Tag Archives: Japan

Changing the Stories We Live by #1: Appreciating Rain

Stories are the secret reservoir of values: change the stories that individuals or nations live by and you change the individuals and nations themselves (Ben Okri).

A friend recommended me the free on-line course Ecolinguistics, which you can access here: http://storiesweliveby.org.uk – and I totally love it. As someone who studied storytelling and environment, and thinks about language often (I come from Belgium which has three official language and work in a multilingual team in quite monolingual Japan) , this course helped me to understand even more how storytelling can be a tool to bring change.

As the website describes, this course tells …

how the everyday language used in society encodes particular ways of seeing the world: the stories we live by. It defines ecolinguistics in terms of these stories, as an active form of research that aims to reveal the stories we live by, question them from an ecological perspective, and contribute to the search for new stories to live by.

I read the course in 2-3 hours, so it is not a lot of material you have to digest. After the introduction, the course explains eight different sorts of stories. In this blog I want to talk briefly about the story of “evaluation”, which are …

Stories in people’s minds about whether an area of life is good or bad.

I recommend to visit the website and read (and watch) the whole course. But let me explain evaluation with the example of rain.

I enjoy rain a lot. Some weeks ago I said to someone too I liked some clouds during the hikes, because I would not get sunburned, cannot deal the hot temperature, and it hinders the sun of casting strong shadows which do not look nice on your photographs. I also love the smell of nature after rain and how the colors also become sharper. I feel I also get more energized and that my face gets “cleansed” when I walk in some more rainy weather. Some friends did not look to rainy or cloudy days like this. However, when you analyse western advertisement of travel agencies, you see they use the story that “sunny weather is good weather”. They try to convince us to only love sunny weather and take a flight (preferably arranged by the mentioned travel agency) to escape “gloomy weather” to enjoy sunshine holidays.

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I took the photo during a visit at one of the forest therapy bases in Japan, when there was a bit of rain

What I like about Japan is the appreciation for “ordinary” nature, which is an idea you can find back in the legendary haiku poems. When I read the explanation of how haiku is actually a good example of “evaluation” from an ecolinguistics perspective, I was nodding a lot and realizing that Japanese art and the appreciation of all four seasons was something that I really loved about living here. I remembered that rain was also nice weather. Actually all weather is nice.

Hence, I agree with these 5 haiku poets, that there is a lot of beauty, joy and wisdom to be found in rain too.

夜はうれしく/昼は静かや/春の雨
Joyful at night / tranquil during the day / spring rain (Chora).

五月雨/ある夜ひそかに/松の月
Summer rains / secretly one evening / moon in the pines (Ryōta).

春なれや/名もなき山の/朝霞
Spring is here / morning mist / on a nameless mountain (Bashō).

梅の樹の/かたちづくりす/初時雨
Sculpting the shape / of the plum tree / first winter rain (Kitō).

三たびないて/聞こえずなりぬ/雨の鹿
Calling three times / then no more to be heard / the deer in the rain (Buson).

I got these five haiku translations from an online course in ecolinguistics, part 5: evaluations. In the next months, I will share some more blogs about ecolinguistics. I feel as a forest therapy guide that ecolinguistics and storytelling could be tool for the activism to improve, or even restore, the relationship between the nature in us and outside our bodies.

Forests, Mountains and other therapists

On the last day of August, I reflect what the forests, my ‘soft’ therapists, and the mountains, my ‘raw’ therapists taught me this summer in Japan.

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Middle of June – Mt Fuji from below

Ten weeks ago I took this picture of Mt Fuji. I have not climbed it. I would be a fool, according to a Japanese saying, if I would want to climb Mt Fuji twice :D. However, my visitor from Norway had climbed and descended Mt Fuji in 4,5 hours. That guy climbed some weeks later also Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. I do not plan to beat his Mt Fuji record. You can add an 1 before that 4 ;). And that is ok. I should not compare myself with him or any other mountaineer. Or have the same dreams, targets etc. You’ve different kind of mountaineers and nature lovers. And that is ok. Climbing mountains is about knowing your limits, about conquering yourself, and we are all different, and that is ok.

Late July – a vision board

Summer is the time that Japanese, especially older people, greet the summits of the higher mountains of Japan. The lower mountains are “too hot”. So that is what I planned. I climbed two of the three Holy Mountains (三霊山 Sanreizan): Hakusan (also know as the White Mountain) alone and Tateyama (known as “standing mountain”) with two friends, and hope to add Mt Fuji.  This is the vision board I made:

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Early August – Sirens or therapists?

