Sometimes you are afflicted with an inexplicable love for something.
Before I’d been influenced by Japanese video games and animated films, a Japanese woman came into my junior school for one of those culture days. I don’t remember her name, but I remember being overwhelmingly intrigued by the musicality of her language, the way she looked and the things she spoke about. I hung around at the end of the class, a shy kid trying to pluck up the courage to say one of the words she’d taught us.
I never saw her again, but some latent draw toward that otherworldly country had been cracked open. Years later, video games like Final Fantasy VII and films such as Princess Mononoke would end up being a profound influence on me. They were gateways into the anima mundi; the soul of the world that had been supressed in the West hundreds of years, but was now spilling into a teenager’s bedroom through a cathode ray tube television salvaged from a squat in Hebden Bridge.
It was like wind spirits and river dragons were swirling about my room, taking up residence beneath the platform bed where I hunkered, late into the night, often with my brother and friends beside me, all of us touched by some indefinable sense of possibility and awe for this outrageously expressive living world in whose imagination we’d been invited to participate, thanks to a handful of Japanese magician-artists and their animistic culture.
Over the years I’ve continued stitching my soul to Japan, studying its history, reading the poets and authors, learning the language, exploring the country and forging lasting friendships with some of the people.
A few years ago I had the outrageous good fortune to explore some of Japan’s most numinous locations on an extended honeymoon with my wife Laurie. Our adventure took us from the far North of the northmost island – Hokkaido’s Shiretoko peninsula, through the sci-fi city of Tokyo, the ancient capital of Kyoto, to Yakushima island – the place that inspired Princess Mononoke.
Over the coming weeks I’m going to share some of the best images from that adventure, along with a few stories. If that sounds like your cup of tea then check back here every Thursday or follow along on Instagram.
Let’s dip a foot in the spirit world.
At the northeast tip of Hokkaido, the northmost of Japan’s islands, there is the Shiretoko peninsula; a mountain range covered mist, forest and hissing tracts of volcanic ground. My wife Laurie and I cycled here from further south, through the heartland and through Lake Akan where the remaining indigenous people of the Japan – the Ainu – have gathered to attempt to preserve their culture.
The name Shiretoko comes from the Ainu word ‘sir etok’ which means ‘the end of the earth’. It has that feeling, especially when you’re looking out over the Sea of Okhostsk and the Russian islands to the North.
I was incredibly excited to be here in one of Japan’s last wildernesses. Before setting off, all our food had to be carefully sealed to keep the scents from attracting bears, since this particular region is home to more brown bears than anywhere else on Hokkaido. Here’s a sign showing bear sightings during the time we were there.
Packs loaded with camping gear and three days worth of supplies, we set off up the mountain and into the forest. Here’s some of what we saw.
The only sign of bears we’d seen were munched up pine cones on outcrops, but that didn’t stop us securing our food every night in the steel bear-proof lockers. Even the tooth paste had to go in.
Bear attacks are very uncommon but do they happen in Japan. A cannister of super strong bear pepper spray dangled from my hip in case we ended up getting charged. During our breaks I’d practice my quick-draw technique and try not to imagine a strong wind blowing the pepper spray back into my face. Seasoning for bears.
Everyone who journeys into these mountains wears bells to make these incredible animals aware of your presence so the bears have chance to evade you, which is what they almost always prefer to do. Our bell was so deafening loud though, that Laurie decided to wrap it in tape, dampening the sound.
By the morning of the third day we were beginning our descent through the winding forest paths that led back to the low lands. I rounded a corner and froze in my tracks. About ten feet in front of me was a four hundred kilogram adult bear, eating ants on the side of the path. He had not heard me coming.
I unclipped the pepper spray and backed away.
‘Laurie,’ I whispered. ‘Bear.’
Her eyes lit up, and so did the bear’s. He’d seen us, and immediately pelted up the hill, digging his enormous claws into the soil to help launch him up. He his behind a fallen tree and watched us. We stepped away and bowed.
No photos of this one, but when we got back to the hostel we saw this:
The rangers in Shiretoko have great respect for the bears, and know many of them by sight. Their great concern is that tourists will feed the bears and they will get used to human company, eventually coming into the village to look for food. The rangers do everything they can to avoid harming the bears, but occasionally, such as when a bear get so familiar with humans that it will up-end the bins in the local school, the rangers may decide that the danger to their human community it too great.
This bear got away though. Long live the bear.
In an effort to imbue the animated masterpiece Princess Mononoke with the soul of a mythic and primeval Japan, Oga Kazuo (one of Miyazaki’s most skilled and trusted artists) came here to allow the spirit of the place to soak into his imagination and spill out onto the page.
‘Mountains of the White Gods’ is the name Shirakami-Sanchi translates as. Who are these gods? The waterfalls? The misted air? The snow-banked mountains? Or something more mysterious?
As far as I understand, kami are intrinsically connected to specific places – certain mountains, trees, or waterfalls, but they not only those places. Perhaps they are an expression of a place’s soul.
Entering the deeper reaches of this mountain range is not an easy task. Shirakami-Sanchi is a UNESCO world heritage site, and my experience was that the authorities do not grant permission easily, even with the diligent assistance of Japanese friend helping you navigate the paperwork. You can understand why. It’s the last great expanse of primeval forest in Northern Japan, and it’s brimming with rare species.
I’m actually quite sympathetic to the idea of having areas of wilderness that are off limits to people (not that this place is entirely off limit – scientists and Matagi hunters go in sometimes), but I actually like the hiddenness of it. I think we should bring back druidic groves in the British Isles – the mere presence of having clusters of thousand-year old oaks that no one is allowed to set foot in would deepen our imaginations and culture, I reckon.
Anyway, I got stonewalled by the authorities, so I didn’t take it upon myself to get up at 3am, say a prayer at the shrine and clamber into the forbidden realm before first light. And if I did, I probably wouldn’t mention it here on the Internet.
Either way, here are a few glimpses into this outrageously beautiful place.
Next Thursday: Tokyo
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