Sometimes when we talk to nature, nature talks back. At such times we suddenly become attuned to the sound of the rushing river and see the mountains looming up large before us. The wind blowing through the forest or valley may suddenly swell as if in anger, only to subside to a quiet breath maternal in its gentleness. This is not just poetic rhetoric. Our ancestors actually heard the voices of the gods and sensed the spirits of the dead in the countless and ever-changing natural phenomena that surrounded them.

Traditionally the Japanese have regarded nature as much more than a collection of objects and phenomena. They have seen it as the abode of the gods and the spirits of the dead, and in some cases they have regarded its phenomena and objects as the very embodiment, or noumenon, of those gods and spirits.

This characteristic perception of nature appears as early as the ancient Man’yôshû and Kokinshû poetry anthologies. It also colors the writing of such prose as the Genji monogatari (Tale of Genji) and Heike monogatari (The Tale of the Heike), as well as the plays of the nô and bunraku theater. Let us begin our exploration of this animistic religious sensibility by examining a poem from the Man’yôshû, Japan’s earliest surviving poetry anthology, compiled around the middle of the eighth century.

Among the many poems of the Man’yôshû is the following verse by the eighth-century court poet Yamabe no Akahito on a distant view of Mount Fuji.

Ame tsuchi no

Wakareshi toki yu


Takaku tôtoki

Suruga naru

Fuji no takane o

Ama no hara

Furisakemireba . . .

From the division

Of the heaven and the earth

Instinct with godhead

Lofty and noble has there stood,

Rising in Suruga,

The towering cone of Fuji:

When I gaze afar

Across the distant plains of heaven . . . *

In this poem Akahito describes Mount Fuji as “lofty and noble,” but most important, as “instinct with godhead.” The Japanese term is an archaic verb with a venerable heritage, kamusabiru, whose basic meaning is “to behave like a god.” Why is this word applied to Mount Fuji? From ancient times, kamusabita yama (godly mountain) was the term used to refer to a mountain to which the gods had descended. In Japanese mythology, the gods first arrived on the Japanese archipelago when Ninigi no Mikoto, grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu Ômikami, descended from heaven to the peak of Mount Takachiho. Thus we have numerous myths in which gods and spirits descend to the Japanese archipelago or arrive from across the ocean after becoming enamored of one of its mountains. This sort of legend eventually evolved into a belief in certain mountains as the physical manifestation of the divinities themselves. Examples of such peaks are Mount Miwa and Mount Kasuga in western Japan and Mount Fuji and Mount Tsukuba in the east. In fact, depending on one’s viewpoint, all of Japan’s mountains, large and small, are places where the gods descended and now dwell.

There also emerged a belief that the spirits of the dead eventually ascend these mountains inhabited by gods and spirits. When a person died, it was believed, the spirit would leave human dwelling places behind and slowly climb a nearby mountain, crawling among the trees and rocks. Mountains thus came to be seen as the dwelling place of ancestral spirits and the ghosts of ancient clans. Mountains, in other words, were sacred and magical places to which the gods descended and the dead ascended. Herein lies the spiritual basis of the Japanese attitude toward nature as more than a collection of natural objects and phenomena.


I traveled to Israel for the first time in the fall of 1995 with the purpose of exploring the setting in which Jesus lived and died. What astonished me more than anything was that almost all the sites associated with Jesus’s life and work—Nazareth, where he spent his youth, the Sea of Galilee, where he recruited disciples, the Jordan River, where he was baptized—are in the midst of desert.

Finally I arrived at my ultimate destination, the holy city of Jerusalem, where Jesus was crucified on the hill of Golgotha. It looked like a city built on rubble. And all around were miles and miles of desert.

As I traveled through this unending desert landscape by bus, I found myself wondering what a human being could cling to in such an environment. I began to sense the power of a desert people’s spiritual desire—a desire transcending logic—to believe in a single, omnipotent deity dwelling in heaven and embodying absolute good. Perhaps here we find the geographical foundation of monotheism. It seemed to me, moreover, that there was little room for contemplation regarding such a single, absolute “God in Heaven” in such a geographical context beyond having faith or not having faith. In this sense, it seems to me that both Christianity and Islam belong to the same category of religions of faith, as opposed to religions of intuition.

Returning to Japan after this experience, I found myself feasting my eyes on this country’s rich and fertile natural environment, more impressed than ever by its mountains, forests, and rivers and the wealth of good things offered by land and sea alike. At the risk of sounding boastful, I must say that after the desert, the Japanese archipelago looked like paradise to me. In such an environment, what need was there to seek a single deity ruling from heaven on high, representing absolute good? In Japan, I felt that absolute good was to be found not in heaven but everywhere in nature. And this, too, was an intuition transcending logic. Perhaps here we find the geographical foundation of polytheism.

