17m 11s

Learning from Satoyama / Japanese Festivals

Living in Japan

Broadcast on August 6, 2023 Available until August 6, 2024

Admiring a mountaintop is natural, but Englishman Adam Fulford prefers to focus on the foot. Fulford became fascinated by what are called “satoyama” in Japanese: the base of mountains where people and nature coexist. He’s been impressed with the resilience of satoyama people in surviving disasters while living in harmony with the environment. Adam talks about the lessons of satoyama that can be applied to the rest of society.

The latter part of the program features Japanese festivals, explaining their history and appeal, and how to join in.

【Guest:Adam Fulford】
Nakatsugawa in Yamagata Prefecture
People in Nakatsugawa



Living in Japan! Hello everyone! Glad to be back with you. I'm Ruth. And I'm Stuart.
Living in Japan is a program for international residents in Japan now or in the future. We share hints and tips to make the most of your life.
Ruth, you know about the upcoming event, Obon, don't you?
Sure! Obon is an event where families gather to make offerings to ancestors and relatives who have passed on.
Right. In most parts of the country, Obon is observed from August 13th to the 16th. Many people use the occasion to take a family vacation to wherever they're originally from.
Oh, I suspect this year many families will be holding big gatherings after holding back for such a long time.
Yeah, they will be. Absolutely. And after listening to today's program, you also may feel nostalgic for your hometown and family. Let's welcome today's Senpai!


