Tag Archives: Japan

Changing the Stories We Live By #3: If Furniture Could Talk

In the past 6 months, I was working at a story that would become eventually my debut roman. It is funny how things turn out. I was actually working at another manuscript for 8 years (!), but then a golden opportunity came (read: I could use a part of a grant for a communication about circulair economy). So, my story about dryads is put on a hold and in April I used all my free evenings on writing “If Furniture Could Talk“. I wrote in my mother tongue, so the title is actually “Als Meubels Konden Spreken”. I am using a lot of my knowledge about eco-psychology and ecolinguistics in this story, because I wanted to write a story with impact. This article shares some ideas about the impact of stories on sustainable transitions, and my own learning and writing process.

A small fairytale about circular economy

Once upon a time… a beautiful planet with some finite supplies of raw materials and materials, where beautiful people live. They invented beautiful things. Unfortunately, they organised their economy in a linear way. This led to a major materials and energy crisis. Some of the brainiacs preached for a more circular economy, but the old linear ways were already so firmly anchored that not many beautiful people responded to their ideas. The collegeboys came up with scientific reports full of evidence. But no… yet the rest of the population didn’t want to change. That caused a lot of frustration among those brainiacs. Why is the transition so slow? Why is it not accepted by others? Why don’t people change so quickly?

Bold Branders

In Flanders (Belgium), there have been wonderful initiatives in the field of circular economy for years. But not all of them bear the label of circular economy – because that is still an abstract concept. Or yes, a lot of information has been written precisely for highly educated people, especially in the sustainability sector. Although… more and more you see economists at the workshops of Flanders Circular. Circular economy clashes with a glass ceiling, and according to Bold Branders, the collective of volunteers to who I belong, this is sometimes due to the communication and management of knowledge.

Why storytelling?

At Bold Branders we look at science, but we know that scientific texts and reports are not widely accepted by the general public. There is also a wealth of research that allows people to influence their choices more through emotions than reason.
This is why we are opting for the oldest form of knowledge management in which we evoke emotions: stories. For thousands of years, people have passed on knowledge, culture, norms and values from generation to generation on the basis of stories. Also recently, knowledge about sustainability and ecological and social problems has been disseminated worldwide, with perhaps Rachel Carson’s “Dead Spring” (Silent Spring) as the best known example. That’s why we, Bold Branders, decided to write a circular novel…. to live happily ever after.

rachel carson

Continue reading Changing the Stories We Live By #3: If Furniture Could Talk

One Year of Wood Wide Web Stories

Last year, during the autumn equinox, I decided to start this website and blog. It has been already one year that I posted my first blog: How the Search for Tree Spirits Started. I am starting now the third year of my PhD studies in environmental studies at Nagoya University in Japan and reflecting a bit what I learned in the last year, in Japan, but also during my two visits to Norway and Belgium. A bit more than one year ago, during a visit to my parents in Belgium, I learned about forest and nature therapy, about shin-rin yoku and felt this sudden click. This is it. Before my return to Japan, I visited London with a friend and also bought some books in Treadwell’s about sacred trees, tree alphabet and druids, which helped me to learn more about especially trees and the culture practices and relationship my ancestors had with them. In another bookstore in London, I found this amazing book “Around the World in 80 Trees“, in which expert Jonathan Drori uses plant science to illuminate how trees play a role in every part of human life, from the romantic to the regrettable. Packed with these books I returned to Japan around autumn equinox.

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That lead to my first experiences with DIY Forest Therapy 森林浴, and 9 months later let me organise a group expedition to one of the Japanese certified forest therapy base camps, of which Forest Therapy Taking Root is a report.

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As a sustainability scientist, I read everyday about evidence about social and environmental issues and the treats that are coming. I know some effects come with a delay and it makes me anxious to know that the “worst is yet to come”. Sometimes I am happy I do not have children (yet), because I know the future will be tough. It makes me depressed. I think that is one reason why I did not spend that much care to myself in the last year(s), as you could read in this blog: Fireworks, Bamboo and the Height of Japanese Summer

But in the end last summer, I decided to transform the challenges into opportunities, and look more in practices and ideas which are about healing the relationships in our ecosystems. Actually some ideas I already know, because I encountered many inspiring people and did a full course in permaculture some years ago, but it did not take root in me. I was writing already stories about dryads and collecting legends about tree spirits for already some years. I also wrote a blog about Thai legends about tree spirits: Why do Thai Tree Spirits like Red Fanta ?

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But the ideas were just used for fiction, not in my real life. In the last year, I looked for a balance between spending time in ‘depressive’ science and ‘uplifting’ therapy; and it helped me to get more energy to do more in the first. I got more creative, and people are asking me the whole time how I get all the ideas. Actually, many sustainability scientists do not spend that much time in the environment, but stay in laboratoriums and offices in the city. It is a bit ironic, because by actually spending more time with nature, my love became even deeper and I got more motivated; understood more why I am studying and working in the sustainability field. Before, people spent more time in nature; there were also more festivities and holidays to celebrate this relationship (more holidays than Belgians have), and I believe it is good to spend time, to restore or strengthen this reciprocal relationship.

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In November I got some blues, and I decided to not stay, but tae a break from city life and explore the beautiful colours of autumn in the Japanese nature. Vitamin Ginkgo for your November Depression. Also, after a visit to Japan’s most famous spot for suicide, it became again clear why we should spend more time with ourselves in nature, or with family, and less in work. What did a visit to Japan’s suicide forest teach me about forest therapy?

