By Eric J. Cunningham, Earlham College §
Every year in July a small group of people gather on the summit of Ontake-san, a 3,067-meter volcanic mountain in the central Japanese prefecture of Nagano, to ceremoniously open it for the summer season. They do so with prayers to the gods, or kami, who dwell on the mountain. After Shinto priests have welcomed the kami with chants and offerings, representatives of several local constituencies come forward to offer prayers; included among them are employees of Japan’s national Forestry Agency and officials from local government and business offices.
Though my knowledge of and relationship with Ontake-san began much earlier, my engagements with the spiritual ecology that encompasses the mountain began in July 2008 when I climbed to its summit and joined in that year’s mountain opening ceremony. After the formal ceremony ended, I followed other participants into a mountain hut near the summit shrine. Outside, cold winds whisked clouds over Ontake-san’s rocky slopes. Inside, the mountain hut was warm and inviting. The head priest of Ontake-jinja, a shrine dedicated to the gods of the mountain, thanked us for our participation in the ceremony and made a brief speech. In particular, he emphasized the importance of Ontake-san for the local community, suggesting that as long as the mountain was cared for those who inhabited its foothills would be fine. He then led us in a toast of ritually sanctified sake, called o-miki. And, with that, the ceremonious morning quickly gave way to merriment.
The annual mountain-opening ceremony, or kaizanshiki, which takes place in the rarified air of Ontake-san, stands in stark contrast to other images often associated with modern Japan—those of high technology, cute characters, and densely packed urban cores. It is a wonder that people go to so much trouble to climb a mountain that many in Japan have never heard of to give offerings and prayers to the deities who inhabit its rocky slopes.
In this post, I offer this ceremony as one among many other localized human-mountain interactions that constitute a local response to broader changes currently taking place in Japanese society. My focus in on Otaki, a village community located at the base of Ontake-san, where I conducted research for 24 months between 2008 and 2010. For residents of Otaki, I argue, the mountain is embedded in symbols, meanings, and practices that contribute to community perseverance within the increasing turbulence of late capitalist Japan.
Otaki is located at the back of a box canyon that runs along Ontake-san’s southeastern flank. With a population of fewer than one thousand (and shrinking), the village is less than a pinprick within the national geography of Japan. Otaki belongs to the larger Kiso Region, which, though famed for its lush pine forests that once brought prosperity, is today economically depressed and generally considered a social, economic, and political backwater. The vast majority of land in Otaki is also forested, but roughly 87% of this is designated as national forest, meaning that local residents have no formal role in forest governance. Government-sponsored forestry once enlivened the village economy (albeit while ravaging its environments), but post-war decreases in demands for domestic timber brought those days to an end. More recently, water resource development has played a large role in shaping the Otaki landscape, with two major dams and several minor ones located within the village.
In these terms, Otaki is representative of rural communities across Japan for which the nation’s post-war “economic miracle” has by and large been experienced as a period of social and economic decline. There have been limited successes—development of tourism and other light industries—but overall the pattern has been one of marginalization, with rural communities struggling to survive off the scraps that fall from Japan’s mega-cities.
Otaki has also long been an integral part of a spiritual ecology that revolves around Ontake-san, linking together human, non-human, and supernatural beings. The village is known as Otaki-guchi, meaning “Otaki entrance,” and comprises the first of ten stages of pilgrimage that lead to the mountain’s summit. Thus, in addition to forestry, life in Otaki has for generations been economically, socially, and politically oriented around Ontake-san as a sacred mountain.
The cover of a 2001 tourism booklet published by Otaki’s village office offers a similar sentiment in the following lines:
The snowmelt water of O-yama flows cool and clear. Again today there is O-yama. Silently watching over us.[i]
Although the Chinese characters for Ontake-san are used in the passage, written above them in hiragana (a Japanese phonetic script) is the word “O-yama.” O-yama is a local name for Ontake-san largely unknown and unused outside of Otaki. It literally translates as “the mountain” or “honorable mountain” and conveys a sense of respect, but also familiarity. Otaki residents often referred to other landscape elements in relation to Ontake-san, using “Ontake-san” and “O-yama” interchangibly along with the particle no, meaning “of” or “belonging to.” For example, I often read or heard Ontake-san no sato (village of Ontake-san) in reference to Otaki; or O-yama no mizu (water of the mountain) in relation to the mountain waters that flow ubiquitously through the landscape. In addition, Ontake-san was often depicted as a central (if not THE central) element of the village landscape in pictures and photographs. These various verbal and visual clues reflect the central position that Ontake-san holds in the mental geographies of Otaki’s residents, who continue to create and reinforce a strong sense of individual and community connection to the mountain.