And now it's time for our main section, Hints from Senpai.
Senpai is the Japanese word for someone who has more knowledge or experience than we do. Each month we invite a senpai to the program so we can listen and learn from them.
Today's guest is Adam Fulford. He came to Japan from England when he was about 24. That's a long time, 42 years ago. Wow! Adam is a community consultant and a language consultant for projects about Japan in English. It's great to meet you, Adam.
And it's great to be here. Thank you very much for having me.
Yeah, thanks for coming in. Now today's theme is Learn from Satoyama. Satoyama, it's not one specific place. So Adam, what does Satoyama mean?
Well, in Japan 70% of the national land area is forested. People have lived together with nature since ancient times. Satoyama is an area at the foot of the mountains where people and nature coexist.
Oh, okay. Now I have a house in Yamanashi, which is really close to the mountains and surrounded by nature. So, I guess that's what you'd call a Satoyama.
So, Adam, how did you come to know so much about Satoyama?
Well, around 2010 I visited several rural locations as a judge in a national competition for beautiful villages. Oh, wow.
The landscapes of these areas differed greatly from one region to another. And at that time, I came to see clearly that Japan had a wide variety of local cultures. It was around then that I began to feel that the world had something to learn from the resilience of villages that had survived heavy snowfalls, typhoons, and other severe circumstances. So, this work led me to serve as a community consultant for the Nakatsugawa district of the town Iide in Yamagata Prefecture. Nakatsugawa, okay.
I supported its efforts to attract more foreign visitors and young people.
Sounds great. Tell us more about the town. What in particular drew you in?
Well, the first time I visited Nakatsugawa was in February 2014. The amount of snow was like nothing I had ever seen. It was over two meters. It was about six feet deep. Wow.
I mean, it was a really challenging environment for everyday life. What surprised me was that in spite of the severe challenges, the local community organized an annual winter snow festival. Nice.
Yeah, at that time Nakatsugawa had a population of about 320, more than half of whom were senior citizens. Even so, they held a small snow festival. It was a lot of fun and very impressive.
You know, I've actually been to Nakatsugawa. Nakatsugawa has just the most beautiful views you've ever seen. That's true.
You can look at Adam's picture of the scenery on our program's website later on. There's an observation deck, and you can see below you the mountains and then in the back there will be snow-covered mountains, lower mountains in front of you, the Nakatsugawa village with all the rice patties just in the middle of the mountain. It's such an iconic view of what you imagine a mountain town of Japan would look like. It was so beautiful, I actually painted a picture of it. You painted it? And I have it in my house.
But is the picture any good? Of course, it's good. I painted it. Yeah, it's good.
Yeah, I have seen it. I can assure you that it is a good painting.
But Adam, I suppose that Nakatsugawa is not the only Satoyama you've spent time in. What did you learn from them?
Well, that is a question that I ask myself all the time.
To help me get a handle on what I was experiencing, one valuable guy was Professor Furukawa Ryuzo of the faculty of Environmental Studies at Tokyo City University.
Now, he interviewed more than 600 people over 90 years old, all over Japan and in other countries, about their early lives in the days before convenience. And from these hearings, he distilled a list of 44 ways of thinking and behaving. Forty-four. For example, there is knowing how to make the most of nature.
In Nakatsugawa, where large amounts of snow accumulate during the long winter, they built a natural refrigerator. It's called Yukimuro. Yukimuro.
And they fill the building with snow. Then, they store rice, potatoes, and other food products in the building. The temperature is very stable all year round. Potatoes stored in that Yukimuro become much sweeter, and coffee matured there is really mellow. I actually tried that coffee. It's really, really good. Oh.
And another interesting thing is walking everywhere.
So, in the business world, walking meetings have a reputation for being very effective and having a positive effect on the brain. In Satoyama, however, the culture of walking naturally took root long before the walking meeting became well known. People see and feel nature while walking. They meet various people and exchange information or take a break and gossip. While walking at their own pace, they naturally learn about and think about nature and their community.
This sounds surprisingly simple. But nowadays, with so much communication happening online, we are losing that very personal connection with each other and our environment. We are indeed.
Actually, I do the modern form of a walking meeting. It's called golf. And I noticed that during golf, ‘cause we're walking in nature basically and playing a sport, and we can talk about really interesting ideas, and we can be very innovative. But as you say, people in Satoyama naturally incorporated such opportunities into their daily lives from long ago. I think that, you know, we can incorporate these ancient ideas into our modern lives quite easily.
Absolutely. Yeah, it moves into the everyday environment very, very smoothly. And I think one especially important point in traditional life that we really need to take a look at again in everyday modern life is ways to help each other. So, this spirit emerges from everyday relationships. When people have vegetables to spare in the Satoyama, those vegetables are shared. People in the same community might work together to thatch someone's house. They might collaborate to plant and harvest rice in each other's rice paddies. So, this creates a basis for mutual support in many situations. And I think this kind of behavior leads to a tendency to carefully nurture relationships and think from the viewpoint of others. So I believe it has become a part of the Japanese national character. In fact, I believe this way of thinking is not that common as a feature of the national character outside Japan. In fact, it can be very valuable anywhere in the world. Yeah, that's true.
Today we have Adam Fulford as our guest here talking about Satoyama. Now earlier you told us about various things that we can learn from Satoyama. The folks in Satoyama who've inherited this way of life: what kind of people have you met?
I've met some really wonderful people out in the countryside. There's one person in particular I'd just like to speak with you about. Her name is Miyoko and she lives in Nakatsugawa. Miyoko-san is always happy to welcome visitors. So, when I take foreign visitors to Miyoko-san's place, they often find it very moving. They just spend a few minutes with Miyoko as she shows us around her garden. But for many visitors this offers a powerful sense of experiencing Japan in a new way. It's like they've actually arrived in Japan for the first time, and they've gone home to their grandmother's place in the countryside. And I, myself, find that the time I spend in the Satoyama environment, it's really energizing. It's difficult to explain exactly how, but the experience really recharges my batteries every time I visit.
I always feel the same way when I'm with my in-laws. When I go and stay with them, they're in the countryside. When I go and stay with them, it's okay when I get there and then we spend a few great days together. But when I have to leave, I get all teary and I'm like, get me to the station because I can't hang around any longer. I really find it hard to break away. It's really moving indeed.
And I really feel like, you know, it doesn't really matter about language. Like you go there, and there's some kind of fundamental communication you're able to do that sort of bridges that language barrier. It's almost more difficult in the big cities, I find. So that's a lovely thing about the countryside.
Oh, absolutely. With Miyoko, I mean, that's exactly what you find. She speaks in the local dialect. I'm not understanding most of it. But she just tells us all about her garden. And it doesn't matter that we don't understand any single word that she's saying. She's communicating what she wants to communicate with great pride. And we're all very, very moved by the experience.
It's the warmth of the heart. Absolutely.
In Hawaii, we would call it the aloha spirit. You know, it's alive and well in the countryside in Japan. I love that. That's fantastic.
And Adam, is there anything you would like to say to our listeners in closing?
Yes, actually, having learned many things and met many people who interact with the Satoyama, what I feel these days is a strong desire not to disappoint my own ancestors. That might seem like a strange thing to say. But when my father asked me if I wanted to take on his farm when I was 13 or 14 years old, this was in rural England, I said, no. And looking back many years later, I realized that my decision broke a link with my ancestors. The generations above me included many people who lived a Satoyama lifestyle.
And recently I've been interacting with people just like that in Japan. It sometimes feels as if I'm engaging with the uncles and aunts I remember from my own childhood. And I began to wonder what my ancestors would say about my decision to leave the land in southwest England. They might be waiting to have some angry words with me when I move on to the afterlife. So, these days I think about what I can do so that my ancestors will at least say, Otsukare. How are we going to put that in English? Kind of like, "good job." Yeah, "good job." So when I meet up with them again in the afterlife, I'm hoping that they're going to say, Otsukare, at least.
I actually had the opposite experience in Hawaii. I told my father, yeah, I'll take your house. I'll take your house in Hawaii. And my dad was the one who said no.
Okay, the Obon season is a built-in opportunity for Japanese people to remember their ancestors. But you don't have to be in Japan to do that. Keep your family tree in your heart as you remember what we've heard today. Adam, thank you so much for coming in. It's been fantastic to have you.
It's been a great pleasure. Thank you very much.