I thought a lot about mountains this summer. I saw a Netflix documentary about mountains, telling how they are like sirens, luring people far away from human controlled and human made environments, with their beauty, putting some of them in risk and danger. I can understand, and I recognised especially myself in the images of the mountaineers cursing, crying and failing. I really got to know myself through these therapists – or yeah, sirens.  I cried. I cursed in three languages. I felt “op mijn bakkes” at height of 2700m. That is a very Flemish expression to say you tripled.

And I laughed. And I found stillness.

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Middle of August – Mountain therapy

In June I had also headaches. I went to an Eastern Medicine doctor, and it was clear I had tension headaches. Maybe because I  do so much …  It was a good therapy session. I felt this summer, I encountered many different therapists who let me realise and point out where I am stuck in my personal development. Mountains, as therapists, let me realise sometimes what and when I can “drop” or cannot. I know I am very bad in saying no, or am interested in too many things, plan so much, dream so much, have so many ideas, but when you climb a mountain, you have to focus on the now. It’s different than forest therapy, which is more about relaxing, sensuality, intimacy, even pleasure.  Forests are the nice therapists.

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Mountains are raw. These therapists let you think about your body, your limits, your breath, your pace, and your fears. You do not think anymore about your Google calendar, to-do-lists or your appearance.

You think: concentrate. Up to the next step.

Or when you see a beautiful landscape… wow.

Or … oh my god, why I am doing this?

I curse when I had to descend. Most accidents happen when you descend Japanese mountains: they are quite steep and you need to focus on each step.

Hakusan’s lesson: breath through the nose, or slow down

I decided to climb Hakusan alone, and was disconnected for 36 hours. You start at 1250m and reach the height of 2702m and pass different landscapes which could be used for movies like sound of music or lord of the rings (including Mordor). It was very hot, but as an aforementioned mountaineer advised me two months earlier I try to breath only through my noise. Otherwise if you cannot control your breath you slow down your pace. This control of breath helped me to climb 1500m under 33degrees in less than 6 hours in a steady pace.

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Hakusan is one of Japan’s three holy mountains. A Japanese lady I met in the mountain lodge where I stayed last night (with hundreds other Japanese, and I seemed to be the only foreigner) told me she had been 5 times to this sacred space and shared how important it was to her: I saw her paying respects to the mountain spirits. We became friends for some hours.

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At the peak she pointed to the other side of the peak; to the crater and said she has never been there, because it looks scary. Five minutes later she and I decided to explore that place … nicknamed “hell”. We had to descend the crater, toured along lakes another crater and returned over a alpine field with snow patches. It was also her first time to cross a snowfield and we saw wild life (the cute ones; not the ones that can kill you). She pointed me to some famous flowers.

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While the sun went down and colored the landscape in a warm palette of colors, I wrote some postcards and drunk beer (no showers in the mountain cabin, but they got a beer bar and a post office; the Japanese mountaineers know their priorities 😉).

The next days I walked along a sea of clouds and mountain peaks and realized that 1500m elevation gain was more than I thought the day before. At the trailhead while waiting 2 hours for the bus stop, the old Japanese park ranger gave me free instant coffee. Actually I got many small presents of Japanese people, like salt tablets for example. And I could practice my basic Japanese sentences. Which is mostly “the flowers are beautiful.” “Terribly warm; isn’t it?” and “I am from Belgium. We are famous for beer and chocolate…. Now I do not have some. Sorry.” And 300 times “konnichiwa!” to all the people I passed, which made them smile.

Tateyama’s class: while descending, first put your heel, then toes

After taking a bus, a train, stay overnight in Toyoma, then take again an early train to a station where I met up with two friends, a ropeway and a bus to Japan’s highest bus station (at height of 2400m), it was time for the second holy mountain. That was a steep ascend. While Hakusan required 1200 meter elevation gain, this was “only 600m”, but there I did not think about breathing and heat. I was almost bouldering up, and thought one thing “up, up, up”. I was not relaxing, as I realised I had to descend at some point. I was also more tired; some Japanese people called me brave, tough to do this right after Hakusan. I thought I was stupid 😉 But yes, I reached Tateyama’s highest peak: 3015m.

