Take A Breath In Yamaguchi - an essay on Shintoism and the Earth




Shintoism holds that the ‘Kami’ reside within landscapes, forces of nature, as well as within beings and the qualities that they possess.


Mountains, lakes, waterfalls, animals and even storms or earthquakes come to hold a spiritual meaning. This creates a respect and harmony between humans and nature which feels balanced and extremely peaceful. While this may be a spiritual belief, it permeates daily life in Japan and guides how people interact with their surroundings.


There is a simplicity in their nurture of the earth, a kind of respect for what it gives them that I have never really encountered in England before.

My friends always say that I seem so at ease when I return from a visit to Japan. I definitely feel it too, but I can never quite identify why. I was born and raised in London, but they say home is where the heart is, and I suppose, in many ways, my heart is and always has been in Japan.


My mother’s family has lived on the same plot of land for generations. They have tended and cultivated the land and reaped its abundant benefits year after year. Just as their parents did, my grandparents grow their own rice, vegetables and fruits, living off what the earth provides them. Oh, and let me tell you, there is nothing better than my grandmother’s cooking. There is a simplicity in their nurture of the earth, a kind of respect for what it gives them that I have never really encountered in England before.


There is a temple near my grandparents’ house, nestled in a mountainside, deep in the forest. To reach the temple, you have to climb what always feels like hundreds of steps. The steps are somewhat haphazard; some set in stone, others formed by tree trunks laid down on their side. As you climb, you are engulfed by a sea of green: trees that stretch up and up and up, touching the sky with their canopy. About half-way up, immersed in the hum of the cicadas, you find a gong. The ring of the gong bellows into the mountainside, telling the ‘kami’ of your presence. Keep climbing and you come to a clearing. It’s nothing spectacularunlike the temples and shrines of Kyoto, it’s only modest. You walk up to the temple, throw your offering, clap your hands twice, and pray.


I am always struck by the vibrancy of life surrounding me. The immensity and the resilience of it all.

Coming from a city, silence is still somewhat of a novelty to me. Sometimes, I even find silence a little unsettling. The silence in the temple is not suffocating. Instead, you’re enveloped by the hush of the wind, the tread of leaves beneath your feet, and the flow of water down the mountainside.


Shintoism holds that temples and shrines should be built in a place of natural beauty and that the complex itself should be connected to its surroundings, allowing the worshipper to appreciate and venerate the spirits within the temple and connect with the nature around them. The possibility of realising this is scarce in a city context, but it persists within older temples like this one.


Standing there in that clearing always offers a moment for contemplation. With the world around me obscured from view by the trees and the air thick like honey, I pause.


I am always struck by the vibrancy of life surrounding me. The immensity and the resilience of it all.


From where I stand, this disconnect with nature is fuelling our inaction when it comes to the climate crisis.

Humans have convinced themselves that they are above the natural world that we are more intelligent, more worthy, just so obviously superior. There are moments when nature belittles us with the force of her winds, the strength of her waves, the shock of her tremors. She puts us back in our place for a moment, but as these so often coincide with tragedy and loss, I don’t think we ever learn.


In that clearing, and maybe it’s just me, I feel humbled. It really is a peaceful feeling to become part of your surroundings; to feel its abundance and life force.


This connection to nature is something that I am desperate to transplant to my home in London, although I find it near impossible. Out there, where my grandparents live, it’s a given that you should give to nature and that she will give to you. In London, by contrast, nature is confined by fences, trimmed and manicured to fit aesthetic visionsand far too often seen as encroaching. Vegetables, fruit, and rice are wrapped in plastic, stacked pedantically on the shelves, and sold for profit; consumers are blind to the earth that gifted us all of this. Capitalist society forces a disconnect from the earth, it is an echo-chamber for human exceptionalism where there is little space for nature to run wild.


From where I stand, this disconnect with nature is fuelling our inaction when it comes to the climate crisis.


At its core, this is a conversation about respect.

Don’t get me wrong, metropolitan centres in Japan are often just as far-removed from nature, and their relationship with the earth is also often fraught and dominated by human development. I do think, however, that we have something to learn from Shinto’s veneration and respect of nature. If our cities and homes were constructed with their surroundings in mind, we would appreciate that we are not the only inhabitants of this planet. If we ate seasonal produce, we would realise that the earth provides what she can, when she can. If we spent a little bit more time in nature and with nature, we would remember that we too belong to it.


At its core, this is a conversation about respect. Shintoism calls for a worship of Kami, which are embodied within nature. Maybe worship is too tall an order, but basic respect is not. Lost in time, this respect is now fundamentally lacking from British culture. However, if each one of us took a moment re-harmonise, re-connect and re-acknowledge the beauty of our home, I think we would find a hell of a lot of energy to give towards saving our beautiful earth.




By Louder Than The Storm co-founder, Aimée Lister.


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