Now we move on to Good to Know. In this part, our Japanese guests will tell us what they recommend we do to enjoy our life in Japan all that much better. Today we invite Kyoko. She's an anchor of several NHK programs. Hello Kyoko.
Hello, thank you so much for having me.
It's a pleasure, absolute pleasure. My pleasure.
So, what will you share with us today?
Well, I'm here to talk about Japanese festivals or in Japanese, Matsuri. Yeah.
This distinguished music: when you hear this in the streets, you know there's definitely a Matsuri going on somewhere in a community. Right.
I love this sound.
Thank you so much. So, there's numerous festivals taking part in this country all year round, but the peak comes in the summer and autumn seasons. So, we're just approaching that timing. Okay.
So, let's start with the basics. Okay.
Japanese traditional festivals, many have spiritual meaning and have connection to nature. Okay.
It's often held in and around shrines and temples, and everyone is welcome to attend.
So, all of us can go? Anyone can go, yes. Okay. All right. At the spot.
And some are said to date back more than a thousand years. And they've been passed down in the community for generations. Wow.
Now, festivals in the summer, as we have the Bon festival season, they're often held to honor ancestors and greet their spirits' visit back home.
So, the ancestors are sort of coming back, kind of thing. Okay.
That is the Bon season. While in autumn, many go through rituals wishing for a good harvest. And there’s many more other events that pray for the safety of the family or peace in the country. There’s also ones that celebrate the seasons, like the snow and the flowers and others that depict historic events.
And, you know, we see some sort of motifs or kind of props in the festivals, and those are different depending on the festival, right?
That is right. The Mikoshi. That's one of the iconic figures in Matsuri, I think. It's a structure carried around the streets by people's hands. And it's often done very loudly with a big crowd around it.
And they're like, chanting, right? Yes. Okay.
They often say, "Wasshoi, wasshoi."
What are they carrying there in that mikoshi?
Those structures are meant to be portable shrines to carry the deity out to the community and wish for people's happiness and prosperity.
And well, I like the dance part of it.
That's another important element. We call it Bon dance. The Bon festival season: that word comes from it. It’s traditionally held for honoring and entertaining our ancestors. And some dances are performances by trained locals or professionals, while others are open for everyone to participate. Great.
And there's many more elements in festivals. Like at other festivals around the world, there are fireworks, street food, souvenir shops, traditional music, and many more that builds up to the atmosphere.
So how can we participate in these events?
It's important to know that some parts are open for everyone, and some parts are limited because many of the rituals are considered sacred and involve training sessions. Yes, fair enough.
The ones that, like, the carrying of the portable shrines or the performing style of the dances, are limited to local residents or to those who have registered in advance. Okay.
If you're already a member of the community and, or are able to take part in preparations, there is a chance you can join regardless of your nationality. So, it's best to check with the shrine or temple holding the festival.
It is. I live on a river, and we have this little park, and they have a little community center in the park there. And when I first moved there 20 odd years ago, I went there and asked, "Can I participate in your local Matsuri?" So, every year I have been able to do that, accepted me right from the beginning. So, I do recommend that for anyone who wants to join in a local festival.
So, anybody can watch it, no problem with watching it. Yes.
But if you want to participate, you should probably ask in advance, either at your local community center or maybe your city office or something like that. Exactly. Okay.
But if you come across a Bon dance where everyone is dancing in a big circle, that's where everyone is welcome to join in on the spot. Okay.
And there's usually a big stage in the middle of that circle where dancers show you the moves. Okay.
So, you can join in either wearing yukata, the casual summer kimono, but you can also join in wearing casual clothes as well. There's no rules to it. The only rule is to follow everyone's moves. Right.
Don’t do original dances. Okay.
And where can we find the information about these festivals?
The easiest way is to go search on the internet. More and more official websites are giving out information in multiple languages. And for small local festivals you can contact the office of shrines or temples, or simply ask local people, like what Stuart, you did.
Please make sure you make the best of the season.
Absolutely. Well, thank you very much, Kyoko. It's good to know.
Thank you.


I actually go back to Hawaii every August. You do?
Yeah, so it's kind of like my own personal Obon and I get to see my family and really rethinking about the kinds of things I want to learn from my father while he's still alive. So, I'm looking forward to that.
Wherever in the world you may be, we hope you'll always feel right at home with our program. You can listen online too. Go to the NHK WORLD-JAPAN website, click On Demand, choose Audio, and find Living in Japan.
And if something's on your mind, please do send us a message through the website.
We'll be back next month. Bye. Bye.

Program Outline