Furthermore, when we penetrate deeper into the country’s lush forests, we do seem to hear the voices of the gods and of our ancestors. It seems to me that the people living on this archipelago in prehistoric times must have heard those voices and that this must have shaped their entire view of life. They lived each day sensing the presence of the gods and spirits all around them. I would call this a religion of intuition.

Let us now further explore this component of Japanese culture by examining two works of Japanese art that embody the sort of religious orientation I have described. The first is the famous hanging scroll of Nachi Waterfall in the Nezu Institute of Fine Arts, Tokyo, a national treasure dating from the Kamakura period (1185–1333). The second is Hasegawa Tôhaku’s masterpiece Pine Forest, a pair of folding screens from the Momoyama period (1573–1603), now housed in the Tokyo National Museum. I have selected these works because they vividly and beautifully embody what lies at the heart of Japan’s animistic religious tradition.

Nachi Waterfall in Kumano is a white ribbon bisecting a sheer rock face in a natural setting with all the drama of Mount Eiger’s north face. At the top of the artist’s composition, the moon can be seen peeking above the mountaintops. At the bottom, we see the waterfall’s plunge pool, bordered by trees, through which we glimpse the roof of a Shintô shrine.

Located at the south end of the Kii Peninsula, Kumano has been known since ancient times as sacred ground dedicated to the spirits of the dead, and by the medieval period it had already developed into such a popular pilgrimage site that the people who flocked there were likened to ants. There are three shrines located in the area—Hongû (“main shrine”), Shingû (“new shrine”), and Nachi—collectively known as Kumano Sanzan. Mount Nachi has long been known as a destination for the spirits of the dead, and the breathtakingly beautiful 130-meter Nachi Waterfall on its south slope is worshipped as the Shintô deity Hirô Gongen. Thus, the scroll of Nachi Waterfall needs to be understood within the context of Japanese religious cults centered on mountains and similar natural features.

Compositionally, of course, the central motif of the painting is the water that emerges from dense foliage at the top of the cliff and falls to the bottom. After reaching the plunge pool, it metamorphoses into a mountain stream that can be glimpsed dancing in and out among rocks. On either side are old cedars, and near the center at the bottom of the composition we can make out part of a cypress-bark roof. This is the haiden, the shrine building housing the altar where the waterfall itself is worshipped as the deity Gongen. To the right of this is an old cedar, and next to the tree we see two wooden grave tablets. Near the top of the composition, trees blanket the side of the mountain with lush foliage, and at the very top the moon is half revealed above the mountaintops. The torrent of the falls emerges from the boundary between the forest that encircles the mountain’s summit and the sheer, vertical cliff that falls away below it.

It is a simple, unaffected composition, but the world it conveys is more complex than it appears—as suggested by the volumes of interpretation and analysis to which the scroll has given rise over the years.


For many years there was a school of thought that regarded Nachi Waterfall quite simply as an early landscape painting. Scholars buttressed this argument by going to the site and taking photos of the falls that closely matched the painting in the outline of pictorial elements and the relationships among them, demonstrating that the painting is not just a product of the artist’s imagination. One can appreciate why André Malraux was inspired by the painting to visit Kumano and the waterfall to explore the ineffable resonance between nature and art. It would be hard to imagine a similar response to a landscape like Sesshû’s Long Landscape Scroll in the Môri Collection.

Be that as it may, I am convinced that in its essence the Nachi Waterfall is not a pure landscape painting but an example of the genre known as suijaku-ga (suijaku painting). While an aesthetic fascination with the waterfall certainly makes itself felt here, the fundamental world view the picture embodies is that of suijaku-ga.Suijaku, which literally means “trace,” is the Shintô manifestation of a Buddhist deity, as posited in a system of belief known as honji suijaku. The basic idea was that the buddhas and bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism left their “traces” on the phenomenal world in the form of kami (Shintô divinities). It was a way of reconciling Buddhism and Shintô by treating the Buddha as the fundamental form (honji) and the Shintô gods as incarnations (suijaku). Suijaku-ga attempts to depict this cosmology, and in the process it often gives a central place to natural features such as mountains and forests.

