When he first came to Rebun Island, wilderness guide and temple carpenter Miyuki Kobayashi was struck speechless with the natural pageantry before his eyes.
In early June this small northern island explodes into bloom, with wild flowers blanketing every plateau, glade and meadow. Glimpsing this cacophony of blossom for the first time, Kobayashi knew he had to structure his life so that nothing would get in the way of being outside, in nature.
It wasn’t easy, though, to break the conditioning to overwork he had grown up with and build a livelihood to fit his priorities.
“Several years later I was working as a surveyor,” he says in his assured and generous voice, “and the company I was working for was so busy I couldn’t quit to go north as usual. By the time I made it to Rebun Island, it was already July and the wild flowers had finished blooming. Everyone there told me that it had been, as I had expected, incredible.”
He was crestfallen, but still it took several more years and, quite literally, a brush with death from overwork before he was finally able to create for himself the profoundly slow-paced and richly satisfying life he has today.
I am speaking with the gentle-featured man with the high eyebrows and prominent cheekbones at his winter quarters, a temple in a small forest preserve in Nagoya City where he works as a carpenter and a caretaker. He works alone, maintaining the temple grounds and building alcoves, altars, shelves and porticos to beautify the interior of the temple buildings.
When the snows begin to melt in Hokkaido, he drives slowly through the back roads and forests of rural Japan to his home in the north, sleeping outside in forests and fields along the way. In between stints as a mountaineering guide, he lives in a steep valley blanketed by old-growth maple and oak alongside a large, coursing river.
Such places are sadly rare today in industrial Japan, Kobayashi tells me.
“When I was a schoolboy,” he says, “I would spend every weekend following animal trails in the mountains surrounding my village.”
While his school friends were putting on their fine clothes and taking the train into the city, he would head in the other direction, exploring the wildlands with a map and a compass, following bird calls and searching for wild edibles. Since that time, he notes, all the wildlife habitat he experienced as a boy has disappeared under roads and housing developments — part of the blanket of concrete which now covers most of the Japanese archipelago.
All over the country, even in rural areas, cemented hillsides alternate with orderly plantations of cedar trees, between which one finds plastic greenhouses and riverbeds covered in concrete.
“It’s pitiful to the point of tragedy,” he says. “How stupid those people are, who celebrate the building of a new road or ‘development’ of the country.”
Still, with the current surge in interest in hiking, Kobayashi has a chance to talk with city folk about how precious our natural heritage is to us.
“Nature is at the very center of all human existence,” he declares firmly. “Nature can do very well on its own without humans, but we will all die if there is no nature. To have the opportunity to tell this to people who don’t know anything but city life — that is why I do this job.”
It is his respect for, and gentleness toward, our nonhuman relatives that Kobayashi tries to teach those whom he guides, some of whom come to the mountains with the sole purpose of “collecting” another few peaks to add to their total.
“I try to show people specific ways to really enjoy their time in nature,” he says, “instead of simply pushing themselves to the limit, gritting their teeth, trying to get to the top of some mountain.”
Kobayashi also instructs the novice hikers how to get down close to each individual flower and how to listen for different bird calls. He calculates for them exactly how much greenery, in plants and trees they see before them, each of them needs to breathe oxygen every day.
“But more than anything,” he says, “I help people slow down, to just stand and look, to turn around and really see the beauty that they are in the midst of.”
Kobayashi’s carpentry work at the temple in winter also manifests his deeply-held values about moving at a sustainable pace and devoting oneself to beauty. He takes great pleasure in making things slowly and carefully, even though banging a couple of pieces of wood together with nails would be faster and more efficient.
His fine joinery is indeed a pleasure to look at. Mortise and tenon joints play with complex interlocking three-dimensional angles. Precisely chiseled geometrical pegs fit perfectly into recessed notches and are held in place by triangular shims, creating firm joints that could well last for centuries.
As we share a meal together, Kobayashi charms me with numerous tales of his adventures in the wild. He has impeccable timing as a storyteller, carefully placing one word after the next, and alternating pauses with slow, drawn out syllables. His tone is simultaneously boyish and serious, and I can well see how those whom he guides would be filled with both confidence and a sense of calm ease in his presence.
Kobayashi tells me the parable of the mountain water lotus, and how similar it is to our human situation here on Earth.
“In a mountain lake,” Kobayashi tells me, “if you plant one lotus plant and come back the next year, you will find two. The following year, four. Every year the number doubles. When the pond or lake is completely full, there is a sudden, massive die-off. There are too many, and they choke each other out.
“Humans, and human development, is just like that. Some still say, ‘Look: We still have half a pond left to expand into, not to worry.’ But the very next year our numbers will be double, and we will choke our own selves out.”
A serious note, but when I consider the choices he has made, overcoming the perils of overwork and pressure to conform, I feel that everyone has the potential to change, and that there’s still some chance for this green breathing earth.