103 Steps and Counting

I think there’s something to be said about a change of scenery. I know I’ve only been in Tokyo for about a week now, and I lived in Boston for 10 weeks last summer, but I guess I’m just not much of a city person. So hiking in Kamakura today was an incredibly fun and refreshing experience. I thoroughly enjoyed climbing and hiking and just enjoying the natural scenery (including several views of Mt. Fuji!). I was talking about this a little bit with Ethan, but it felt cooler in Kamakura than in Tokyo, probably because Tokyo is an urban heat island and in Kamakura we were surrounded by trees and breeze. Maybe I’m raving about this a little too much (and I guess you can only say so much about a hike), but I felt very much in my element today with hawks and crows soaring overhead and dragonflies darting in and out of shrine beams.

I think the hike put a different spin on the the shrines and historical places we visited as well. It’s hard to put into words. Learning about Shinto and Buddhism and Japan’s history through shrine and temple visits is definitely an interesting and novel experience for me, but I think sometimes it’s a lot to absorb at once, especially given how many we’ve been going to. Maybe it’s a matter of putting places into context and separating them in my mind. The Kamakura shrines were distinct to me because we hiked there and climbed 103 steps and because they were outside of urban Tokyo. Oh and it’s kind of hard to forget a giant statue of the Buddha (Daibutsu; literally “giant Buddha”) at Koutokuin. At our last stop (another shrine), we were witness to not one, but two traditional Japanese-style weddings. We caught the tail end of one and the beginning of another. Very cool!

Radiation of the Not-so Lucky Dragon No. 5

We had a bit of a shorter day today, but an interesting one nonetheless. We visited the Daigofukuryumori Exhibition Hall (a museum), showcasing the 第五福竜丸 (daigofukuryumori; Lucky Dragon No. 5) tuna trawler that was heavily irradiated during hydrogen bomb testing off of Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954. The museum contained objects actually from the ship, including the ship itself and its engine, along with other related documentation such as letters written by family members of the crew. Additionally, the museum also provided information on nuclear weapons testing. Most of the descriptions and panels were in Japanese, though there were some cards in English. It wasn’t so much the grammar that gave me trouble (for instance, many of the panels used the passive form, either to convey suffering at the hands of nuclear testing or as a sort of “reporting” form…or perhaps both), but rather there was a lot of kanji I wasn’t too familiar with.

I thought it was really interesting going through the museum, small though it was, and seeing photos and actual objects from the time. The Lucky Dragon No. 5 wasn’t the only ship irradiated, nor was March 1, 1954 the only time atomic weapons were tested in that area; this is arguably the most well-documented or press-heavy incident. I was also intrigued by how ocean currents also impacted or spread radiation; there was a map I think showing sites of known radiation contamination and they followed the trajectories of currents almost perfectly.

We ended the day back at Waseda University with a discussion on both today’s and yesterday’s readings and visits. It was a good chance to reflect on what we’ve been learning and seeing the past several days, especially since we for once had an opportunity to do so as a group. Michael also brought up the idea of reflecting on the trip as a whole, midway, and what it means to us, which I also thought would be helpful and interesting.

Mistaking the Mori for the Ki

As promised, here’s a more or less exact transcription of my notes from my discussion (read as: barrage of questions) with Tanaka-san and also just general observation. In other words, mistaking the forest for the trees:

  1. Were animal species also brought to Meiji Shrine just as the trees were, or did these communities colonize and develop on their own?
    • Mostly native species; predominantly insects, birds, and arachnids.
    • Microorganisms at the foot of trees, but few mammals
    • Species surveyed every 50 years
  2. What kinds of microhabitats and microecosystems make up the larger forest ecosystem?
    • Forest
    • Open fields
    • Streams
    • Ponds
  3. Is the Meiji Shrine Forest community/ecosystem relatively isolated or does emigration and immigration occur? Are there any edge effects, considering the forest is something of an “island” in the middle of urban Tokyo?
    • Only mammals (and presumably birds) really travel in and out of the forest
    • Tannuki (raccoons) and masked palm civet can survive in urban setting
    • Genetic isolation? Genetic diversity?
  4. How did the firebombings of Tokyo during WWII impact the forest? Did it burn down at all?
    • Forest did not burn down at all, due to the high humidity and water content (whereas Meiji Shrine burned)
  5. What kind of trophic structure and complexity does the forest support? Are there many organisms occupying niches of the same trophic level or do you get upper trophic levels?
    • Falcons and snakes seem to occupy the upper trophic levels and consume pigeons, field mice, and wild ducks
    • Falcons considered an umbrella species
    • No large carnivorous mammals (raccoons, for instance, omnivorous)
    • Visited falcon nest (おおたかのす; ootaka no su)
  6. Given that the forest is relatively isolated and there is little migration between the forest and either urban or other ecosystems, do you think there could be evolution or speciation? Even on a local scale?
    • To Tanaka-san’s knowledge, there hasn’t been any speciation (note to self: probably because 100 years is quite short in evolutionary time), but he thinks that my intuition on that matter would be correct (i.e. relatively isolation and low external gene flow could lead to diversification and/or speciation with substantial time)
    • Perhaps localized genetic diversity/differentiation compared to nearby or similar Japan forest ecosystems?