In such paintings, a key motif was comparison and contrast between images of Buddhist deities and their corresponding Shintô deities, and between the temple, depicted as an enclosure, and the shrine together with its natural environment. To see how this was accomplished, let us refer to a roughly contemporary piece, the Kumano Mandala. In this painting the three Kumano shrines are depicted as if on the far side of a body of water. In the upper portion of the composition, among the mountains, we see Zaô Gongen, Ennogyôja, and the eight attendants of the fierce deity Fudô. Below, arranged horizontally, we see the three honji Buddhist deities of Kumano’s three shrines: Amida Buddha, Yakushi Buddha, and Thousand-Armed Kannon. Below them are ranged various bodhisattvas, Fudô, and other lesser members of the Buddhist pantheon. Finally, in the lower right-hand corner, we see the image of the Nachi Waterfall. Other Kumano mandalas show considerable variation in the arrangement and relationship of pictorial elements. The Nachi Waterfall has essentially extracted the waterfall element from this cosmological scheme and blown it up large.

If indeed Nachi Waterfall is essentially one corner of a Kumano mandala, then it goes without saying that the scroll falls into the category of suijaku-ga. One piece of evidence pointing in this direction is the just-visible roof of the Hirô Gongen haiden. Another point to note is that the long, narrow composition of the hanging scroll is divided into top, middle, and bottom sections: The top consists of the mountains and the moon; the middle, the cliff and the long stream of water falling down its length; and the bottom, the plunge pool and outer shrine. In fact, this vertical tripartite composition is a basic pattern in suijaku mandalas. For example, the typical Kasuga Shrine mandala similarly shows mountains with the moon rising over them in the upper third of the composition. In the middle portion it depicts Kasuga Shrine and its environs, and the bottom features Kôfukuji temple. The realm of the kami and that of the Buddha are separated, while the mountain and moon are shown high above, subsuming both. The mountains, we might say, are a sacred symbol of the transformation whereby the honji buddha or Buddhist deity manifests itself as a suijaku deity. In this case, the image of a buddha or bodhisattva—or, alternatively, a Sanskrit letter symbolizing the deity—often appears on the moon in relief. The moon in this case is conceived not merely as a celestial object but as the embodiment of the Buddha (this concept appears in esoteric Buddhism, whose devotees often meditate on the image of the moon). It is also reminiscent of the image of Amida Buddha in yamagoe (over the mountains) Amida paintings, where the Buddha of the Western Paradise is depicted with torso and head emerging above the mountains, coming to guide the soul of the deceased to his Pure Land in the west. This suggests that the moon rising from behind the mountains in the Nachi Waterfall is a motif borrowed from the Kasuga mandala. Although it has been moved to the right side in deference to the focal waterfall, it nevertheless occupies a pivotal position in the context of the painting as a whole. In Japanese mandalas, including the Kumano and Kasuga mandalas, it is customary to depict both the sun and the moon in the uppermost section of the composition. In the event that one of these is omitted in the interests of simplification, it makes sense to assume that the image remaining is that of the moon, not the sun, precisely because of the aforementioned associations with the practice of “moon meditation” in esoteric Buddhism and with the image of Amida (or with the unseen Pure Land behind the mountains) in paintings such as the one described above.

When we regard the circular shape in the uppermost section of the Nachi Waterfall scroll in this light, it begins to resonate with the majestic image of the waterfall in the center, creating a remarkable overall effect. Just as the moon becomes more than just a moon, the water falling down the cliff becomes more than just falling water.

For all the reasons explained above, I believe that the essence of the Nachi Waterfall is not landscape painting but the Japanese cosmology expressed in suijaku-ga. If this is the case, then perhaps the title of the painting should be altered from the familiar Nachi Waterfall to Nachi Waterfall Mandala. The present title not only misleads one into thinking of the work as a landscape painting but could even contribute to misperceptions regarding Japanese religion and its close connection with nature. The best way to show our respect for this work of art would be to bestow on it a title appropriate to suijaku-ga.


Let us now turn to the Pine Forest screens by Hasegawa Tôhaku (1539–1610).

Each time I see this painting I find myself wondering what the artist could have been thinking when he painted it. A grove of pines seems to be gradually disappearing into the pure white landscape in which it stands. It almost appears as if Tôhaku has painted a pine grove on the screens for the sole purpose of obliterating it from this world. But could an artist do that? I seem to hear him saying, “With a few more sweeps of my brush, I could erase the pines completely, leaving nothing but snow falling in a desolate, windblown landscape. Then I could just throw my brush into the air.”

