A monk sips morning tea,
the chrysanthemums flowering.
— Matsuo Bashō (1644–1694)
The makings of a culture are fascinating to me. The geography of a place, its natural resources, climate, wildlife, human genetics, and the value of sensitivity all influence what becomes a culture. The Japanese archipelago was originally settled by the Ainu people and later by immigrants from northern Asia, the Pacific Islands, and southeast Asia. Between the 3rd century and 8th centuries, Japan’s people became unified under a single government headed by the Emperor, Buddhism was introduced from China, and traditional Japanese culture blossomed.
In ancient times, Shinto (the Way of the Gods) believed spirits called kami are in the natural world and the powers of the universe. Kodama are a type of kami that inhabit trees and have supernatural powers. Kodama can inhabit a single tree and/or hop from tree to tree, and kodama are in the echoing effect that happens in the forest. The knowledge of which trees are kodama is passed down from the elders, and people pay respect to kodama for protection and fear their curse. They are often marked with shimenawa, a hemp rope decorated with paper streamers that denotes a sacred object or space, and today mostly reside on the grounds of Buddhist temples.
When Buddhism arrived in Japan it was syncretized with Shinto and became known as Shinbutsu-shūgō (kamis and buddhas). In Buddhism all life is in relational and in a state of transformation, from which comes the liberating concept of emptiness or absence of a fixed self or being. Buddhism also respects all sentient life, including nature, which one sees in Japan’s temple garden designs that were originally designed for meditation. Although Buddhism is losing popularity in Japan today, its harmonious ethos is deeply embedded in Japanese society and its connection with the natural world.
With four distinct seasons that correspond to a multitude of cultural traditions, the Japanese are highly attuned to nature and the senses. The most celebrated nature event in Japan is hanami or cherry blossom viewing in early April. There are famous viewing sites around the country, but with over 30 varieties of trees with blossoms ranging from white to purple, color is everywhere. Hanami is a wildly commercial affair that marks the beginning of spring and is charged with the Japanese concept of kawaii or cuteness. It’s a perfect match for Hello Kitty. Among the blossoming trees are office parties with high-spirited drinking games, girls wearing kimonos with cherry blossom patterns, tourists from around the world, young weddings, and cameras galore. Since the blossoms only last a short time, hanami also embodies the Japanese concept of mono no aware, meaning the sensitivity to or understanding of the impermanence of life and youth, tinged with a little sadness. The brevity of the beauty seems to collectively bring people into the present to celebrate life, and then the blossoms fall and blanket the streets in dots of color. In fall Japan celebrates koyo, the dramatic changing of colors of maple leaves, which grows more beautiful over time. Koyo is quiet and contemplative, and the colors are stunning.
Below are some images of Japanese culture and their love of nature. It goes far deeper than this, but I am still a beginner in Japan. Like India, one lifetime isn’t enough.
Deepest thanks to dear friends Miho, Koji and
little Kamejiro (Turtle Master of the Universe)
for their extraordinary kindness and for
showing me the way in Japan.