A deep connection to nature has traditionally been a key element of spiritual life in Japan. In fact, the essence of Shinto beliefs is defined by a bond to the natural world, a belief that spirits and gods exist in all things throughout nature. Even those that have lived far from the forests and rice paddies, deep in the hum of urban life, give thanks and pay their respect to these spirits by visiting shrines, holy mountains, or even saying thanks to the many hands that have provided them with food before a meal.
In spite of the distance from nature, or perhaps because of it, Japanese people have a great fondness for rural landscapes. There is even a term in Japanese, Satoyama, that expresses the transition and coexistence of human-made landscapes and the natural world.
Satoyama (里 – sato, or village; 山- yama, or mountain) is generally translated as “countryside” in English, however that term falls short in expressing the importance of this intersection of human society and nature. Rather than simply being a place distant from the urban centers, Satoyamaare places where human presence is integrated in such a way that promotes the wellbeing of the natural landscapes rather than a desire to conquer it.
In these areas, traditional beliefs that the gods inhabit the streams, forests, mountains, and rice paddies runs deep and can still be seen today. People there depend on these gods to keep them safe and to provide them with the many fruits of the natural world, be it rice, kindling, nuts, or vegetables. As a result, the idea that humans are stewards of the natural world, a part of the ecosystem that thrives in the Satoyama, is integral in the effort to express that gratitude and maintain a balance through their work.
These landscapes invariably influence the lifestyles of their inhabitants as well as the flora and fauna that exist there and as a result, Satoyama are areas of immense biodiversity. They are a mosaic of forests, hills, rice paddies, grasslands, streams, ponds, and lakes, all playing a role in agricultural production and the maintenance of natural habits for local wildlife.
There exists in this relationship an understanding for the need of sustainability and balance. People directly depend on the natural bounty provided by their surroundings, and therefore recognize the need to live in harmony with it, to take only what is needed and to give back in kind. In this way, practices such as cultivating outcroppings of reeds on lakeshores to promote a healthy environment for local wading birds or ensuring the maintenance of deciduous broad-leaf trees to encourage the growth of plant and animal species that thrive in those environments, is a part of regular life in Satoyama. Traditional crafts, like the creation of Japanese charcoal, are directly connected to these practices, as in order to maintain the presence of deciduous trees in their forests, dense dark laurel trees must be kept at bay, providing farmers with the perfect source to create charcoal. This reciprocal relationship is one that is at the very core of what Satoyamamean in Japanese society. They represent a fundamental and traditional bond to nature, a bond that unfortunately is slowly coming undone.
Expanding urban development and an increasing dependence on imported goods now threaten Satoyama throughout Japan, and by extension, many of the traditional crafts and methods practiced in rural areas. As generations move from rural areas to urban centers, the Satoyama become abandoned and are eventually left to be overgrown by weeds and dense trees. The biodiversity that was once maintained by human interaction and care, falls apart.
Thankfully, however, initiatives to preserve and conserve these Satoyama landscapes are making headway as many Japanese look to experience a return to a “slower” way of life in this turbulent, fast-paced world we live in. There are excursions where visitors can experience what life is like on a farm or they can wander through the forests in search of unique flora and fauna. Even more popular are initiatives to get children and students involved in these conservation efforts, bringing them to Satoyama areas to engage firsthand with the life that thrives there. The hope is that by exposing them to this world, they might be able to return to Satoyama when they’re older and establish the next generation of stewards for these landscapes.
In global struggles to protect the environment, the wisdom found in Satoyama areas can prove to be a model for the future, where human interaction with nature is not only necessary, but crucial in order to restore and conserve the natural world in a sustainable way. As they are finding in Satoyama, we need to support these areas for the culture and wildlife that flourishes there. We need to support those that live there so that they can thrive, not simply hang one from one generation to the next until the last generation has no option but to move away.
In many ways Satoyama are a glimpse into the past, and in that way, they too can be a glimpse into the future. They are a reminder of our connection to the earth and a reason to protect it.
About the author: The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@kevinjkilcoyne) where he posts his photography and illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food.