Some general notes:

  • Gyoen Garden:
    • 150 species of iris; maintained original lines (no successful cross-pollination; picked up any fallen bulbs)
    • Iris = はなしょうぶ (hanashoubu)
  • Insects Taxa:
    • Coleoptera (beetles)
    • Water striders
    • Lepidoptera
    • Hymenoptera (specifically ants; bees and wasps?)
  • Pond ==> stagnant?
    • No fish, cloudy, still water
    • Water striders and water lilies ==> tolerant species?
    • Due to lotic water that isn’t interfered with by humans?
  • Birds:
    • Crows, pigeons, ducks, falcons…others?
  • Deciduous oak vs evergreen oak (かしkashi)
    • Quercus spp. (e.g. Quercus serrata)
  • Vegetation from Edo era (section of forest; “summer mansion forest”)
    • Dominant: こなら (konara) = Quercus serrata
  • Tanaka-san did overseas restoration work in Bali mangrove forests, damaged by fish harvest (aquaculture that cleared mangroves?)

To close, I think there’s a lot of background information and ecology that I’m going to look up and explore on my own. Honestly, this was a seriously cool trip and discussion that I wasn’t really expecting out of a visit to Meiji Shrine. That is to say, I wasn’t expecting this kind of ecological discussion.

Mistaking the Ki for the Mori

I’ll start off with a quick translation, courtesy of Selinger-sensei’s friend Noto-san. 木(Ki) as you might guess from the idiom means “tree” and 森 (mori) means “forest” and is composed of three “tree” radicals. But, according to Noto-san, in the context of Shinto Shrines (神道神社; Shinto Jinja) and 鎮守の杜 (chinju no mori; forest of shrine), mori uses this kanji: 杜, combining the familiar “tree” radical (木) with the “earth” or “ground” radical (土) and implying “sacred ground.” Very interesting!


We began the day with Shinto and Shinto Shrines 101, a discussion and lecture led by Noto-san. We learned about the basic principles of Shinto and how kami can be found everywhere. According to Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), “whatever seemed strikingly impressive, possessed the quality of excellence and virtue, and inspired a feeling of awe was called kami.” Noto-san joked that Selinger-sensei’s skill in and dedication to language study for her might be worthy of being called kami. I’ll quickly run down the basic components of a Shinto Shrine:

  1. Torii Gate (note, serious wordplay incoming: written as 鳥居, torii, using the kanji for “bird” and “stay,” it was originally written as 通り入る, tooriiru, using the kanji for “way” and “enter”…wordplay is wonderful)
  2. Name of shrine on a stone pillar
  3. Lanterns (とうろう)
  4. Kagura Shinto Dance and Music Hall
  5. Temizu Water Purification Place
  6. Komainu Stone Guardian Dogs
  7. Treasure House
  8. Hall of Worship
  9. Main Hall (Goshintai, or container for kami, enshrined)
  10. Sacred Tree

After the discussion, we were in for a serious treat: we visited Meiji Jingu Shrine and witnessed a full Shinto ceremony service/ceremony. Although my feet may or may not have fallen asleep with major pins and needles, it was a really interesting experience. Many of the ritual actions are associated with purification and dispelling evil spirits, and there was even a Kagura dance as well. I, myself, am not particularly religious or spiritual, but even so it was definitely a cool, moving experience.


So, you may be wondering (or not) at this point: “why the idiom for the title?” What might “mistaking the forest for the trees” (note to self: ask Aridome-sensei and Selinger-sensei how that might be translated into Japanese) have to do with Meiji Jingu Shrine? The simple, uninformative answer is that I am an ecologist and Meiji Jingu Shrine is surrounded by a forest. Let me explain: although was most certainly centered around the shrine and Shinto, I think probably the most fascinating and wonderful part of this whole trip is that each individual component can be approached from multiple angles, owing to our own individual interests. So for instance, I was absolutely fascinated to learn and talk about Meiji Shrine’s forest as an ecosystem with Tanaka-san, one of the forest caretakers. And evidently, Tanaka-san picked up on that enthusiasm and facination; our forest tour was originally only supposed to be a half hour, but was extended to an hour and a half as I just kept asking question after question. みんなさんごめん!でも、すごくおもしろかった!(Minna-san gomen! Demo, sugoku omoshirokatta! Apologies everyone, but it was extremely interesting!)

