Saturday, April 26, 2014

2104 Earth Day Note from Japan … by gimleteye

The plane ride from Los Angeles to Tokyo seems endless, but the cultural distance between Koyasan and Naoshima, only a few hours by bullet train, is even longer.

Koyasan is the center of Japanese Shingon Buddhism high in the mountains above Osaka. Kukai, its founder, is revered by Japanese Buddhists for whom the trek to Koyasan culminates dozens of earlier pilgrimages to temples in other parts of the country. In the 8th century, Kukai brought Buddhism to Japan, having studied from masters in China.

After a long and arduous search, he finally rested at the top of Koyasan, far from civilization, in a place that still compels the spirit to the deep connections with nature.

Try to imagine twelve hundred years ago: no transit but ox cart, no medicine or hospital or municipal services. They settled in a place where winters are tough and difficult but nearer to the spirit of God.

Imagine the fragility of life in 800 A.D. Yet the Japanese put love of nature at the center of their relation to the world, while the West turned another direction.

At sea level in late April, the cherry blossoms are mostly finished. At 1000 meters elevation in Koyasan, the fruit trees are just approaching full bloom. The landscape visible from the cable car ascending the final stretch to the top of the mountain looks exactly as millenium-old landscape paintings; new blossoms expressing joy and hopefulness in the foreground while fog shrouded peaks in the background intimate the only permanence is passage of time.

In Kyoto Zen temples are maintained with a passion for mindfulness and order. The gardens of Kyoto are jewels, even without any knowledge of Zen scriptures. This is the power of communication cultivated by careful human hands from nature. Small pea rocks raked into exact furrows denote the sea. Trees places in precise location and carefully trimmed and pruned as though they were members of the family. Gnarled pine trees, hundreds of years old, revered for their significance in myth. Granite stones, discovered by monks in riverbeds or at the sea shore hundreds of years ago, placed to signify the states of growth and awareness.

These boulders were transported from hundreds of miles away by ox cart along dangerous winding mountain roads to their resting places. Their movers were summoning more than rocks.

That a nation and people with such strong, enduring connections to nature is also home to the worst nuclear disaster in the world is a tragic paradox. And not just for the Japanese.

In so many respects, Japan -- not the United States -- is the epitome of first world ingenuity. It is a compact nation of islands making the best use of mass transit to move its people and economy. The streets stay clean without a single trash container on a street corner or in a substation.

Conservation is part of a national ethic. That such a nation should also be the host of a nuclear disaster, with a tradition of lies and deception of its central government and TEPCO, the corporate utility, stirs the imagination.

The problem with nuclear energy has been clear from the first: we can destroy nature. For the Japanese, whose love of nature is so deeply woven through the national psyche, the Fukushima disaster is deeply troubling, yet Tokyo only a hundred plus miles away is a bundle of frenetic energy while scarcely contained radiation from Fukushima continues to poison nearby groundwater and ocean.

The paradox of loving nature yet requiring power of the force that destroys it is at the root of the climate catastrophe that is careening towards us because we were over-confident -- the ancient Greeks called it hubris -- that we were wise enough to balance the paradox to ensure both the security of nature and industrialized civilization.

We were not wise enough and we are not wise enough.

The island of Naoshima is a haven for outdoor contemporary sculpture from around the world. Art lovers congregate here like migrating swans. The Japanese aesthetic in modern architecture -- Naoshima is devotional to the architectural designs of Pritzker winner Tadeo Ando -- derives from the simplicity of nature. Our hotel, looking out over the sea of Japan, is twenty years old but feels like it was built yesterday; using natural stones, clear lines, hardwoods, and advanced metals and concrete to blend a harmonious statement; austere and proud, bowing in appreciation of the island's natural surroundings.

But scarcely three miles from my balcony window, glass polished to clear perfection, a coal-fired power plant chugs mightily day in and out casting white plumes of carbon dioxide into the hazy skies.

How many of the Naoshima visitors -- how many Westerners dressed in the latest cool -- enjoying art and outdoor sculpture by modern masters absorb these expressions of appreciation for nature in the foreground while coal-fired plants exhaust carbon dioxide in the background? It's not clear.

Japan -- the only to have suffered war-time consequences of nuclear explosions -- subsequently embraced nuclear power as a matter of economic necessity. Now its people have lost confidence in nuclear but Japan's government and industry are probably correct in viewing nuclear as foundational to the economy.

Through a deep historical value of nature in Buddhism and the Shinto faiths, the Japanese widely accept the realities of climate change.

Still, that bullet train ride from Koyasan to Naoshima, past Osaka and Kyoto, gives one plenty of time to reflect on how climate change will leave no corner of Japan or the planet untouched or what kind of vast spaces can develop between humanity and nature as a result of our blundering.


Gene Lefthand said...

Instead of the coal plant I would have expected you to be standing behind the 2 nuclear power plant reactors that are still leaking radiation. How close did you get? I would've at least got within 3 miles I think that it's a reasonable distance and then I would've expected you to interview people. I think you should've rented a motorcycle and a Geiger counter and bought a test kit to test the water around the nuclear power plant for radiation leakage. You standing in front of a coal plant didn't do it for me. I had a vision for a much bigger story. But I like your shirt.

Anonymous said...

As an artist, I can well appreciate your poetic view of the best representations of the Japanese cultural appreciations. As a mamber of the human race, I resent that you did not include mention of that same culture's historical record of violence towards innocents (i.e. Nanking, Bataan, etc.) and one cannot separate appreciation for nature's beauty FROM THE HORRIFIC BEHAVIORS OF PAST MILITARY AGGRESSIONS AGAINST INNOCENTS in the name of fulfilling national destiny. You write beautifully and your sensitivites are noted -- but you must include acknowledgement of that same culture's inhumane, contradictory behavior. No the past is not the past - the past is a strong part of the present and should not be ignored.

Gimleteye said...

I thought about how and whether to include the legacy of wartime atrocities committed by Japan. I certainly recognize the point made by the anon reader above. Does every opinion piece written about Germany, energy and culture need to note the horrors of the Nazi era. Or every piece about American shortcomings of fossil fuel dependencies need to reference the tragic legacy of slavery?

As a baby boomer born only a decade after the end of WWII, on my recent visit to Japan I experienced the weight of that history constantly. Those contradictions are perhaps another story, perhaps for another day.

Anonymous said...

How come Buddhism cultivating soooooo many self centered, self righteous, asshole in the west.