Help for Japan

How to help Japan

Thoughts for Japan via an extract from ‘Shinto Style’ by Sam Bleakley

“…Japan is full of colour and surprise. While the buzzing cities are hi-tech labyrinths, the countryside is laid-back, with forested hills and clean villages where the past and future seem to merge as one. For travelling surfers the Japanese are gracious hosts. They have a great belief in the transience of the world, in impermanence and renewal. Surfing sits beautifully in a place that values the importance of both nature and innovation, of the given forces of life and of cultural change in dialogue. As a result, there are two million surfers in Japan blending tradition and experimentation…

…Travelling to surf always opens two horizons of possibility – one looks out to sea, hawk-eyed for the next set, sensitive to the local conditions, rapidly soaking up the local tide and rip conditions, seeing where the locals sit in the line up, checking out the sea life. But this posture literally turns your back on the land you have visited. Inquisitive surfers take time to also go inland, meet the people and the landscape, soak in the culture. I had some time to turn my back on the beach and ride by car and ferry from Tahara, Aichi, to Ise, in Western Honshu. Drizzle shrouded the maple, birch, cypress and cedar trees along the Ise peninsula making it look like a watercolour. The coast here is deeply convoluted and famous for both oyster pearl production and its Grand Shinto Shrine. Shinto – ‘the way of the gods’ – is Japan’s oldest religion, a nature-based practice, and Ise has the most sacred shrine in the country. It is believed to be the home of the spirits of all the past emperors, and dedicated to ‘Amaterasu’ – the sun goddess.

The mischievous weather spirits must have been hanging out their laundry to dry, as the air was heavy with moisture – yeasty and torpid, forcing me to be slow, perhaps to notice. I arrived at the graceful ‘toril’ – a gateway that marks the entrance to the shrine and the main icon of Shinto. The site is filled with towering cedar trees broken by rivers and streams – wood and water everywhere, so that the spirits of the place feel at home. Even the temple buildings are made of burnished cypress. The surfaces are smooth and lustrous, the grain and colour left natural, with intricate details added. The craftsmanship is flawless. There is a tradition of bringing beauty into everything in Japan, from building to making tea to social manners. Past and present blend seamlessly, so that even the factory workers making televisions talk of the spirits in the tube. Following a tradition since AD 690, the whole temple complex is completely rebuilt every twenty years in accordance with Shinto principles of purity and renewal. Commercialism and the temple’s old ways merge together in a lean and perfectly manicured style. When the Japanese make an electrical appliance, even on a factory production line, there is a sense in which a spirit of the appliance is honoured. This is in some ways literally true as we spark the appliance with a tamed spirit – that of domestic electricity.

Today few Japanese are pure Shintoists, but most observe various Shinto and Buddhist practices. Many Shinto habits pervade everyday Japanese life, from an emphasis on purification to an obsession with austere aesthetics and the celebration of the cherry blossom. At the ‘jinga’ shrines the visitors make prayers to different deities – known as ‘kami’ – that preside over all things in nature, both animate and inanimate. On the way out you can buy ‘omamori’ good luck charms, hoping for health, safety and success.

Shinto is deeply connected to sumo wresting, and the Japanese martial arts are often closely associated with Zen Buddhism. Both pride themselves on total concentration of mind and body, something surfers can readily appreciate where balance, control, speed and accuracy are paramount. In sumo, surfing and martial arts, living in the present in a sense eradicates time, for there is no mindless wandering to recollection, and no fruitless future guesswork. This state of mind is when you surf at your best, mindful, not mindless. This is when that current runs through you, the spirit bursts into flame, but quietly, and you are fully absorbed. Sometimes you learn a lot when you escape from the waves for a day and turn your attention to that other horizon, inland….”

About Sam Bleakley

I am a freelance writer and professional surfer from Sennen, West Cornwall, in the UK. I specialise in surf exploration projects with renowned surfEXPLORE photographer John Callahan. I have undertaken groundbreaking trips to the likes of Algeria, Liberia, Kenya, Oman, South Korea, Hainan, Palawan and the Maluku Islands. Surf writing has led me to visit sixty countries. My roots, however, remain in Penwith, where I live with my family above Gwenver beach, close to Land's End, the westernmost tip of Britain - next stop Novia Scotia. I have an MA in Geography from Pembroke College, the University of Cambridge, and I am currently researching a part time PhD in Travel Writing with Falmouth University. I am the author of two illustrated surf travel books, Surfing Brilliant Corners and Surfing Tropical Beats (Alison Hodge Publisher, Penzance). I have been a multiple European and British Longboard surfing Champion, and former competitor on the ASP World Longboard Tour. I am widely published and featured in international magazines and newspapers ranging from Resurgence to Action Asia to The Cornishman, and a regular contributor to The Surfer's Path. I have studied and taught travel writing courses and guest lecture on aspects of surfing, travel, writing and geogrphy in further and higher education. I edited The Surfing Tribe: a history of surfing in Britain, and have edited Longboarding supplements and specials for Carve and Wavelength magazines. My first book, Surfing Brilliant Corners, details a decade of extreme global surf travel, illustrated by John Callahan. Surfing, jazz, geography, ecology and cultural studies mix as I journey to Mauritania, locked in political strife, where landmines litter access to some of the best waves on the planet; and Haiti, which captures my heart and makes it race as if falling in love. My second book, Surfing Tropical Beats, follows our surfEXPLORE team on a rollercoaster ride from Haiti to Gabon, through Algeria, India, Vietnam, China and back to Haiti.
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