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At some point,  when we continued the path over the mountain ridge toward Tsurugi (no, I did not climb that one for the Japanese readers among you), the path was very small, we were hiking for 5-6 hours, and one of the the guys had to hold my hand, because I was very tired and also a bit scared. I felt back I was in Pakistani Himalaya, crossing a steep landslide, while dressed in the most conservative clothes, and also holding the hands of my driver, although it was not ‘appropriate’. I am grateful for all people that once hold my hand. It helps. Thanks.

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After the end of the third day hiking (or first day Tateyama), in front of the mountain cabin, my muscles relaxed so much I tripped over my feet. Quite an elegant entrance. I got tears and laughed at the same time, saying to the guys: “Wow, I could have tripped in 1001 worse places today.”.

The guys left me to climb Tsurugi, which is one of Japan’s most dangerous mountains. Spoiler: they survived. The pictures are amazing, but no, I am a different kind of mountaineer. Tsurigi is a mountain I will watch and never touch. In the next morning, around 05.30 am I was gazing in the mountain cabin at this beauty:

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The next day I joined a 70 year old Japanese doctor and his friend in the descend. We went very slowly and they gave me good hints about descending safely (they did mountaineering for many years). It did not feel “steep”, until I saw at the end of the trip, from distance, that it was really steep. I ordered beer and thanked the mountain spirits. This photograph is the summary of the trip: we ascended via the right, walked over the mountain ridge, and I descended somewhere in the left of that ridge.

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Forest therapy 

Then it was more time for the more softer “therapist”. Also ten weeks ago, after my friend climbed Mt Fuji and I was eating in the village at its foot some pastries, we visited the suicide forest close to Mt Fuji (What did a visit to Japan’s suicide forest teach me about forest therapy? and the next day I co-organised this visit to one of the 62 certified forest therapy bases in Japan, about which I wrote more in this blogs: Forest Therapy Taking Root and Meeting Japan’s curse spirits during a Forest Bath

The weekend after I consulted the mountains, I got  paid to give my first forest and nature therapy session ever. This is the nicest paid weekend job I ever did :). I wrote more about this in a blog called Wood weaving & forest bathing in Nagano, Japan.

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Late August- The lesson of Mt Fuji – learn to say no and rest

So yes, in the end of August, I thought and told friends and family, it was time to climb Mt Fuji, the last of the three holy mountains.

However, two days before, I decide to cancel, because another friend had to cancel and it gave me the opportunity to reconsider and reflect. Some days earlier I got back tension headaches, because I had still so much tasks at my sleeve – and only 8 days left before I would leave Japan. After Tateyama that let me curse a lot, I felt it was almost a bit too much to go for more “hard therapy”. I had also a bad feeling about climbing Mt Fuji. In addition, the two friends were not fully prepared and real beginners, and I felt also pressure to feel responsible for their safety and comfort. Some friends I hoped to climb with,  could not join this time.

After that friend cancelled, the secretary of my supervisor told me that the day before a Russian young woman of my age died because of falling rocks. Too many people on Mt Fuji. My sensei said that landslides caused by (over)tourism was actually getting a bigger problem. I remembered also what my Norwegian friend said: you’ve two kind of famous mountains; the first you climb because they are beautiful; the second kinds are ugly and you just climb them for the prestige. He said Mt Fuji was clearly the second one, and maybe not even worth it. He climbed it off-season, and saw almost nobody, but he would not do it in crowded area. It would annoy him too much. 

After talking with some friends,  I realised I wanted to climb it for the wrong intention, namely showing off “my physical fitness and mental strength” to others.   And I thought… would it not be better to say goodbye to Japan on the summit of Mt Fuji, with some friends I made, and when I have more time and less responsibilities. Last, and most important, to be very honest, I also connected Mt Fuji with my bestie from Norway, and it was difficult to let Mt Fuji go, because it was also about letting go a piece of him. The whole decision was very mental difficult as I confronted myself with some things I still try to hold on, including my pride.

I also talked with two of my close friends, one in Europe and my yoga teacher in Japan, and they also said I should not be ashamed to choose to rest. You could say that Mt Fuji’s therapy nudged me to learn to say no. By actually moving the plan to climb Mt Fuji to my next and last summer in Japan, I was being honest and think less about what other people might think. I feel that was the lesson that Mt Fuji taught me this summer. It is not time yet to climb her. And that is ok. Come back, Fuji told me, when your intentions are right, because I and you deserve this respect. So, that is how I ended my Japanese summer. Not with a big explosion or hero adventure. But with actually time to say proper goodbye to some people I would not see for a long time. That is ok.

