Tag Archives: Japan

Okinawa: from its longevity secrets to mischievous tree trolls

Some weeks ago I visited Okinawa, the subtropical island of Japan which is famous to count the most centenarians per capita in whole the world.

Why do people get so old? – the diet

I noticed indeed that the citizens seem to be more relaxed and really enjoy the good life (and all the American influenced food and drinks unfortunately too). I enjoyed myself with getting massages, walking and wandering around and joining Japanese ladies from my guest house to dive into Okinawa’s soba and beer. These Japanese bonvivants introduced me to the expression shiawase butori, which means happily plump

At some point we were not that far from Ogimi, which is famous for the high amount of 100 year old people in the world. According to some experts it is because of a certain diet… which is not the food that you find in many restaurants in current Okinawa. That Blue Seal ice-cream will not make you 100 year old. I think that the American occupation since the Second World War until some decades ago broke some healthy lifestyle aspects of Okinawa. However, I found also sometimes places where they serve the healthy traditional Okinawa food:

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Why do people get so old? – ikigai

I think it is more than just the right diet. It is a combination of their lifestyle, in combination with the weather, the fact that medical world progressed,

the fact that Japan’s economy progressed, maybe because there are so many turtles in Okinawa, the symbol for longevity and wealth…

and  the fact that they keep working because they found/know their ikigai. 

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If you want to know more, some people wrote books or internet blogs about it,
probably also in your mother tongue too. I will illustrate what ikigai can mean.

 

This old man’s calling and ikigai

One morning, my friendl and I experienced a outrigger sailing cano adventure, organized by Tom, in the turquoise blue waters of Okinawa, a subtropical island of Japan. After a typhoon damaged the boat, Tom decided it was time to repair and fix his cano after 7 years for six months. When I found him through AirBnb experience, I read he would offer experiences from May onwards. It was end of April when my friend and I were in Okinawa. You do not get things if you keep silent, so I wrote him and that motivated him to get the last things done. We had to wait for the weather, if there was enough wind etc, but it all worked out for us. Just before the trip, he thanked us for motivating him to finish this earlier. 

 
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One thing about outrigger sailing canoes: these boats do not have a rudder, so you need a pedal to steer the boat. 
 
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He made the cano himself and it took him 18 months (he did not work full time) and used a manual for outrigger canoes. His cano is also bigger. He used cedar wood, which is a very present tree in Japan. He used the Polynesian placemats that his father gave him once as a present … because for what else to use them? 
 
While the sea breeze played with our hair and I felt the sun tickling my face, he explained my friend and me how he and his wife got in Okinawa. After living for 28 years in Yokohama region, his wife and he felt it was time to move to a space where they wanted to live until the end. It has to be close at the ocean and it has to be warm. They thought about many options like the Philippines and Indonesia but could not figure it out in the next months. They needed a place where they also could start a business and learning a language to do business takes too much time. 
 
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During a church mass, while they were singing, he thought to move to Chiba close to Tokyo which has an ocean but was cold. 
Suddenly a voice told him to consider Okinawa. He never has been there but this voice felt very powerful. After the mass he told his wife about this mystical experience and she also said a voice has told her to also move to Okinawa. They checked out the place and knew this God chosen place was gonna be their new home. They live and work here happily (but not happily plump) for already 8-9 years. 

Why do people get so old? – Moai

I had already read about the moai, or strong relationships between them, as I joined a small PhD team research about social acceptance of internal immigrants in the rural mountainous villages in the north of Nagoya. In Okinawa, they say it is stronger. It was maybe not surprising that my friend and I got promptly invited by this bunch of men, who were mostly employees of Orion, the local beer factory, to join their food festivity (to celebrate the start of Golden Week, we assume). They seemed fun and it was outside, so …  why not?

But what are moais?

Moais came to existence in more difficult times, when farmers helped each other by exchanging information  about the best cultivation practicies or also to help each other when the harvest failed. The members of a moai gave monthly a fixed membership fee to a shared pot, which sponsored the meetings and the meals. To have a feeling to belong somewhere and support each other gives some security and contributes to stay longer young.

Last, but not least, Okinawa has tree trolls!

My inner child always comes alive when I find nice folk stories, myths and fables about trolls and fairies.
 
