Each spring in the snow country of Japan there’s an ancient custom of hiking to the top of a mountain as soon as the trails are passable. It’s called O-Yama-biraki or Open Mountain Day. What began as a ritual of the pre-Buddhist days of Japan, when the animistic folk religion of Shinto was practiced, endures. You hike to the summit to greet the spirit of the mountain as it wakes from the long winter. From the Shinto perspective, the natural world is sacred. Mountains are sacred. Trees are sacred. Kami or nature spirits dwell there.
Morie Sawataishi, the hero of my nonfiction book, “Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain,” isn’t compulsive about honoring all the old Shinto rituals. He’s Shinto, without question. But he turns 92 this summer and is a bit of a pragmatist. Still, there’s no question that Open Mountain Day is his favorite day of the year.
Morie’s beautiful dogs run ahead, disappearing into the dark forest and heading up the slushy paths to the peak of Mount Kurikoma. Morie loves the exuberance of his Akitas, their buoyancy and joy, their competitiveness, intelligence, ruggedness, and diehard spirit. Like Morie himself, the dogs are a little rough for polite society. They brim with instinct – and a spooky sixth sense. They seem to know it’s Open Mountain Day and a celebration of life and renewal, of wildness and fertility, and of the forest spirits that seem to make Japan so haunted and blessed.
For sixty years, since Morie rescued the Akita breed from extinction during World War II – when they were being eaten, and their luxurious pelts used by the Japanese military to line winter coats — his dogs have led him into the wild. Together, they have traveled to a deeper place, a world of instinct and survival. They have encountered growling beasts and dead carcasses, poisonous mushrooms, flying pheasants and lost hikers.
Morie has raised one hundred dogs – many of them national champions – since he came home with his first Akita in 1944. He refuses to sell them, or take money for his puppies. Instead, he prefers to give them away. He’s never been rich, like some Akita breeders in the north. But he says he’s been repaid for his efforts many times over.
Like most Japanese, Morie finds it hard to say exactly what is Shinto, what is Japanese, and what is simply “life.” The belief system is so old, and its basic values and patterns of behavior so ingrained in Japanese culture, Shinto doesn’t often appear to be a formalized set of beliefs as much as a way of living, a way of seeing, a way of thinking about the world and nature and our place in it.
Simplicity and restraint are Shinto. Natural beauty is Shinto – and the reverence not just for nature, but for things kept natural. Unpainted and unvarnished wood is Shinto. The passing of the seasons, the melting snow on the ground, the whisper of the wind in the trees. A dignified old tree can be declared a kami, or natural spirit, and blessed by a priest and then festooned, and protected, by an elegant twisted rice straw rope. A wild forest is Shinto. And the path of a dog, too.
Martha Sherrill is a former Washington Post staff writer who has covered film, politics and the arts. She is the author of two novels and two works of narrative nonfiction, including “The Buddha from Brooklyn,” an account of life inside a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Maryland. For the creation of “Dog Man,” she lived in a remote corner of Japan with Morie and Kitako Sawataishi and their Akita dogs.