Who was Hasegawa Tôhaku? He is known as a painter of the Momoyama period and the founder of the Hasegawa school. He created a painting style that stood in opposition to and competed with the dominant Kanô school. Enamored of the landscapes of the famed ink painter Sesshû Tôyô (1420–1506), he staunchly proclaimed himself Sesshû’s true successor. He was a sometime visitor to the Jurakudai mansion of the great warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and he later worked in Edo at the invitation of the first Tokugawa shôgun, Ieyasu. He seems to have been a man of ambition and confidence.

We also know something about Tôhaku’s family background. He was the son of a warrior named Okumura, a retainer to the lord of Nanao Castle in Noto, but he was adopted into the Hasegawa family to learn and carry on the family trade of textile dying. His desire to paint must have been strong indeed to induce him to submit to such a drop in status, from samurai to artisan.

Perhaps because the family that adopted him were devout followers of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism, Tôhaku has left us a considerable number of Buddhist paintings connected with that sect, including Portrait of Priest NichirenPortrait of Priest Nichigyô, and Twelve Devas. These are decorative paintings in which vivid colors and sharply defined forms fill the picture surface. They have almost no appeal or interest. In fact, one can hardly keep one’s eyes focused on these scrolls. One wonders if Tôhaku was not sometimes assailed by the same feeling. Granted, his images of the Zen patriarch Daruma, Niô guardian deities, and Buddhist saints (arhat, or rakan in Japanese) are rather remarkable in their sense of inner energy and outward power. But am I moved by these paintings? I would have to say no. Indeed, they strike me as little more than copies of something else—perhaps the products of a young artist’s studies.

So began Tôhaku’s odyssey; so it had to begin. During the course of this journey, he produced numerous portraits not only of Buddhist patriarchs but also of such figures as Sen no Rikyû and Takeda Shingen. He produced whatever his patrons sought, and when opportunity knocked, he answered. One senses a broad-minded and intrepid character, and surely that is what enabled him, with the help of a few students, to tackle the production of sets of lavishly colored and gilt wall and screen paintings to decorate large temples and mansions in the manner of that period. These large, elaborate works must have been exhausting to paint. But they are also tiring to look at—sometimes even slightly nauseating.

Wandering through this kaleidoscopic world of Tôhaku, I felt myself naturally drawn to his monochrome masterpiece, Pine Forest. I was intrigued by the artist’s apparent determination to extinguish all color and form and fascinated by the almost violent quality of that impulse. Here the features of the landscape seem to melt into the void behind them. It is almost as if nature itself were being obliterated by some greater power. Depth and distance are stripped away before our eyes. The pine forest is annihilating itself in a phenomenon suggestive of the Buddha’s final nirvana, another subject that Tôhaku is known to have painted. But the Pine Forest screens could not be more different from Tôhaku’s painting of the Death of the Buddha. Where the latter is as colorful and cluttered as an up-ended toy chest, Tôhaku’s pine forest seems genuinely on the verge of a dissolution comparable to parinirvana. Here again, one wonders if we should not replace the title Pine Forest with something more appropriate, like Parinirvana of the Pine Forest.

While musing on this, I was reminded of the fate of Japan’s Shintô gods. As related in the eighth-century Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) and Nihon shoki (Chronicle of Japan), the amatsukami, or heavenly gods, appear suddenly, perform various heavenly acts, and eventually disappear, retiring to another realm. They do not die of course; they vanish from this world and dwell hidden in the invisible background of the cosmos.

This is what Tôhaku’s Pine Forest brings to mind. Perhaps, after all, the pine forest is not at the point of extinction. Perhaps it is simply about to conceal itself by entering that hidden realm of the cosmos. Above I wrote that the forest was about to vanish, leaving only snow and wind. In fact, the wind and snow will vanish also. But all, like the amatsukami, will live hidden in that unseen dimension. Perhaps this is why, as I stand before the Pine Forest, I am suddenly seized by the impulse to bow my head.

Above I attempted to shed light on the heart of Japanese animism through the artistic vehicle of the national treasure Nachi Waterfall. If Nachi Waterfall embodies the Japanese religious sensibility, then surely Hasegawa Tôhaku’s Pine Forest is the most radical expression of the aesthetic ideal that runs through this religion—a feeling of harmony and oneness with nature. In the achievement of this ideal, the boundaries between nature, gods, and humanity dissolve, giving rise to a sense of impermanence and of the beauty of nothingness—in other words, a momentary nirvana. It seems to me that with this painting the artist attained the ultimate goal of the religious and aesthetic sensibility of the Japanese.

Translated from an original article in Japanese written for Japan Echo.

* Translation by Edwin A. Cranston, A Waka Anthology (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), vol. 1, pp. 299–300.