Photo essay by Lucy Saunders.
The climb up Mount Takao offered a beautiful escape from the 36 degree heat of Tokyo (when people say summer in Japan can be humid, they’re not lying) and the surrounding trees (illuminated as they were by dappled sunlight) provided welcome patches of shade. That said, even at this height the heat was blistering – which no doubt played a part in making the mountainside appear entirely isolated. It felt peaceful, almost timeless. There was a quietness that felt worlds away from the bustling city I had left only hours before.
I saw in the distance, swooping in the trees, a swish of white, like some mountain spirit celebrating the sun. Bug catchers were dancing around the tree trunks with their nets, sliding down the steep mountain slopes or clinging to branches as if it were second nature. I watched them for hours, enthralled by their agility, and they paused to show me their collections – beetles, butterflies, cicadas and moths presented in carefully selected boxes, handled with the upmost care.
There was something particularly beautiful about being in such a treasured, spiritual place and watching locals move through the setting as if it were entirely their own. Everyone I spoke to seemed to know one tree species from another, the name of each insect, where they sleep and exactly how to hold and care for them. They were also careful to ensure that they gave something back to the land each time it was kind enough to bestow a treasure upon them. Shrines and temples were found along my walk up Mount Takao and at each you could stop to pray – following the advice of smiling locals – taking part in an ancient Shinto practice that felt as old as these mountains.
Shintoism is Japan’s indigenous religion – one that, rather than following a set ruler or doctrine, focuses on the concepts of purity and respect. There is a deep admiration for nature and its power, with the natural world being the domain of kami, deities that can take almost any form and add a sense of order to our somewhat chaotic world. They may be in a tree, stream or the mist itself.
These spirits watch over the humans of the city below, as they always have. And although it may seem to be a strange concept at first, when you sit and embrace these surroundings you can’t help but sense that nature is somehow watching out for you. Being in a natural location this powerful had a very interesting effect. You come to appreciate your place in the world anew. Indeed, even when I descended Mount Takao and returned to the man-made brilliance of Tokyo I couldn’t help but notice little pockets of natural beauty and, pausing to acknowledge their power, found that Japan felt more and more like home.