Not only did Otaki residents often reference O-yama, but they spoke of it as a stable, benevolent, and even guiding entity. Just as the Shinto priest did in his speech in the mountain hut, they often referred to the mountain as a central part of village life and discussed it as something that must be respected and protected. They appealed to O-yama and its enduring qualities in ways that reflected multiple, and at times contradictory, anxieties concerning the future of the village. For instance, during mura-zukuri or “village-making” meetings, residents and I discussed the ties between the village community and Ontake-san. At the beginning of one meeting in the fall of 2008, the leader of a village revitalization group explained that:
Otaki is a village that has walked hand in hand with the history of the sacred mountain Ontake-san. However, in recent years, in the midst of a very severe situation never experienced before, returning to financial health and creating vitality in which citizens live in health and well being have become new topics for the village.
In this quote, “severe situation” refers to financial troubles that had recently plagued Otaki. By invoking Ontake-san in this way, the speaker was giving voice to more general feelings of anxiety among residents.
As a symbol of endurance and even permanency for Otaki’s residents, Ontake-san helps throw into sharp relief the rapid changes that have been part of Japan’s modernization and, more specifically, the processes of resource exploitation, environmental degradation, economic decline, and depopulation that have accompanied modernization in Otaki.
One cool spring morning in 2010 I visited an exhibition of Ontake-san-related materials in the gymnasium of Otaki’s run-down community center. The exhibition mostly included old scrolls with prints of deities, various talisman, and small statues made of wood or bronze. What caught my attention, however, was a collection of guidebooks about Ontake-san covering the span of the last century.
Early guidebooks from the beginning of the 20th century had covers portraying religious pilgrims set against the form of Ontake-san, with photographs and captions depicting ascetic activities and sacred sites. Then, in those from the middle of the century, I noticed a shift. One small pamphlet from 1953 titled shinkou to kankou no kiso ontake he (“Off to Kiso Ontake, [the mountain] of faith and tourism”) consisted almost exclusively of pictures of religious activities and sites, but also included a photo of a dam and reservoir. Later materials in the collection, dating from about 1955 to 1965, offered images of a desacralized Ontake-san, empty of pilgrims and worshipers. These later pamphlets also included hiking maps and bus schedules.
Moving through the exhibit I began to realize that the artifacts presented a stratigraphy that spoke to Ontake-san’s transitory existence as something created and shared among people—in the past primarily at a local level, but more recently at a national level. Though O-yama seems solid, unmovable, and permanent, there before my eyes on that morning was evidence of an evolution from sacred to recreational space over the span of a century. Within this evolution, which is enmeshed in broader processes of modernization, Onake-san has shifted from a centralized position within a regional spiritual ecology to a position in the oku—the “back” or “margins”—of Japan’s national geography.
Uncertainty and (Mountain) Faith
Through their varied relationships with Ontake-san, many in Otaki recognize their position at the margins of the Japanese nation. At the same time, many (if not most) also continue to exhibit a profound sense of connection to the mountain they call “O-yama,” as well as to the spiritual ecology of spirits, gods, animals, rocks, rivers, trees, and people embodied within its broad slopes. Ontake-san remains a meaningful marker of the vitality and perseverance of both the Otaki community and landscape, albeit one that continues to evolve through the broader set of social, political, and economic processes within which it is enmeshed.
To varying extents and in diverse ways, residents of Otaki continue to work towards maintaining their connections to Ontake-san and all that it represents in their lives. The mountain remains central to life in Otaki and finding a way to protect it while sustaining livelihoods is their continuing struggle. It is a struggle that I too am now thoroughly engaged in. Unfortunately, the terms of the engagement are difficult to define as I, like my friends in Otaki, are only small parts of the larger spiritual ecology of the mountain. How are we to articulate the importance of such a humbled position within a global economy of knowledge that increasingly values expertise, facts, and certainty?
During my time in Otaki, I introduced residents to the resilience thinking approach to environmental management. Though receptive, I found that people had a hard time understanding the resilience concept and were at a loss for how to implement the approach. I too backed away from resilience thinking in my own research for a time, though I have recently returned to it as a way to think about my research in Otaki. What brought me back was the centrality this approach gives to uncertainty. As a state in which knowledge is lacking, uncertainty calls for humility, caution, and reserve. What I have learned from my friends and colleagues in Otaki is that uncertainty positions us as inhabitants who must practice humility and learn to respect the greater ecologies of which we are but small parts. Through their relationships with O-yama, people in Otaki are made to understand that there exist forces greater than them and that these must be honored. I wonder, how would the management of national forests in Otaki differ if such an understanding was present at an institutional level?
In their own humble way, the Otaki community has persevered through many uncertainties—forest overexploitation, dam building, economic decline, depopulation—and there are more to come. I suggest that their and my engagement with these uncertainties is often inspired by O-yama and a belief that, if cared for, the greater community of beings to which we belong will endure. It is often a subdued engagement, but one that I, and many I work with in Otaki, continue to have faith in.
Eric J. Cunningham is Assistant Professor of Japanese Studies at Earlham College. His research focuses on cultural representations of nature and the political dimensions of forest governance in Japan.