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They live in banyan trees, also called the tree of happiness, or the tree that walks, because the aerial root grows into a trunk and gradually moves itself from 

its original position over a long period of time. These trees were planted for windbreaks (there are big typhoons here) and residential use. But yes some people burn incense and pray under the tree, because they believe in the tree spirits.

Listening to these stories, it reminds you that cherishing your the inner child also keeps you long forever:

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This is what I found on-line about the tree trolls of Okinawa:

Mischievous by nature, kijimuna are known to play tricks on humans; one of the most common involves laying on the chest of human during sleep, making them immobile and unable to breathe (kanashibari; sleep demons associated with sleep paralysis are common among Japanese yōkai). Kijimuna, much like other yōkai, are often associated with mysterious fires and have been seen covered in ghostly flames running along beaches or riverbanks. If one were to wake up and discover a paper lantern missing, it’s quite possible a kijimuna hijacked it in the middle of the night and ran off. Kijimuna hate octopus above all else. So keeping an octopus around is the best way to ward off any potential attacks or hijinks from a bored kijimuna on the prowl. 

 

Despite such devious tricks, kijimuna are generally good at heart and also known to befriend humans. Such friendships, however, are relatively short-lived due to the puckish and jealous nature of kijimuna. Known to be excellent fishermen, if a kijimuna really likes a human they’ll give fishing tips and perhaps even offer the bodies of the fish they’ve caught—after eating out the fish’s eyeballs, of course. Yet, if a human doesn’t offer gratitude and gifts in exchange for a kijimuna’s kindness, the kijimuna will soon lash out, behaving in a childish manner and bring the friendship to an abrupt end. 

 

Like many of the numerous yōkai in Japanese folklore, kijimuna are an essential part of the Okinawan lifestyle. Tales of kijimuna have been passed on from generation to generation for centuries. Nearly every Okinawan young and old can happily rattle off a kijimuna folktale from memory. Images of kijimuna can be found all over the island (check, I have a whole bunch of photos of them now) and have even invaded popular culture in the form of anime and manga characters. So they next time you come across a hyperactive, orange-haired fairy with with an oversized head and hands, you’ll know it’s a kijimuna.

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Postcard which I purchased in the museum about Bokunen Naka, a famous woodblock print artist from this region. 

I have a feeling I might return to Okinawa, or for sure to the other southern islands of Japan ;). I am very intrigued by  Yakushima, the mystical island that inspired Ghibli Stidio makers for princess Mononoke, counts many thousand year old trees and had good hikes.

“Holly” Devil, it’s Spring again!

Two weeks ago my young brother arrived in Japan. That weekend, he and  I got treated on a traditional 9(!) course in an old restaurant in the countryside in Japan. Every dish was symbolic. I was very surprised when I saw a plate of beans on a plate with an image demon (oni) and decorated with holly.

On February 3rd, it is Setsubun, a spring festival where people throw beans outside their house, to chase away the demons. It is actually the day before spring and means season division.

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When I saw this dish, I also recognized holly (ilex in Latin, “hulst” in Dutch) which is part of our Christmas decorations and also used to keep away the evil. Our Japanese friends asked the waitress about this plant; and we also learned that this plant was not there by coincidence. Also in Latin America, shamans used tea extraction of holly as a ceremonial “cleanser”. It is a plant to protect us against lightning, poison and evil spirits. There is an old tradition that the Holly’s Yule festivals greens are traditionally burned at Imbolc, the Celtic fest of spring also early February.  I think it is amazing how some plants symbolize the same or are used for the same rituals all over the world.

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Last year my friends and I went to one of the temples in Osu Kannon in Nagoya to see a special parade of the seven gods that welcome spring. In one of the convenience store we bought a demon mask and beans to throw. I remember we also ate an uncut makizushi, a sort of sushi roll, called ehō-maki (literally “lucky direction roll”) in silence on Setsubun while facing the year’s lucky compass direction, determined by the zodiac symbol of that year. The direction changes each year according to a 5 year cycle. Last year we ate this in the south-south-east direction, because it was the year of the dog. Now it is the year of the bear, so we are supposed to point it this Sunday to the east-north-east.

I realize now how fast the cycle of time goes, and still everything feels the same, as if not a year has passed.

