Category Archives: memory

Changing Epistemologies: From Historical to Modern Views of Togakushi’s Natural Environment

This post takes a look at geological and historical understandings of Togakushi’s natural environment and then considers the shift from one epistemology to another.

Geological:

The Togakushi mountains are located north-northwest of Nagano City.  Consisting mainly of igneous rock, they began forming between 40 million and 27 million years ago through submarine volcanic activity.  Gradually, magma protruded upward as layers of mud and sand settled and hardened.  Shifts in the earth’s crust eventually pushed the entire region above sea level and through subsequent uplift and erosion, the peaks of Togakushi (1904m) and the neighboring Amakazari (1963m) took form.

The surrounding peaks of Iizuna (1917m), Kurohime (2053m) and Myoko (2454m) emerged later (approximately 17 million years ago) through violent eruptions. Shaped as typical cone volcanoes, their cores consist of an igneous rock known as porphyrite, with layers of sandstone and sediment extending outward.

Below the range, high plains are dotted with hot springs–evidence of magma rolling just below the surface.  While the sea now lies just northwest of the region, shells and the fossilized bones of crabs, seal and whale dating back to the early formation of the peaks can still been found.

. . .

The description above of course, reflects a geological understanding of the region.  This body of knowledge has been vital in informing policies related to water management,  natural disaster response, commercial development and so forth.  Before this scientific approach was applied to the Togakushi region however, a preexisting body of knowledge that was also shaped from the mountains guided understandings of the region. Because rice production has long been central to people’s lives, this earlier epistemology concerned agriculture.

Historical:

Water flowing down from the Togakushi mountains has always been key to the productivity of the agricultural basin below.  The immense snow pack that accumulates over the winter in these high peaks melts off in the spring, feeding the area’s streams, rivers, and aquifers.

One stream source in fact, emerges beside the craggy abode of Kuzuryū 九頭龍, the nine-headed dragon who allegedly appeared when the first ascetic reached the range long ago. Indicative of beliefs across Asia, the dragon at Togakushi has long been understood to control the supply of water—from both the clouds and the mountains.  Kuzuryū was likewise appealed to for crop water as well as prevention of water-related disasters (flooding, landslides, etc.).

Just as important to agriculture is the sun’s energy.  Incidentally, recent scholarship reveals a strong connection between solar worship and the historical layout of the temples and pathways. In his recent book, Gentō no Togakushi (Togakushi’s Winter, 2011), Miyazawa Kazuho argues that some of the oldest religious sites on the mountain align precisely with the direction of the sun’s rays on the summer and winter solstices. The early morning rays of the winter solstice for example, penetrate directly through the torii at Okusha 奥社.  Archeological studies have found similar connections at other numinous mountains throughout the country. Moreover, the winter solstice has long been a date in Japan for rituals intended to store up energy to overcome the increasingly cold days of winter.

These are some of the concepts that guided understandings of Mt. Togakushi prior to the modern period.  It goes without saying that modern science in general has greatly improved living conditions since then. What is less discernible though is the extent to which these sciences have displaced preexisting epistemologies like the ones mentioned above. In discussing some of the pioneering geologists in Japan during the 1870s, Stefan Tanaka remarks,

“The geological research of men like Milne and Naumann was instrumental in demystifying this amalgamation of the human, natural, and spiritual worlds by bringing in the abstract arena of science… The accounts of Milne’s and Naumann’s expeditions clearly juxtapose the ideas of the locales as superstitious in comparison to their science. In other words, geology turns inherited forms of knowledge into textual forms; practices to ward off disaster became superstitions, a time-concept that relegated ghosts and wonder to a ‘scriptural tomb.'” (New Times in Modern Japan, 2004, 61).

As Tanaka concludes, scientific study brought not only innovation but also value-laden judgments to an entire structure of practices and concepts.  Geologic surveys, which were commissioned by the new Meiji government, might additionally be seen as a form of cultural subjugation by the rapidly expanding imperial state over regional populations. And at the same time that belief in the local gods was being swiftly displaced by the “abstract arena of science,” a new powerful deity was being deployed throughout the country. This one, heavily propagandized by the Meiji state, was the emperor himself, as both father to the nation and a living god descended from Amaterasu.

