Tag Archives: sense of place

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

Sacred “Garden” trees of Norway and Sweden

When I was doing research about trees in Norway I found this interesting paper by Douglas Fore Holmes about “sacred trees of Norway and Sweden: a friliftsliv quest” and was of course immediately intrigued. His abstract was very promising:

What began as a curiosity about the traditions and folklore related to trees planted in the center of many farms in Norway, “Tuntre“, and Sweden, “Vårdträd“, led me to a recognition of a tradition that can still be observed in the cultural landscape today. The tradition can be traced as far back as the Viking period, and directly linked to the mythology of the World Tree, Yggdrasil. I have been studying these traditions as they relate to the field of environmental education as an example of mythopoetic stories and folklore that influence moral and ethical regard for nature.

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As I am not a native speaker, and the author is, it does not make sense to rephrase him, so I copy pasted some interesting paragraphs and comment at it:

A special tradition that is shared by many Scandinavians is the planting or the knowing of a special tree in Swedish called a „Vårdträd‟, and in Norwegian a „Tuntre‟; a sacred tree planted in the center of the yard on a family farm that reflects an intimacy with place. The caring for the tree demonstrates respect for ancestors‟ spirits that were/are believed to reside in the tree, and is a moral reminder of caring for the farm or place where one lives. One Norwegian told me that the „tuntre‟ provided a direct connection with the nature spirits that lived underground at his farm.

According to this paper, not many Scandinavians are aware. However, during my stays in Norway, my friend shared stories he heard from farmers who are visited by the “underground people”. I can imagine that in such a forested country where there are places you do not meet anyone but shadows you start to believe in spirits.

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A view from a window was very mesmerizing. We stayed in a cabin in a very remote forest in Norway, which was also called “troll forest” 

Even until the late 19th century, these trees are so holy that no one dares to break or cut so much as a leaf; and to injure or damage them results in misfortune and illness. A long held belief-system tells us that earth spirits and guardian spirits resided in these trees.

For me it is so interesting to hear similar stories in Thailand, like for example about banana tree spirits and the red fanta offerings to tree spirits, and Japan with its mischievous tree trolls , while these cultures were so far from Scandinavia. It seems that many cultures share some roots 😉

The World Tree

The original sources of the „tuntre‟ or „vårdträd‟, appear to have been the holy groves where pagans worshiped to the Norse gods. Saplings from the groves were transplanted to the center of the village or the farm and grew into „boträd‟ on the grave of the original farmer.

This practice can also be connected with Yggdrasil, the ash tree in the old Norwegian mythology. In one of my previous posts I wrote about it: Norwegian Easter: time for ash and crime

Lonely deciduous trees

Deciduous trees are generally planted as the „tuntre‟ or „vårdträd‟, possibly to reflect the cycles of the seasons and of life and death and the return of life in the spring. Long-lived deciduous trees like oak, ash, linden, maple, and elm are common varieties used, while birch and mountain ash replace the more southerly varieties as one gains elevation or latitude.

Actually, next month my Norwegian friend and I will visit Hokkaido, the deep north of Japan, and I am also reading about the phenomenon of lonely trees along the famous Patchwork Road, and how full buses of Japanese tourists stop to take photographs of these lonely trees, often in the middle of the trees. And they are also populars and oaks. Next month I will for sure write about these lonely trees and why they can feel so sacred, for Japanese, for Norwegians, or even for an urbanized Belgian as me.

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Sneak peak of an instagram post next month for my account @wereldwoude-verhalen (only in Dutch/Flemish). 

Environmental education and knowledge

Lastly, the author of this paper , the author wanted to answer questions like:

  • How does the mythology and folklore of a culture influence their perception of place?
  • How does ecological knowledge of a landscape compare with „kjennskap‟, or what is sacred in a landscape?

Kjennskap refers to the “the more intimate ways of knowing that require time, experience, and generational wisdom – „kjennskap‟, that different way of knowing compared with factual knowledge – „kunnskap‟.” He describes the wood carver’s way of knowing. I imagine my friend who is now spending time in pottery and how it will take her years of training and practice to make a bowl. Also in Japan, they really admire craftsmen, and sometimes I wished I had more time to dedicate myself, discipline myself, to become a master in a craft like woodcarving or woodblock printing. It have a lot of admiration too for this kind of knowledge, more than for academic or so called scientific knowledge.

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Knowing your home through its Trees

In this paper, the author also refers to the importance of knowing your home. He believes if people attach more to the environmental knowledge about home, and the knowledge of plants that ripen during different seasons providing a steady source of food, or the location of secret water, or where the wind brings cooling in very hot summers, … that we can be more resilient for the societal and environmental changes. In Japan, I visit and study the country side, and how the depopulation also leads to loss of local/tacit knowledge. Newcomers with post-materials values try to unearth this tacit knowledge, but first they have to gain the trust of the elderly who stayed behind.

As scientists we can propose solutions, but through my own experience in transdisciplinary research -where academic and non-academic people co-design research and co-produce knowledge and solutions- I value a lot the knowledge that locals have about their “home”. I can also agree with the author that being aware for sacred or guardian trees can connect people to the knowledge and signatures written in the nature, and can inspire them to take care of them and the environmental surroundings.

Therefore I like to share a Norwegian poem by Tarjei Vesaas.  

 

What is Home?

Talk of what Home is – snow and fir forest is Home.

From the first moment they are ours. 

Before anyone has told us that it is snow and fir forests.

They have a place in us, and since then they are there,

always, always. Come home. Go in there bending branches –

Go on till you know what it means to belong.

As an environmental educator I think about to design a semester project to students to identify a guardian or holy tree in their home, and dig in the history behind it. We can learn so much about our homes through the history of the nearby trees.