Why do Thai Tree Spirits like Red Fanta ?

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Some time ago, when the animals were still talking, I lived in Thailand. Ok, it was only 1.5 year ago that I left Thailand for Japan. I was blessed to became a friend of a Thai young woman who likes to travel, knows a lot about Thai customs and traditions and is also into sustainability. Recently we were texting over Instagram about Loy Krathong festival (celebrated on November 23rd, during full moon) which is traditionally a festival to pay respect to the goddess of rivers. Thai people would put “krathong” or containers in the rivers, which were made from natural materials. But unfortunately many people use non-natural materials like styrofoam and it became more, as my friend called it, a river polluting instead of river celebrating festival.

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It reminds me a bit to the Japanese anime “Spirited Away” which is also about polluted rivers and nature, which are represented by spirits that got cleaned in the bath house. Japanese culture and Thai culture are partly about spirits of ancestors or of an ancient soul. In Japan, you have shintoism and buddhism, and it is difficult for me to know often which practices comes from shintoism, or which from buddhism. In Japan, people go to shinto shrines for celebrations around life and transitions in life, but they have buddhist funerals. It also does not help that Thai and Japanese buddhism are totally different. Japanese buddhist priests can marry. In Thailand, they cannot.

In Thailand, you also find everywhere also small spirit houses everywhere. This could be connected with buddhism-hinduism since when Thai put a new spirit house, they have to ask a buddhist monk to do a special ceremony. These spirit houses are for the spirits who take care of the area. Thai Buddhists believe that there are different classes of spirits or angels: some lives on earth, some in a tree, some in the air, but not in every tree there is a spirit. In Thailand, the spirit is not connected to a certain tree. There was a story where people were stopped to cut a tree, because a monk heard the spirit asking for few days time to find another tree as new residence. In Japan, the tree is not seen as the (temporary) residence of the spirit, but the spirit is the soul of the tree, not of a dead ancestor or angel.

The Asian tree spirits especially fascinate me a lot. Especially the banana, fig , ta-khian and banyan trees are inhabited by trees. Ta-Nee is the famous spirit associated with the banana tree. Many big trees have spirits inside, my Thai friend told me.

My friends in Thailand introduced me to Thai horror, which are mostly ghost stories, and some are about tree spirits. But it was also weird that there was also some humor in it. What can it be about? If you cut down a tree without its permission, the tree spirit would haunt you. An example is “Takien” (trailer with English subtitles)

 

One day, this friend and I decided to climb 3790 steps to Wat Khao Wong Pra Chan. This picture is taken at the beginning. I was very intrigued by this, and she explained me that when Thai people know the gender (or sex) of the spirits they would hang clothes for them. They say the spirit inhabits a Ta-khian tree and sometimes appears as a beautiful young woman wearing traditional Thai attire, usually in reddish or brownish colours, contrasting with Nang Tani who wears a green dress. Northern Thai use also dress trees to ordinate that there is someone there. When a tree is ordinated, no one dares to cut or destroy it. While trees in Japan are marked with sacred ropes with paper folded in a zig-zag way, some sacred trees in Thailand are marked by statues. Also when you looked carefully to some banyan trees at my previous campus, you would find holy statues. A professor who studies the stop of belief in nature spirits as early warning signals of environmental degradation in local villages in east-Thailand pointed me to these statues, and I had one of the best conversations on that campus.

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Please also take note of the drinks in front the spirit house. It seems that the spirits like red Fanta. According to one of my Thai friends, it is because it is a more innocent version of blood, and their beloved previous king loved red Fanta too, but that is maybe an urban legend. My friend and I discussed that people copy from the past or their elderly. Thai people would say “Tum Tam Tam Kan Ma”. Adults love to tell the children that when they ask for the reason. It means “follow what elders did” … but actually, my Thai friend (she is very wise) told me it does not resonate with the Buddhist idea of Kalamasutta; the Buddha named ten specific sources whose knowledge should not be immediately viewed as truthful without further investigation. As you see, Thai norms are sometimes against the Buddha’s thought.

So do not be surprised that  you can find red Fanta at the feet of statues, especially from kings, but nobody seems to know really why. Once, in the big airport of Thailand, people started to put red Fanta at the feet of these guardians, and the airport staff got very confused. Red Fanta bottles were removed. The airport announced “please don’t do this”. My Thai friend reacted: “Very Thai. I have to say that.”