Whether this national project of replacing local beliefs with a centralized belief structure was ever fully realized is of course, a matter of debate.  Looking at modern day Togakushi, one can still see priests offering rice to Kuzuryū every morning, alongside a steady supply of coins from visitors visiting the dragon’s shrine.  Even the nearby ski lift makes its annual requests for a healthy snow pack.

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Reviving a festival

The Hashiramatsu 柱松 (literally, ‘pine trunks’) is an event in which three columns of tied bamboo or pine branches are stood upright and lit on fire.  The first to ignite determines the success (agricultural, economic, etc.) of the coming year.  Traditionally coinciding with the first day of Obon, it may have also been believed to invite down the local deities and ancestral spirits residing in the mountains.   The festival is held every three years at Togakushi and dates back to the late thirteenth century.  Well okay, that chronology is a bit misleading.

In the wake of major alterations to religious institutions by the government in the early Meiji period, the Hashiramatsu ended in the 1870s.  During this time, the three major temples on the mountain and their cloisters transformed from combinatory sites of Buddhism, Shinto and Shugendo into state-supported Shinto shrines.  Shugendo itself was proscribed from mountain sites around the country, which helps to explain the disappearance of this shugen-influenced ritual from Togakushi.

But after a thorough investigation by local scholars of extant sources related to the Hashiramatsu at Togakushi as well as other mountains (where it has continued uninterrupted), the festival has been recently revived.  Seeing the Togakushi Hashiramatsu offers a glimpse into the rich symbiosis of religious influences that were historically characteristic of practice at Togakushi and other sites around the country.  It may also suggest the future direction of the culture at Togakushi Jinja, given the community’s increasing re-engagement with its vibrant past.

(Click on photos to open gallery mode.)

The ceremony ends with the head priest seeing off the mountain deities and spirits as they return to the mountain.

Again, the event is held only once every three years, so if you get the chance, be sure to check it out in 2015!


The practice of memorializing

Today I met a kind, older man walking his dogs on a path in my neighborhood of Tachiai Gawa 立会川, Shinagawa-ku.  As we began talking, he mentioned that he was born in the area.  I asked what had changed over his lifetime.

Well for one, he said, the brick path that we were standing on was once a lovely river (the Tachiai, which carries the serendipitous meaning of ‘Meeting Place’).  When he was a boy he would come and fish here.  During the war, the entire area was razed by the American fire-bombing campaign, which laid much of Tokyo in ashes during the final year leading up to Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  After the war ended, the area was redeveloped and the Tachiai River was laid in concrete, with much of it covered over by this pathway.

Now if you follow the Tachiai, he continued, you reach what was once known as the Namida Bashi, literally, ‘Bridge of Tears.’  While its now a drab, concrete bridge, in the not-so-distant Edo Period, families parted with loved ones here who were facing execution,  so he had heard.  (From the bridge, it was just several hundred meters south to the execution grounds of Suzugamori.  Now a small memorial marks the site, and people continue to make offerings in appeasement of the spirits who died there.)

Finally, you wind up at a damn at the end of the river with a canal on the other side.  But this area used to be a beautiful sea (kirei umi!), he reminisced.  Its shallow waters provided long stretches of both nori (seaweed) and mussel harvesting.  Up until age 12 for him.  After that, the bay was filled in and developed with shopping areas and roads.

After our conversation, we said goodbye and parted ways over what was once the Tachiai.  Looking up, I noticed a statue by a narrow, man-made pool that shouldered the pathway.  The statue was of a small, delicate boy dressed in shabby clothes.  He was holding a fishing rod and a heron was perched beside him.

Hearing of the nori, my memory drifted back to the commemorative Nori Museum just south of Tachiai Gawa that my family and I had visited recently.

How do we collectively preserve elements of our lives that will soon join the past?  As the tides of modernity, upheaval, and redevelopment swept over local communities in Japan over the last century, how do they retain a sense of continuity?  While the statue of this boy had never given me pause before, now it struck me as an attempt by that generation of men – who fished there as boys – to preserve a glimpse of what it once was.  I felt grateful to have heard the story behind it.