bigger island of Japan, for almost ten days. I waited almost two years to visit this place, as I always imagined this friend to be my travel buddy into Japan’s wild. And yes, he also felt more home here than in Nagoya’s concrete jungle or other places. Actually, Hokkaido reminded us to the Nordic countries and New Zealand: both are a forest and wood civilization, with a colonization story and indigenous people (Sami in the Nordic countries, Maori in New Zealand). Even the birch trees and the rain almost let us feel we were back in Norway. In a previous blog I reflected already on and shared conversations with my friend about the side effects of the control -or colonization- of nature, referring to the demon worms in the amazing movie of princess Mononoke. Here I will elaborate upon this more by sharing what I learned during my Hokkaido travel.

Who are the Ainu?

The Ainu are an indigenous people of Japan (Hokkaido, and formerly northeastern Honshu) and Russia. According to the website of Ainu History and Culture:

“Ainu” means “human”. The Ainu people regard things useful to them or beyond their control as “kamuy”(gods). In daily life, they prayed to and performed various ceremonies for the gods. These gods include : “nature” gods, such as of fire, water, wind and thunder ; “animal” gods, such as of bears, foxes, spotted owls and gram-puses ; “plant” gods, such as of aconite, mush-room and mugwort ; “object” gods, such as of boats and pots ; and gods which protect houses, gods of mountains and gods of lakes. The word “Ainu” refers to the opposite of these gods.”

Official estimates place the total Ainu population at 25,000, but unofficial estimates place its total population at 200,000, because many Ainu have been completely assimilated into Japanese society and as a result, they have no knowledge of their ancestry.

I am not an expert. Most things I learned by reading occasionally some blogs, or by talking with other people, or through a book called “Our Land Was a Forest – An Ainu Memoir” by Kayano Shigeru, where he talks about their life so many time ago and how they cooperated with the nature, and tried to use everything from nature. For example they made clothes from bark:

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This Ainu clothing is made from the inner bark of the ohyodama or Japanese lime tree. Soaking it in water makes the inner bark softer and you can pull it off the bark. The Ainu cut it into strips with which this clothing was made. The symbols call “sirki” and ward off evil spirits. This “magic clothing” was passed on from mother to daughter.

On the other hand, they also killed bear cubs, and my friend and I saw a horrible black-white video about the killing of one, in the small exhibition in Sapporo’s botanical garden.  Sometimes we have romantic and nostalgic feelings about that the past was more sustainable, or that indigenous people are better for the planet, but it depends how you see it. They do it, because of their belief in spirits. According to the aforementioned website of Ainu History and Culture, by killing the bear cub they think they send back evil spirits:

There are various ceremonies throughout the year, including ceremonies to send back spirits, a religious ceremony for ancestors, a ceremony for the completion of new house, and a ceremony to launch the year’s first fishing of salmon and shishamo smelt. Sending spirits back, the most frequent of these ceremonies, treats and sends back the gods, who disguise themselves as animals, plants and objects, descend to the human world and supply food and other daily necessities. The ceremonies include “iyomante,” “hopunire” and “iwakte,” of which “iyomante,” a ceremony for the sending back of the spirits of bear cubs is the most important. “Iyomante” is observed between January and February when the fallen snow is heavy. A I to 2 years bear, which is captured in a hibernation den during winter, is sent back to the divine world by offering a splendid feast.

Tourism of lonely trees

It is not so related to Ainu, but a bit about how trees are also apparently popular in Japanese advertisements. Some trees along “Patchwork Road” are famous because they played a role in advertising, packaging (including cigarettes) or even in (animation) films. They are therefore a “must capture” for fanatic Japanese instagrammers, but also for romantic souls like me. My traveling companion and I did not participate in a bus tour myself. We prefer to look for unknown lonely trees in a smaller group. Also, some farmers cut the “popular lonely trees”, because too many tourists destroy crops while entering their fields.

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I like postcards (receiving and sending), especially those with lonely trees and a blue or green appearance. I found these beautiful specimens in a village in Hokkaido.
I am not surprised that I found dozens of postcards of lonely trees, because in Hokkaido there are even bus tours to visit “lonely trees”. 

Birch cake, or about the first pioneers

In Hokkaido we found a birch tree stump-like cake that was once crowned best (new) cake in the world. Of course I bought that ;). At the time the Japanese people opened the area around Hokkaido (some might call it Ainu colonization) in the 19th century, they had to cut down trees to clear a flat area “for development.” The felled straight trees were used for architecture; but all the other wood was used for charcoal and fireplaces. Such as birch wood. Sanporok is the size in which they cut the trees: the logs are made by splitting the tree vertically into three. San means 3 in Japanese.
During this pioneering period, the Japanese warmed themselves with logs of birch trees, which are actually pioneers among the trees. That is why this cake is named after this “measure” for logs to commemorate the old times.

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Embracing change

One of our last days was spent in the UNESCO geopark of Lake Toya . This lake was created 110,000 years ago in a gigantic volcano eruption. The volcano is one of the most active in Japan, and still erupts repeatedly. The last two times were in 1978 and 2000. The landscape is changing rapidly here. 🌀 It was once the home of Ainu, until the Japanese took over.
Together with one of my best friends I visited a site of houses and a bridge that suffered from the last eruption; and noticed how quickly nature had taken over. We learned how the residents take safety measures, but the most admirable thing is that they accept all those changes, and not flee from them.

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I think you can experience a lot of freedom if you are open to constant change and innovation in the world around you. 🌀 June was a beautiful month, but I am ok it is July now, with new adventures, landscapes, trees and people around me.

One last note about the colonization… also culture is very fluid, and many Ainu assimilated into the Japanese culture. Our world and cultures are constantly changing; however we should not marginalize some groups because they have different ideas, but find a way to integrate their knowledge and practices in building a more sustainable and tolerant world. However, some cultural practices like the killing of bears (or bullfighting in other cultures) should be revisited, because change is good.

A Druid’s Primer on Land Healing: Ecosystems, Interconnectivity, and Planting Guilds

In Belgium there is a movement to leave the ideal of grass lawns to wild gardens. My father and brother have already turned their gardens into heavens for bees and flowers. They sent me pictures and it makes me so happy. I recommend to read this article, especially if you are an owner of lawn.

The Druid's Garden

I had a recent conversation with a friend who lives in the town where I work (and where I used to rent a house). I had commented on how “nice” her lawn looked, as it was growing tall full of clover, dandelions, all heal, and so many other blooming plants; it was wild and beautiful.  She laughed and said that she wished her neighbor felt the same way!  She said that her lawn would have to be mowed that very day, and if she didn’t do so, her neighbor had already threatened her with calling the township due to the 6″ grass ordinance. Even though my friend isn’t a druid, this prompted a deep conversation about nature, ecology, and ecosystems. We started talking about the broader ecosystem, and the connectivity of all life–how she wanted to support insect life, bees, and larger life in her small patch of…

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Listen to the stories of the Trees