We do not always need to grow or show our strength, but also to rest. It was ok that this summer, I only saw Mt Fuji from below and restored from the Hokkaido travel in its shadows. I am happy. 

Fireworks, Bamboo and the Height of Japanese Summer

After Summer solstice (and my bestie from Norway left), the weather changed very dramatically in Nagoya, Japan. In the last week of June, I felt myself suffocating in the evenings. The temperature and humidity started to drop. And the noisy cicadas came and reminded us all “summer is here, take your salt tablets and stay cool”.  In the end of July, it got worse. the news make the shift from 梅雨 (rainy season) to 夏本番 (height of summer) officially. Last weeks were then also filled with dealing with the heat (and humidity). Last year, I stayed inside, ate fastfood and gained quite some weight. Last summer, a friend even told me to watch out for my health, and I also realised that the weight gain and staying inside was a manifestation of some depressed thoughts I had that first year. This summer I took another way. In the second half of August last year, my focus toward health, forest therapy started (which is no surprise, according to my yoga teacher, because then it’s season of Virgo, and time for self-care and health), so now I harvest actually the fruits of one year taking more care of my relationship with myself and nature. I did not only get back the weight before I let myself go in my first year in Japan, but I have back the weight of 8 years ago, when I was a wild child exploring the Himalaya.
In this blog I want to talk about summer, the season of fire, or in Japan, also the season of fireworks (which have a shintoism origin) and bamboo.  Let’s first start talking about bamboo. This unique fast-growing grass can teach us a lot about sustainability, as a renewable and natural material, but as a guide about how to deal with shocks and surprises, like the new summer temperature records that are (unfortunately) getting the normal.
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5 minutes walking from my home I took this photograph of this “grass”. 

Bamboo and sustainability

Some weeks ago I wondered… something I do not understand is why bamboo is not used so widely in Japan as a construction material while some species are called “vegan steel” and can withstand heavy earthquakes (at least better than not-reinforced concrete). And as usual, social media can read your thoughts, and some days later, an article called “Bamboo is everywhere, but how sustainable is it?” The takeaway of this article is:

“Bamboo is a super unique plant that has the potential to be used in many industries to lower impact. But, as with any other material, it needs to be grown and harvested responsibly in order to be truly sustainable.”

A sustainability expert from Mexico also told me why bamboo should not be considered as a sustainable construction material:

It is alien to many ecosystems. Bamboo is a living being, and its worldwide usage will entail its transportation from distant places or its introduction in local ecosystems for exploitation. Both have an ecological impact which needs to be thoroughly considered. Its utilization needs to be contrasted with such impact, as well as if it does indeed successfully replace the traditional materials qualities, or not. It is endangered in its native ecosystems. Bamboo forests are dwindling, probably not out of its utilization as a building material, but this should be a red flag on the critical analysis of Bamboo in construction.

Structural resistance is not the only thing that matters. Thermal comfort, impermeability, and fire resistance, and local availability are very important factors when choosing materials. I will use the example of Adobe as I mentioned before and compare it to bamboo. Under the scorching Mexican sun, the heat is unbearable, sometimes shadows are not enough.

Adobe is a great thermal isolator, it keeps the warmth out or in, depending on the season. In order to build with adobe, it is combined with a certain kind of cane “cañamo”, whose replacement with bamboo would hardly have an impact. Adobe is earth, which is quite available in Mexico, and although it entails the use of water, it is not much. In this specific case, I deem adobe and cañamo better materials than bamboo. Adobe is fire resistant and last very long time, some rural houses made of adobe in Mexico date from the late XVIII. This is a short and incomplete example of why I stress that bamboo is an interesting solution, but not everywhere, not for every material, and not for every social sector.

So… talking about thermal comfort…

Be like Bamboo during Japanese summers

Something I heard a lot is to be like “bamboo”, be flexible, adaptive and resilient. The summers in Japan are getting more terrible. It’s not the temperature, but the humidity makes this cocktail very dangerous. I read an article of a 28 year old Japanese guy that died after sunbathing. There will be more surprises and shocks, as we cross more and more tipping points of our ecosystem (of which the fires in Siberia, Alaska, Amazons are all warning signals). Therefore, policy makers should/do not only look into reducing the impact, but also invest in climate change adaptation strategies, and preferably strategies that combine reducing and adapting the climate change effects.