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What do  you know about Thai Tree spirits?

Ps special thanks to my wise Thai friends S. and P. who gave additional information and feedback on my first versions.

Vitamin Ginkgo for your November Depression

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Some weeks ago I suffered a November depression or Autumn Flu, which happens to many people who live in countries with four seasons, like the Netherlands, Belgium and Japan, when days become darker. Also other friends told me that November is the month they feel down and need to take more vitamins. Last year’s November felt also depressive, when I recall my diary notes. But the year before in Thailand I was fine, partly because there are no seasons like in Japan. And in the end of October and early November I felt I was struggling again and in a bit of a self-destructive mood.

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I feel fine when I walk outside in sun, or am with close friends with who I feel comfortable, but mostly I felt annoyed, sad and even frustrated. I was not creative. The best advise is to take distance of social media channels, because seeing the filtered “happy stories of others” make you wonder why you were not invited, or sleeping without curtains, doing walks in sunlight and nature and taking extra vitamins. I believe nature gave also a good medicine to deal with it: the colorful autumn forest. So, in the last weeks, every day I was free, I was exploring the outdoor of Nagano or Gifu, the prefectures close to Nagoya. One day I went to a Reishoji to greet a 80 year old female ginkgo tree. Most of the pictures of this blog are taken there.

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I really love the ginkgo trees. Watching them freezes time and I really feel in the presence when I observe a ginkgo. Nowadays, their golden fan-shaped leafs make even dull days in Nagoya beautiful. The  Ginkgo biloba, commonly known as ginkgo is quite a loner, because it is the only living species in its family tree (did you see what I did there?). All the others are extinct.

They are perfect urban trees, because they can tolerate pollution and confined soil spaces. They come from China, but they are also widely planted in Japan, because of Buddhism. It is also the official tree of Tokyo and six ginkgo trees were among the few living things that survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

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What gives the yellow color? Leaves are, I read in the book “Around the world in 80 trees“, chemical factories that conjure sugars out of carbon dioxide and water, using sunlight, with the help of chlorophyll, which is bright green. When the trees slow down in autumn, they recycle everything that could be useful the next year. As chlorophyll is broken down and reabsorbed, the leaves’ green colouring disappears and reveal the yellow xantophylls or orangery carotenes which always have been there to mop up leftovers. The climate in Japan makes the colors more bright than in Europe.

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Lastly, the gingko has many medical benefits. On the internet you can read about many benefits, which focus mostly on blood circulation and brain issues. In China, the gingko -or Yinxing – is studied for a long time. It represents the sacred concept of yin and yang, as there are male and female trees. In addition, it is also a symbol of longevity and survival. Some survival trees from the atom bombs were gingkoes. Most gingkoes grow to an imposing height and width during their lifetime, often living for several millennia. At the website of Classical Chinese Medicine, I read that “many Daoist temple courtyards feature ancient gingko trees that are thousands of years old, and one particular tree is said to be about 10.000 years old. As a mysterious, long-living tree with roots in great antiquity the gingko was an ideal candidate for the practice of shamanic tree worship, and Daoist shamans would engrave their magical spells and seals  on old growth gingko wood in order to communicate with the spirit world.”

What do you know about gingkoes?

 

 

Is the feminization of tea culture leading to the loss of the zen-spirit?

These are extracts of my bimonthly newsletter I write to friends and family over the whole world. Last week I wrote about tea, because it is really becoming my cup of tea. (Did you see there what I did?). I got to know some young people in Onomichi who do not only have an organic green tea farm, but also want to sell the whole holistic experience. They just opened a tea shop in Hiroshima, and I have visited the old house in Onomichi they turning into a tea shop where you would be able to experience tea in its sacred way. I was so blessed to try their tea. I also bought some tea from their last harvest (they harvest in spring) and still enjoy the tea almost every day in my office in Nagoya. I also had the chance to visit tea farmers and a tea factory, as a part of my PhD training in environmental studies. I am not really a tea connoisseur, but I drink less and less latte and coffee, and make tea infusions (actually in Chinese way, I have a special tool for “lazy people in office”, which I found in a hipster Chinese tea shop in London), and also read more about Japanese tea culture. I just finished a book about “women and tea in Japan” – which was very interesting to learn more about the history of Japanese tea culture, but from women’s perspective. Here are some notes.

