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Autumn Starts in Daisetsuzan

7 Nov


Last month I visited Shibetsu City, Hokkaido, to give a lecture on music therapy. On the way back home I saw beautiful autumn leaves and wild animals in Daisetsuzan National Park, the largest national park in Japan.

The Ainu called this area Kamui Mintara, meaning Playground of Gods. When you see the majestic mountains, it’s easy to understand why. Check out my new article, “Autumn Starts in Daisetsuzan.”


World Heritage Sites in Japan

30 Sep


Kasuga Taisha, part of the Nara World Heritage Site

It gives me great pleasure to introduce John Dougill as my guest blogger.  He is the author of Japan’s World Heritage Sites. Take it away, John.

In 2012 I set off to tour all of Japan’s World Heritage sites, travelling the length of the country from the north of Hokkaido down to Okinawa as I had been commissioned by a publisher to produce an illustrated guide to the sites.  It was an auspicious year to do the trip —not only was it the twentieth anniversary of Japan’s first World Heritage registration, but it was the fortieth anniversary of the Unesco convention.

Japan is a surprisingly long country, and the trip took over four months as I moved steadily southwards from the subarctic in Shiretoko down towards the subtropical in Okinawa and Ogaswara.  Contrary to the popular notion of Japan as a place of overcrowded cities, the journey began and ended in remote areas of unspoilt nature.

Shuri Castle (Okinawa)

Shuri Castle (Okinawa)

Few countries can be as pleasant to travel around as Japan, for its people are unfailingly polite and the transport system efficient and timely. Though public transport was my preferred option, car rental sometimes proved the only practical option.

Along the way there were plenty of adventures. In the mountainous Shirakami area of northern Honshu my driver fell asleep at the wheel one afternoon, not only wrecking the car but managing to strand us in one of the few spots in Japan with no mobile access and no passing traffic. As midnight approached and we sat vainly trying to sleep in the wrecked vehicle, a flashing light split the darkness and a small police car arrived to tell us that we were camping illegally!

Beach tree in Shirakami-Sanchi (Aomori prefecuture)

Beach tree in Shirakami-Sanchi (Aomori)

There were other close encounters. At Shiretoko the hiking group I was with almost came across a mother and cub brown bear, said to be the most dangerous combination for humans. We thought we had steered well clear of them, but had to think again when we came to a clearing with uprooted plants and pungent smell. A few minutes earlier and we would have inadvertently stumbled upon them.

Bear in Shiretoko Peninsula (Hokkaido)

Bear in Shiretoko Peninsula (Hokkaido)

Shiretoko coast

Shiretoko coast

Two days later in Shirakami Sanchi I did stumble upon a bear, at the aptly named Black Bear Falls. It was coming round a bend in the path, and although the advice in such cases is not to panic, I was just about to run for my life when fortunately the bear beat me to it.

Sadly it was not possible to do all the sites full justice, for hiking every single nature trail and pilgrimage route could take years. Moreover, there were times when it seemed that fate was determined to thwart me, for it seemed everywhere I went there was something under repair. This was sometimes due to the natural disasters that plague Japan — the pond garden at Hiraizumi had been damaged by earthquake, and the surrounds of the Nachi waterfall by a typhoon.

There was a greater factor at play, however: of the 3600 buildings in Japan designated as important cultural properties, 3300 are wooden. When these ancient buildings need renewing, the repairs can be costly and time-consuming.

Byōdō-in under repair (Kyoto)

Byōdō-in under repair (Kyoto)

Seigantoji (Wakayama)

The Seiganto-ji pagoda and Nachi waterfall, part of the Kii Hanto site

So which were my favorite sites?

The biggest ‘wow’ came amidst the fabulous gnarled cedar trees of Yakushima even though I’d been to the island before and knew what to expect. Walking in the woods one early morning, I stood riveted to the spot as the sun came up over a hillside and a whole swathe of forest was slowly brought to life by its spreading rays. It was as if a black-and-white painting was being transformed before my very eyes into full colour. Sheer magic!