Being flexible is not only applicable to climate change. This month I had this very great talk with one of my PhD advisors about being a foreigner and doing a PhD in Japan. He also comes from another country and did his PhD in our lab. He told that after two years he was still very confused, sometimes frustrated… but then just accepted he could not know everything or be part of the hierarchical system. He said I was not there yet, in that phase of letting go so I can become more flexible as bamboo, and less “stubborn as an oak” (I am soon finishing my second year). He shared this with me, to let me realise it is ok to change opinions, views etc…  When you I let go certain convictions and mental models I would have more fun. However, sometimes I wonder if I would not have more fun if I lived full time in the forest 😉

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Fireworks in Japanese summer

Everyone who stayed long enough in Japan, knows about “hanabi” or the fireworks. Yesterday I got to experience something real “unique Japanese” that even most Japanese or foreigners cannot experience 😎.  Friends arranged press seats to a “handmade bamboo firework festival” in Toyokawa (Aichi prefecture, one hour driving from Nagoya), because they know the people that make and do the stunt with the handmade firework. We had to sign safety declaration, got a traditional jumper et. Some people in the audience took photographs of me and thought I was also a performer.  There were thousands of people, but we got place in front.

It was impressive. I had a lot of fun. Later, at a local afterparty, one of the former firework makers told me about the origins of this festival. He asked me if I know shintoism. In earlier times, Japanese were scared of nature (it reminds me to the fear Norwegians had for the forest, and lead to the belief of creatures like trolls and other spirits). To show respect, they hold rituals, of which some of them were about sacrifice.

What they do, has a lot of risk. Your heart is pounding when you are holding the handmade firework, because of it is full of gun powder. It can go wrong and explode, but happily that did not happen this edition. Later, some of them showed me their wounds on their arms and collarbones. “It is actually a bit crazy, when you think about it,” said one of them too me.

They explained me also how they made it. One month before, they cut the bamboo and “sand” it so it is smooth (which is necessary for safety). The ropes and the gunpowder have to be bought, and a professional guides them how to put the gunpowder in it. I am now more and more in a phase I want to learn how to make, fix and repair things, so I kind of said I was interested to join them next summer. That would be an epic closure of my three year long Japanese chapter.

We will see what happens. Life is full of surprises and shocks, and I will respond to what happens. I try not to plan ahead too much. Maybe be more like fire. That is the element of following your gut feeling, of energy, of doing. However, now summer is almost finishing. The Oak king’s power is fading away and my favourite season is arriving soon; autumn, where you harvest and be grateful for all the hard work, and where the colours swirl around you.

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! 

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.  

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

Meeting Japan’s curse spirits during a Forest Bath

Several weeks ago I experienced a first forest bath in one of the 62 certified forest therapy bases in Japan. You can read and see photographs in this blog: Forest therapy Taking Root. What I did not mention, was that we were… not alone.

 

Hill Worms

Two days before, the facility staff of the center told us to wear long sleeves, long pants and long socks that can cover the bottoms of the pants … because there will be hill worms that suck blood. It sounds more horrible than it was. In the end, the stress hormones of most participants decreased, despite the presence of these animals. You could also see who were the city dwellers and who were more used to bugs. I also brought one of my best friends. He comes from another large forest civilization like Japan, but with a much lower population density. He was showing me  as a happy child on discovery every time a worm on the top of his umbrella or shoe, while others around us were removing the worms of their shoes with sticks, as if it was a curse.

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(c) Wendy Wuyts

Actually, later I realised; when I reflected more with my Norwegian friend and one of the two Japanese forest therapy guides; that the worms are actually a good departure point to talk about “human control of nature”.

Forest civilisations

For a Flemish person it is striking that Japan is a real forest civilization. Even though the Japanese are twelve times as many as the Belgians, the population density is about the same. However, our country is not even 20% forested, while Japan is two-thirds forested. It may be one of the most populous countries in the world, but Japan is also one of the greenest, with a great diversity of trees. One of my research projects also regularly takes me to the countryside north of Nagoya, where I learned more about the fragrant cypress trees and forest culture and management from local experts over the past year and a half. My own professor is also interested in a “lignification” of the Japanese cities. Environmental egineers here talk about carbon storage and absorption of young trees, about the effect of trees in cities on thermal comfort and the subjective perception of temperature, the regulation of water management, reducing risk for landslides and erosion and other things. Forests are so important, and although I focus here mostly on cultural values and effects on mental health, as an environmental scientist I can give so many reasons why it is also good for the planetary health (and also for us). Trees are also central to Shintoism, their indigenous religion, and you often see how much respect they have for all their nature.