First, they say “you do tea”
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Last month, during my holiday “back home” in Belgium, my parents and I joined a tour in the Japanese gardens, where they said a tea ceremony is about spirituality. There are different aspects, such as harmony with other people (wa), respect for nature (kai), purity (sai, I think) and simplicity. They say that you should see a tea ceremony as something unique. Every ceremony is different. Every experience is different. Every moment is unique. In Japanese, they say “ichigo ichie“, which means “one time, one meeting”. However, these ideas come from a more recent tea master, called Naosuke (who actually got murdered, because yeah he had some political ideologies that were against the imperialists). Anyway, Naosuke really wanted to connect spirituality with tea drinking. He was also quite progressive, by letting women even host tea ceremonies.
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Yes, tea used to be very masculine dominated. Nowadays 90 percent of tea ceremonies would be hosted by women, but the famous tea schools like Urasenke (headquarters in Kyoto) have a male head, and all texts are written by men. It is like Christian church. You have female practitioners, but is actually still very shaped and made by men. That is the idea I got when I read that book about women’s history on tea in Japan. Some people in the 18th-19th century were really against participation of women as a guest, or even as a host. One guy wrote that “because of feminization, tea ceremony lost its original zen spirit”. However, I do think that women can be connected as much as to the spiritual spheres as men can, not more or not less, depending from how open that person is.
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Tea got introduced in Japan more than thousands years ago from China, by Buddhist monks who used it as aid for meditation, but yes, the zen part is maybe a bit gone. The tea culture with all its codes came like 500 years ago, and the big tea schools with heads who teach you the right way came in the 17th century. It was all very institutionalized and male dominated.
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So, something you have to know about tea ceremony is that you have a host and guests, and the last and first guest are the most important. When you study tea, you learn first how to behave as a guest. There are rules about how to eat the sweets, and how to enter the room. And then you can learn how to be a good host. First you learn how to make “thin tea” and then how to make “thick tea”. Every utensil has a meaning, so it is quite a study.
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It was actually only for elite, and a place for war politics and showing off your power. According to Naosuke, people are equal in a tea ceremony, but that was an idea that started in end of 19th century, for sure, not earlier than that. In the 19th century, tea study was used as a way to teach women how to move their body in a gracious way, and also a way for lower class people to be “civilize”.
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Actually it got so popular by “commoners” that it lost its flavor, until Japan entered the era of modern state building (end 19th century). First they took over many western ideas, but realized than they also needed “Japanese culture”, so tea culture got heavily promoted at world fairs and exhibitions as something “Japanese”
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The green tea that I drink, from Tea Factory Gen, is organic, and apparently, a lot of green tea in japan is not organic, he told me. Even more, matcha, which is a sort of green tea, but more processed, is also not always organic. I wonder if many Girl Gurus who have health food blogs in California and London are aware of that. You can buy his tea in Hiroshima, Onomichi and also in Paris. You see, green tea is getting very popular in Europe, because of its health benefits.
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A thing in japan is also to drink cold green tea -or cold brewed. Of course I am not sure what to think about all the hot and cold green tea in PET bottles …But apparently -a concern of tea farmers- is that more people want to drink tea individually rather than in a traditional way – namely sitting together, and drinking together tea made with reusable utensils. I also enjoy more the traditional way, and often invite (or force haha) some lab members to drink tea with me, because I made enough tea for more people.
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But the Japanese tea industry has also big problems. The income is very low. The work is hard. You can also harvest tea a couple of times a year. After harvesting, you have to do the first processing within an hour in a factory, so you have to be close to a factory. etc etc. So, actually tea production in Japan is really in decline – just like other agricultural industries in Japan. Most tea farmers I met – apart from that lucky guy and his friend – are actually quite old, and they do not have successors, so I think Japanese green tea is going to get more expensive, — unless they allow immigrants to work in tea industry, but yes… that process will go slow.
You can learn more about the problems through this 10 minute video from the Japan Times: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrHxz3OE9mI&t=79s 
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Please let me know what you know about the sacred experience of drinking tea? Which notes were interesting for you?