Deer in Yakushima (Kagoshima)

Deer in Yakushima (Kagoshima)

Yaku monkey in Yakushima (Kagoshima)

Yaku monkey in Yakushima (Kagoshima)

The site that most took my fancy, however, was my final destination. It was quite literally ‘a voyage of discovery’, for the only way to Ogasawara is 25 hours by ship. It means that relatively few travel to the thinly populated islands despite the beauty of subtropical hillsides set amongst Pacific blues. They were registered with Unesco because of the unusual life-forms that have developed over the millennia, but for myself the history of the islands was no less alluring.

Until the 1840s Ogasawara was uninhabited, and the archipelago was first settled by a group of Westerners and Pacific Islanders (some of whose descendants remain to this day).  At one point Britain and the US were arguing over ownership, and only after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 did the islands become officially part of Japan.

There is something of the charm of the southern seas about Ogasawara, and perhaps it was the enchantment of distance, or perhaps it was simply because my journey was drawing to an end, but whatever the reason Japan’s most remote World Heritage turned out the nearest to my heart. You could say it was one site that truly ‘registered’.



Flower in Ogasawara

One of the unique flowers endemic to the Ogasawara Islands

Since the writing of this piece, another World Heritage site has been added to make a total of 18 in all for Japan.   The Tomioka Silk Mill in Gunma was registered this year with Unesco.

JOHN DOUGILL is the author of Japan’s World Heritage Sites (Tuttle, 2014).  He lives in Kyoto and writes a blog about the role of Shinto in Japanese culture,

Iyomante: Sacred ceremony of the Ainu ~ forgotten indigenous people of Japan, part 4

27 Jan
By Kaze no ryu (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Kaze no ryu (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

In my previous post on  “Ainu and Spirituality” I wrote about the overview of spirituality of the Ainu people.  They had many ceremonies throughout the year, and one of the most important ones is called “iyomante.”  It’s a ceremony to send back the spirits of bear cubs to the divine world, an intricate ceremony involving many steps and extensive preparations.  Iyomante represents the essence of their spiritual life, but its complex nature has also caused outsiders to misunderstand the spiritual traditions of the Ainu.

The Ainu people believed that gods took on the forms of animals and visited the human world.  The bear god was highly regarded, since it provided many things to humans, such as fur and meat.  During iyomante the soul of bear cubs was sent back with abundant offerings, such as foods, sake, treasures, or ornamental arrows.

But what does it mean by sending a bear cub to the divine world?

Iyomante took place between January and February when the snow was deep on the ground.  The bear cub, captured in a hibernation den during winter, had been kept in a cell next to the house. The Ainu people often raised the bear as a part of the family and developed a deep bond.

It took nearly a month to prepare for iyomante.  Two weeks prior to the ceremony they began making sake and dango (dumplings).  A few days before they started making inaw, important spiritual icons of the Ainu (click here for more about inaw).  On the day before the ceremony they offered a prayer to the fire goddess.  This was done prior to all ceremonies because communication with other kamuy (deities and spirits) was impossible without her divine intervention.  After the prayer people celebrated with dance, song, and story telling, which sometimes lasted until the midnight.

Prayer for god of fire

Prayer for god of fire

Next day iyomante took place.  It began by offering prayers to the god of fire once again, which followed by placing inaw in certain ways to make an altar like structure.  After lunch they took the bear out of the cell and tied him/her to a post with a rope.  The bear cub would play while people offered a prayer.  Women would line up in front of the house, clapping and dancing “rimuse,” the last dance to show God that this was in the form of animals called “bear” on this earth.  Here is a video of iyomante rimuse:

Eventually men would shoot arrows and kill the bear.  Then the prayers were offered again to the bear.  Some men would place dango (dumplings) and kurumi (walnuts) next to the body while others drop dango from the roof of the house.  It was believed that the bear would take those things to the divine world.  Once the dango was scattered, a young man  would shoot an arrow into the sky toward the East, a sacred direction to the Ainu.

Even though the bear was ceremonially killed, he was not a sacrifice to god.  Instead the Ainu believed that a god spirit came to the people, disguised as a bear, and that the death of the bear released the spirit, allowing it to return to god’s land.

Iomante3 (524x362)

Picture of iyomante

Iomante (iyomante) (459x318) (2)

Picture of iyomante

Iyomante2 (640x311)

Picture depicting the Ainu and the bear cub during iyomante


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