‘In Japan, Nature is Our Religion’ — Mine Too

Tori gate to Nachi Falls, Wakayama, Japan, part of the Kumano Kodo route. Passing through a Torii gate symbolizes passing from the profane to sacred. Photo by Sydney Solis

Reverse culture shock was the biggest issue for me when repatriating to the United States this December. After a few months of digging out our shipped belongings, it dawned on me why: Japan has such a huge mythic support system for people’s psyche, the U.S. does not. What is that support system? Nature. 

“In Japan, nature is our religion,” I remember my Shinmachi neighbor Yukako said over Christmas Eve kaiseki dinner at the fabulous tofu restaurant Umeohana that she and her husband, Teru, had treated us to. “Because we have earthquakes and other natural disasters, we pray to align with nature.”

Sydney Solis Kumano Kodo Tamaki Shrine
Communing with the trees on the Kumano Kodo at Tamaki Shrine.

A Buddhist country, Japan considers Christmas day an ordinary day, it’s influence limited to beautiful light illuminations and Santa Claus outfits a few weeks before. Yukako also said Christmas Day in Japan is known as a day for jumping in bed with your lover and making love. I like that!

 I felt like I got my November and December back and had a real birthday (Dec. 26!) that wasn’t eclipsed by December’s disembodied nightmare before consumer-mass.  Instead, each day I felt the beauty of the Earth resonate in my body and breath as I witnessed the shorter, darker days, honoring the need to sleep and rest more and align with the Earth. I was symbolically dying to my ego but reborn in the eternity of the now, as Japanese culture is designed to wake us up in the now and harmonize with, not destroy, nature.

Tiny objects at the base of a tree for worship at Tamaki Shrine, Nara Prefecture, Japan.
Photo by Sydney Solis

This is the essence of Shinto, Japan’s native religion, which is blended with Buddhism that came to China in the 6th century and is really inseparable in Japanese culture. Shinto means faith in nature and Shinto is on the rise.

I first felt this deep connection to nature from my father’s massive backyard vegetable garden growing up in Boulder, Colorado and also living in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where I’d meditate among banana trees, escape from my mind and melt into the seamless depths at one with Nature.

The myriad steps of the Kumano Kudo that winds through a cathedral of trees here on the way to Nachi Falls, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan. Photo by Sydney Solis

Japanese culture has deep reverence for nature, with national holidays, like Mountain Day and Ocean Day. It’s a collective activity in Japan to witness Earth’s promise of rebirth in every resplendent cherry blossom during sakura season or the blazing fall leaf colors of momoji. Aligning with nature brings a natural rhythm to life, as Japan still eats seasonally too and it’s a delight to anticipate the change of season and honor foods that normally are available 24/7 and taken for granted in western markets.

Of course western consumption up until coronavirus was destroying Japanese culture, I feel, as mindlessness was creeping into the culture with the tourism boom and western influence of walking and eating, as well as the explosion of trash and plastic. It seems Nature was doing a little healing and said this %#$@ has to stop!

An elegant tree on the Kumano Kodo. Photo by Sydney Solis.

Leading Shinto scholar Mark Teeuwen, said in a lecture sponsored by Writers in Kyoto I attended in Kyoto last year, that a leading trend has emerged of people visiting nature energy spots around the world, and there are many in Japan! 

In Shinto, there is a concept called tokowaka, or eternal rebirth. At Ise Jingu Grand Shrine and other Shinto shrines, wooden structures are rebuilt every 20 years in what’s called Shikinen Sengu, and the residing kami, nature deities, are transferred to their new shrines. Such is the Japanese appreciation of the evanescence of life, explained Donald Keene in the forward of the book, The Wisdom of Ise Jingu

“Jingu is a sustainable example, and the matsuri, or processions and festivals, show a compatibility between environmentalism and the culture of our everyday life and can be a model providing wisdom for all civilization,”  the book’s author Shin’nyo Kawai wrote.

Nachi Falls up close and personal. Gazing on this I felt united with every pilgrimage and great sage who ever came here and laid eyes on this sacred waterfall. Photo by Sydney Solis.

The root word of religion comes from Latin religio – to link back. After a difficult time adjusting to Osaka city life, a forest bathing trip to Mt. Atago in Kyoto last March with my sensei to restore my mental equilibrium was in order to refresh me and restore my faith in nature. I realized and remembered that everything is nature, only thinking separates us from it, and we are identical to that nature. Everything and everyone is connected.

Sensei and I then connected to the rivers and mountains and rocks on subsequent hikes to Kamigamo, Kifune and Kuramadera shrines in Kyoto. The results was the same — an overwhelming “knowing” that when the mind stops, we are united with the universe – we are restored to our true nature — nature! 

The bark of a tree on the Kumano Kodo is so soft and supple, it really is like being in the presence of a divine being. Photo by Sydney Solis.

Last May when I visited Ise Jingu, Japan’s most sacred shrine, I felt a profound peace and connection to Nature, linking me to the unity of all things. Witnessing the intense beauty of Japanese culture and aesthetics, I am sustained in and united with the world rather than isolated and alienated from it, because they are designed to wake me up to the moment of now, of my precious life, to being present to see things thus pass and realize that they are impermanent. This makes me fearless of death because you realize there is no death, there is only now. No need to fret about an afterlife! This is it!

Tamaki Shrine. Photo by Sydney Solis.

Before I left Japan, I was fortunate to achieve my dream of walking the famous Kumano Kodo, or dark path, an ancient pilgrimage route that is only one of two World Heritage Site pilgrimage routes in the world recognized by UNESCO. Indeed, days spent in reverence to the earth and purifying the mind and body through walks over rocks of magnificent power, the metaphor shines through – tvat vam asi – thou art that. 

And in these times of Coronavirus, nature is making a come back. Animals are returning to once human-infested cities, canals and waterways and airways are becoming clearer. The new Reiwa era promises a restoration of “beautiful harmony” as an old world falls away and a new on is revealed. The future is not a consumer economy, but a caring economy. Japan and the East are uniquely poised to show the world the way and reunite the world with their natural home we have been cut off from for so long in Cartesian constraints.

You will see in every Shinto shrine a mirror. Kagami かがみ means “mirror” in Japanese but another meaning is 神が身 – to see the divinity in one’s own self. Nature is not fallen, there is no sin except separating ourselves from nature and forgetting that we are cosmopolitan – citizens of the cosmos. Just purify the mind, wash away any thought of “you” and ego and let nature enter instead.

Sacred mirror at Tamaki Shrine, Nara Prefecture, Japan. Photo by Sydney Solis.

I find that the best ideology. Freed from dogma I connect to my being and stand in awe of the universe and creation and connect with that great awesome mystery. Content that I am part of that mystery, I live each moment and look forward to each day. I look forward to the day when all the people of the world realize they are one with nature too! We can get rid of the borders! One people of Earth!

This post serves as my little introduction to my Kumano Kodo pilgrimage. Next blog posts will be about more nature spots and shrines in Japan as well as The Kumano Kodo continued and each shrine and stop along the way as I continue to testify about my Faith in Nature.


13 thoughts on “‘In Japan, Nature is Our Religion’ — Mine Too

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