DIY Forest Therapy 森林浴

Living in Nagoya has some benefits. There are a lot of shrine parks, and Japan is also for 70 percent forest. Even I live in the middle of one of the biggest cities in Japan, I had the pleasure to enjoy the healing aromas of the Hinoki and Sugi, famous Japanese trees used for timber construction. Especially the aroma of the trees of Gifu, the prefecture in the north of Nagoya, can let you sleep like a rose.

I am not sure what came first. Getting interested for Japanese forests or getting interested in forest therapy. During a short holiday in Belgium last August, my parents showed me Flemish books on forestry and I decided to spend more time in leisurely walks in the forests around my house, to relax. I called it as joke “DIY forest therapy”.

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Forest Therapy-  is a research-based framework for supporting healing and wellness through immersion in forests and other natural environments. Forest Therapy is inspired by the Japanese practice of shinrin yoku, which translates to “forest bathing.” Studies have demonstrated a wide array of health benefits, especially in the cardiovascular and immune systems, and for stabilizing and improving mood and cognition, resulting in for example stress relief, improved sleep, even weight loss on long term.

Shinrin Yoku is becoming more and more popular in North-West Europe (but still a very small niche market), partly because it resonates with old cultural practices from the Old Religion that was celebrated by the Celts and other indigenous people before Christianity removed or replaced the cultural practices by Christian ones. The christmas tree is actually based on a symbol of the old religion. There are sources that said Maria in Christianity was so popular, in especially our countries, because we could recognise the Goddess figure in her. In this Old Religion, also trees and other nature elements had a very special place and role. For example, people would wear wooden pegs (later broches) at their clothes, because they believed that the tree spirit would accompany and protect them. There were also the figures of druids who gathered fruits, barks and wood from different trees. Shintoism and the Old Religion of the Celts are not that different from each other.

Since I am 10 years old,  I study north and western old religions and mythologies, and also know a bit about forestry. Currently I also do a Phd in environmental studies and know a lot about ecology. I also visited different spiritual guides across the world and talked often about the role of nature, nature spirits and ecospirituality. Since I am here I try to read as much as possible about shintoism and especially the sacred trees.

I like to explore more the connections between shintoism and shinrin-yoku with my own almost lost indigenous wisdom by organising trips to forests, shrine parks, during special moments in the Celtic Year, and engage in conversations about (almost forgotten) indigenous wisdom of our cultures, but also find time to enjoy the healing aroma of the trees and forest.

I planned a first DIY Forest Therapy event in a shrine forest nearby Nagoya, on November 4th, after Samhain. I invited Japanese and not-Japanese friends. Samhain, is the Celtic New Year and a festival of the Dead (very similar to Obon, a Japanese festival celebrated in the middle of August). Samhain isn’t necessarily a creepy, morbid holiday obsessed with death, as some may conclude. Instead, it reaches for themes deeper than that, tying in with Nature’s rhythms. In many places, Samhain coincides with the end of the growing season. Vegetation dies back with killing frosts, and therefore, literally, death is in the air. This contributes to the ancient notion that at Samhain, the veil is thin between the world of the living and the realm of the Dead and this facilitates contact and communication.

We will celebrate the end of Summer by doing a meditative walk in a forst park. In early November, the autumn leaves can be gorgeous, and I think these trees will color red. I also asked everyone to bring autumn-related food and drinks. One friend told me she will make pumpkin pie. I suggested the following:

 

  • Harvest food such as pumpkins, squash, root vegetables, chestnuts
  • sweet potato latte, pumpkin soup, chestnut cake etc.  
  • Nuts and berries, dark breads
  • apple juice, apples, apple cake, pomegranate juice, pomegranate
  • herbal teas: sage, catnip, mugwort

 

Pomegranate refers to Persephone, the queen of the Ancient Greek Underworld. Apples are also symbols of this festival. The recommended herbal teas are very good for detoxing and purification. A Mexican friend told me that her mother used bundled sage twigs to clean her from bad spirits, when she was a child. It is all about letting it go.

The way how my ancestors celebrated Samhain is very similar to practices in shinrin yoku and forest therapy, so I think it very good for everyone who just needs more time to enjoy nature and the silence of it, and contemplate about death and rebirth.

What will you do?