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(c) Wendy Wuyts

Since the 17th century there have been strict regulations on forestry and forest management. In the times of the samurai these were so strict that if you cut down certain trees in the Kiso valley (north of Nagoya) you even risked the death penalty. “A head for each felled tree, an arm for a broken branch,” that was the punishment. These trees were destined for the houses and temples of powerful families, or Buddha statues.

On the other hand, when I moved to Japan, I thought I would learn a lot about sustainable practices in environment, but how longer I am in Japan, how more confused I am. My Norwegian friend had also similar confused feelings as I had two years ago, and we found ourselves talking a lot about control of nature (and princess Mononoke).

Norwegian Outdoors vs Japanese forest bathing

In Norway it is quite normal to spend a lot of time in nature. My Norwegian friend explained to me that as early as the 19th century the urban working class in his country was encouraged to take the train to the woods every Sunday because, like the Japanese, they also had that intuitive knowledge that living in nature is good for you. But he was also a bit sceptical about all rules and procedures (for which Japanese are known) and did not like it that we were in a big group of more than 20. He is the kind of guy that enjoys the woods in silence, preferably alone. I have to agree that I also enjoy being in the forest on my own, or with people that make me feel comfortable. There is a poem of Mary Oliver which explains forest bathing how he and I enjoy it the most:

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During his flight to Japan, an article in the Norwegian media about the trend of forest baths also caught his attention. The Norwegian journalist thought that forest baths meant “simply swimming in a lake”. After my explanation he already said that he already automatically takes forest bathes every week.

“But do you open all your five senses?” I asked him, because I knew from experience that he had a rather high walking pace, and when it comes to forest baths, it’s all about moving through a forest as slowly and consciously as possible.
“Yes, it’s normal for us to touch leaves, rest our backs against a tree, smell pine needles and so on… I just do not need rules like the Japanese do. ”

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(c) Wendy Wuyts

Why especially City dwellers should take forest baths

He did admit that forest baths are effective for urban dwellers, and that the role of nature people like him and me is to get city dwellers into the wild every week. He is pleased that Japanese city dwellers travel to the forest every week, but he also shared reflections on nature conservation and how sorry he thought it was that many places were too easily accessible for many people. He noted that too many mountains in Japan had a cable car. That day, he and I had been traveling for two weeks and did a lot of hiking, trekking and camping; from Hokkaido’s national parks to Mt Fuji. Many times he had remarked how much Japanese try “to control the mountain to make it accessible for everyone”.

He understood that access to nature must be a human right. “But not all nature should be accessible for everyone, because some places are dangerous for people who think they can climb a mountain with sandals, or who don’t realize that they need a guide or know what should be in a day backpack.  This results in blogs which say that for example Mt Fuji is tough. But Mt Fuji was not a difficult mountain at all. Now I understood they just were not in good shape and, or they did not bring the right gear, because they do not take the effort to get some outdoor skills and knowledge.”

We agreed that being nature is about understanding limits. Not only of ourselves, but also of nature. We have to respect that every place has a carrying capacity, and we have to not underestimate ourselves, especially in nature.

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(c) Wendy Wuyts

Princess Mononoke

Nowadays, these worms are there almost whole year, one of the forest therapy guides told us. During the allocation of this forest therapy base, these worms were not there, but then this was also a godforsaken place. Now animals from higher up bring these leeches when to go down; to this place in search of food, because man has reduced their territory. “There is a reason why Ghibli Studio choose these worms for princess Mononoke. It are always animals from higher up, from more remote areas, losing territory, that bring this curse to the human world.”

For those who have seen the popular animated film “Princess Mononoke”, recognizes that animals also came from the mountains and were possessed by these demonic worms squirming over their whole body. In this movie, the toxic used by some colonising humans causes the curse. In the beginning of the movie, one of the main characters get infected by this curse when he protects his village against a possessed animal. The movie is about his search to find a cure, but in the meantime he also learns more about forest spirits, wolves and the impact of the colonisation of nature.

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Screenshot of the animation movie “princess Mononoke”

This animation movie inspired me so many years ago to visit Japan, and stay there for some time, to reflect about the relationship between nature and culture, the impact of civil and environmental engineering. For me, I got maybe too excited about these worms, or curse spirits, but partly because it closes a circle for me.

I met the worms. I saw in the past two years very confusing images of infrastructure that let me wonder… why do we keep building (especially in a country which society is shrinking?). I know jobs have to be created, that accessibility is a human right … but sometimes it is good to rest.

What do you think?