The Meiji Shrine Forest is actually not a “natural” forest but rather a manmade one. That is, in 1920, scientists planted a specific composition of conifers, evergreen broadleaf, and deciduous broadleaf trees imported from all over Japan and even overseas, knowing and projecting how that specific composition would change through ecological succession into the forest that it is today, 100 years later (i.e. stage 3 of 4 in the plan). The forest has largely been left untouched this entire time, even withstanding the Tokyo firebombings in WWII. And, as the canopy became more dense, the forest changed the microclimate of that area from a dry and barren to humid and cool. Even if it was “artificially planted,” I would argue that the forest, left to its own devices all these years, is most certainly a natural ecosystem.  Going back to the idiom, though, ecologists, I think, pride themselves on viewing the big picture, while at the same time focusing on the interactions and connections between organisms and their environment. So I think we at times mistake the forest for the trees and get lost in the details, but at other times we mistake the trees for the forest and take a broader picture. Speaking of the broader picture, these certainly are not my full and complete thoughts and notes from my discussion (translation courtesy of Selinger-sensei) with Tanaka-san; so, this entry is “mistaking the trees for the forest” and capturing the big ideas from the day. As I’m sure any of my peers or the sensei’s can attest, I was furiously scribbling down notes and observing the forest and asking Tanaka-san questions, so I think it’d be a shame not to document it, if people would be interested in reading.

Kanpo-limentary Medicine

Okay so maybe that pun was a little bit of stretch. Moving on, today we met with Dr. Qiu at her kanpo (漢方) clinic in Ebisu. I’ll be blunt: it was absolutely fascinating hearing about how she became interested in kanpo, how she came to be where she is today, and the kind of practice she does.

Dr. Qiu was originally from inner Mongolia, where her father was a pediatrician of Western-style medicine. Dr. Qiu, herself, apparently had something of a weak constitution (taishitsu) and Western medicine couldn’t really address or treat it. So, her father took a year’s leave from his practice to study kanpo, searching for a way to heal. When he returned, Dr. Qiu became something of his first “guinea pig,” but to remarkable success. Her father maintained his Western-style clinic, but began to expand his kanpo practice to his neighborhood; eventually, his patients seeking kanpo healing outnumbered those that went to his clinic. After the transition to kanpo, Dr. Qiu and her sister helped out in the waiting room, receiving and serving tea to patients. So Dr. Qiu’s interest in kanpo has a very personal connection and backstory to it that I think is a wonderful story.

According to Dr. Qiu, and very much aligning with what we’d read previously, kanpo is all about identifying and healing the imbalances in the body and has a strong environmental component. Rather than addressing individual problems, kanpo seeks to remedy the body as a whole, and many of these individual problems can be ascribed to an overall imbalance in the body and/or ki. One thing I thought was astounding was the strong regulation on medicine that exists in Japan. Whereas in the US, a lot of treatments might be considered “dietary supplements” and thus would not be regulated under the FDA, in Japan everything is tightly regulated. So many of Dr. Qiu’s medicines are purchased through a middleman company(?) that imports the medicine from China and undergoes strict inspection to ensure that what is on the label is what the patient is getting. I’m not entirely sure how this tight regulation plays out economically, but from a health and environmental perspective it seems like an excellent system that the US lacks. I was also intrigued by how complimentary kanpo and Western medicine are perceived in Japan, whereas elsewhere (i.e. the West) they might be perceived as at odds with one another. I think it highlights the strengths of each; kanpo seems to be particular effective at treating chronic and complex illnesses, while Western medicine might be more effective in the short term at treating specific, targeted illnesses or diseases especially when the pathogen is known. Kanpo also excels at, when an exact “treatment” is difficult to pin down, boosting the body’s natural defenses and ki.

What also struck me was how close and intimate Dr. Qiu seemed with her patients (from her stories). Specifically, when the 3/11 Fukushima nuclear disaster happened, Dr. Qiu was considering returning to Mongolia; apparently, the Mongolian embassy(?) was offering free tickets for citizens to evacuate and return home. Many of Dr. Qiu’s patients called her directly, expressing concern for her and explaining that they would completely understand if she decided to return home. But, they added, they would be deeply grateful, too, if she decided to stay–that’s how close and important they felt Dr. Qiu and her kanpo practice was to them and their healing. I think this is a wonderful example of putting someone else’s needs before your own. I was also struck by how lively and energetic (genki; 元気) Dr. Qiu was, and by how body language and gestures also played an important role in telling her stories. Finally, Dr. Qiu served us some おいしい kanpo medicine to dispel any impressions that kanpo tastes bad. We also got to measure out a little take-home bag of medicine too. すごい! Sugoi! Very cool!


The rest of the day was devoted to the Edo-Tokyo Museum, housed in a building that looks like it could have been from Star Wars (think maybe the walkers?). The museum documented the historical transition from Edo to modern day Tokyo, but evidently presents a very idealistic, hardship-free view. Still, it was interesting to explore the history of Edo, and a lot of the displays and dioramas were interactive (always a plus for me, when going to museums!). We also took some great, at times hilarious photos, so stay tuned!