In the end of December I decided to visit an old friend in Norway. Since I was a child I am fascinated by the folklore and culture Norwegians have. In Belgium, a lot of indigenous knowledge is lost, partly because of the Inquisition of the Church in earlier centuries, but when you go more to the north in Europe, where the Inquisition has less influence, you find many practices. It was my second trip to Norway and I realised again how much I love this place. This trip taught me a lot, partly because my friend also was very happy to share stories, his insights about living in nature and teach me some skills (or let me remember old skills that my grandfather who lived in the Belgian countryside taught me once). I wrote also some blog about winter time in Norway: Norway Spruce, a story about Shaman Claus, mushrooms and fire. Our old friendship transformed into more.

Screen Shot 2019-08-27 at 10.59.41 I returned to Japan. Spring came. “Holly” Devil, it’s Spring again! My family came to visit me in Japan. I am halfway my Japan adventure. The cherry blossoms reminded me again how life is so fragile. One year earlier, I lost a very close friend. He was 25. That period, some friends asked me to also write a text about his loss and I let me inspire by the cherry blossoms.

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I returned also to Norway for two weeks, when it was almost Norwegian Easter: time for ash and crime I  was the guest of my boyfriend in his house. It was still winter, and I liked to work inside his house at writing an academic article, where I had no wifi, drinking hot tea and fuelling the stove with Norwegian Birch Bark. In his free time, he took me on road trips to remote places in nature and do little snow hikes with him.

Screen Shot 2019-08-27 at 11.11.04However, the new semester was starting in Japan, and I had teaching assistant responsibilities. Also, two weeks after my return, an old friend from Belgium would arrive and we planned a trip of 6 days to Okinawa together. Okinawa: from its longevity secrets to mischievous tree trolls. After this trip, my relationship with my boyfriend ended, and we became back friends. It was difficult, but the best for us both. For instance, I learned actually that a long distance (and even intercontinental relationship with 7 or 8 hour time difference was not my cup of tea). I found healing by going hiking the lower mountains of Japan a lot. Also, our friendship was so strong that we were still communicating a lot, about Norway, Japan, and other things. He helped me to learn more about the sacred trees in the gardens of Norwegians and Swedish: Sacred “Garden” trees of Norway and Sweden I still believe he is a great, beautiful man, and am very grateful for all experiences we have, as friends and the short time also as boyfriend and girlfriend.

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In June he came also to Japan, for 3 weeks, but as my bestie. First, I took him for a day hike to Nakansendo and realised that we do not always need ‘new’ spaces to experience something new: Nakansendo’s whispers – or different interpretations of Silence

We explored Hokkaido together, and because of him I was confident enough to climb my first Japan’s high mountain and go camping in a national park. After a steep descend on a snow slope (where I cursed a lot), I thanked him as he guided me through, but he said with a little smile: “Why do you thank me? You did it all yourself.” It was also interesting to talk with him about Hokkaido’s indigenous people and compare a bit with the Saami in Scandinavic countries: Birch cake and the colonization of Hokkaido’s nature and Ainu

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At the summit of Hokkaido’s highest mountain and volcano (2291m).

He also joined the aforementioned expedition to the forest therapy base. During our travel in Japan we talked a lot about this split between nature and the rest, about how people try to control and make all nature accessible to everyone, but also making it too easy for people who do not have respect for their limits or that of nature. Forest therapy is a nice treatment, but it is pity that nature is not more part in the lives of city dwellers. In Meeting Japan’s curse spirits during a Forest Bath I shared some of these insights.

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He left around summer solstice and we also decided to give each other more space. He was going to prepare to climb Mont Blanc and Matterhorn (spoiler: he succeeded). I needed to focus on writing a Flemish local science fiction roman, where rescued wood, maker’s culture, furniture and retrofitting old wooden houses were central. I draw a lot of inspiration from my own PhD, and all the interesting people I met in Japan, but also from my bestie. Sometimes I feel he became an important part of my life this year, because I had to remind again how valuable making things, being in nature is, and teach me some skills necessary for my comfort. Because of him, I read this book “Norwegian Wood” by Lars Mytting and got more inspiration for the project.  This book project, together with my PhD, occupied my whole summer (and the launch is planned for November 23rd). But I also found time to experience and guide people in the forests and mountains. I find a lot of joy in forest therapy activities – which is also about pleasure and sensuality- while the raw therapy of the mountains confronted me with some fears and my own limits: Forests, Mountains and other therapists.

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Early September, I left Japan for USA to start my training in forest and nature therapy. It was a great experience and when I am back from USA I will write about this. Now I am relaxing in the house of a Belgian friend in USA. In one week I will continue the travel to Belgium, for the book launch and some data collection for my PhD research, but also for meeting friends and family.

In the end of November I return to Japan, for the last 10 months. Expect in the coming months more blogs about USA and  Belgium (I found out there is a forest in Belgium with wooden trolls which I will definitely visit and write an article about). I am also curious what I will learn, which new persons I will meet, or with which old friends I will get (re)connected and what I will learn from them.

But today, during this autumn equinox, I like focus on the now and be grateful for all the lessons and experiences, and also for all the blogs I could share in the last year with the readers of the Wood Wide Web Stories. Thank you for reading, re-blogging, commenting and sharing. Up to another year of blogging! Dankuwel :). 

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.

mountain therapist

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.