Salamanders, Shugendo, Sustainability and the Sea of Japan

Sustainable Daisen is a Non-Profit Organisation (NPO) promoting sustainable practices to help ensure the survival of the endemic Japanese Giant Salamander, Andrias japonicas. This rare species is threatened by habitat destruction/modification, population fragmentation, hybridisation and climate change and listed as ‘vulnerable’ in the Red Data Book (published by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment). The heartland of Sustainable Daisen is the Nawa River Basin, on the foothills of Mt Daisen, close to the Sea of Japan. The unique breeding population of the Japanese Giant Salamander (JGS) found in the basin is facing extinction if business-as-usual continues. Water, and its cycling through land, air and sea, is the element most critical to the conservation of this aquatic species. It is also the key element in the long history of worship of Mt Daisen. Within this rich cultural setting a holistic approach to managing salamander habitat is being implemented, focusing on rivers, forests, farmland and villages. Sustainable Daisen has built an impressive team, website, and many productive collaborations including with the research community. This and other initiatives to save the JGS in the region have received national and international attention. It was my pleasure to meet Richard Pearce, the CEO of Sustainable Daisen, in Tottori Prefecture in May 2018. Since then our lives have been intertwined through our shared enthusiasm for nature, Shugendo and forging a sustainable future for our planet.

At 1729 m Daisen is the highest mountain in western Honshu, the main island of Japan. In winter it is subject to heavy snowfall. The Sea of Japan (also known as the East Sea), in the foreground, affects the climate of the region through evaporation, ocean temperatures and currents. Image source: Richard Pearce.

Water: a gift from the mountains

The agricultural land nestling between the mountain and the sea above is home to a  unique breeding population of the Japanese Giant Salamander. This endemic aquatic species breaths through its skin and requires cool, clean, free-flowing water to survive and thrive. The salamander is a powerful indicator of river health and the health of the mountain that sustains it. Snowfall on Daisen creates cool water when it melts. This is essential for salamanders, along with water with a good oxygen supply. The properties of the pure Daisen water are legendary with many pilgrims making the journey to receive holy water called “Rishosui”. The mountain has been regarded as a god for millennia and is known literally as Mountain of the Great God (Okami-take). It was a stronghold for the Shugendo faith for centuries, demonstrating the importance of this unique combinatory religion (blending Buddhism, Shinto and Taoism) in the Tottori region. One of the more spectacular contemporary events on Daisen is the Parade of Torches held at the summer opening of the mountain, starting at the Ogamiyama Shrine. The holy fire the participants carry appears like a river of flames flowing downhill. The procession is a reminder of the volcanic origin of the mountain, and the pure water it provides as a gift.

Mt Daisen is  located in Tottori Prefecture on the Sea of Japan. The Prefecture is considered ‘off the beaten track’, as is Shimane Prefecture directly to the west. The natural and cultural heritage in this part of Japan is remarkable and well worth experiencing. Izumo Grand Shrine, Matsue Castle (one of the 12 original castles remaining in Japan), the Oki Islands and Tottori Sand Dunes (and their respective GeoParks) immediately come to mind. Image source: washokulovers.com.

Multiple threats in modern times

In modern times the water flowing from Mt Daisen to the sea encounters a modified set of environmental conditions. Major changes to farming, fishing and forestry operations have occurred in Japan, particularly following WW2. The increasing use of chemical fertilisers, liberal application of concrete to rivers and coastlines (to mitigate the impact of floods and tsunamis respectively) and expansion of single-species plantations have negatively impacted water quality and flow. Many native species have been affected as a result. If business continues as usual, the Japanese Giant Salamanders in the Nawa River Basin are at risk of extinction in the next 20 years.

The Japanese Giant Salamander in its natural habitat. The rocky substrate provides protection during the day for the nocturnal hunter. Salamanders use special sensory cells in their skin to detect pray as its eyesight is limited. Image source: Richard Pearce.

The JGS is listed as ‘vulnerable’ by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment (over its entire range in western Japan) and ‘near threatened’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (in 2004). In 1952 the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs designated the JGS as a “Special Natural Monument” due to its cultural and educational significance. While hunting the salamander for food was banned from that time, and only licensed researchers can now handle or catch the JGS, the listing gives no formal protection to their habitat. Overarching assessments of vulnerability like these bring attention to species at risk, but can downplay threats at the local level. Protecting populations at risk is critical to the long-term survival of a species.

Ironically, it was the introduction of the Chinese Giant Salamander into Japan in 1972 as a supplementary food source that led to a major threat to the Japanese species. The Chinese salamander escaped or was released from captivity and bred with its Japanese relative, leading to widespread hybridisation. For example, a study conducted between 2011-2013 in the Kamo River in Kyoto Prefecture found that nearly 100% of the captured giant salamanders were hybrids. In Australia we have learnt at great cost about the impacts of introduced species on native flora and fauna. When introductions of live organisms into a country or region are being considered their potential impact on the natural environment should be thoroughly investigated. In the Nawa River Basin, where hybridisation has not been detected, the most immediate threat to the salamanders is the fundamental modification of their river habitat by the construction of concrete weirs, dams and drains.

A survey of the JGS in Daisen Town in September 2021 shows some of the concrete weirs that obstruct movement of the salamanders upstream to breed or find food. Image source: Richard Pearce.

International interest in the Japanese Giant Salamander (JGS)

The Japanese Giant Salamander was first catalogued by Europeans in the 1820s when Philipp Franz von Siebold, the resident physician (and enthusiastic naturalist) of Dejima Island in Nagasaki, captured a live salamander and shipped it back to the Netherlands. The species was formally named in Europe in 1836 by Temminck in the monumental collaborative work Fauna Japonica (1833-1851). The taxonomic status of the JGS (Andrias japonicus) and its relatives has changed over time. A recent revision for example has increased the number of species of the Chinese Great Salamander (Andrias spp.). Only one species is found in Japan where it is commonly called Ōsanshōuo (オオサンショウウオ/大山椒魚; literally “giant salamander”). Localised names for the JGS include HanzakiHanzake and Ankou.

Fast forward 200 years or so and international interest in the JGS continues. In 2017 the Japanese Ministry of the Environment approached Richard Pearce, who lives in Tottori Prefecture, to help promote the Daisen-Oki National Park through JGS ecotourism. In the following year Bushido Japan (a company owned by Richard), in close collaboration with Dr Okada (President of the Hanzaki Research Institute of Japan), started offering JGS conservation experiences to raise awareness of the species and support ongoing research. More than 90 percent of the guests on these tours (pre-COVID) flew in from the U.S. with the prime objective of seeing this “living fossil” and contribute to its long-term future. The JGS has remained relatively unchanged for tens of millions of years and represent an ancient link to human evolution. In the wild these primitive amphibians can live for 80 years and continue to grow their entire lives. They can reach up to one and a half meters and weigh over 30 kilos, making the JGS one of the largest amphibians in the world. Individuals are highly camouflaged, active at night, and for many wildlife fans are a “bucket list” animal.

The eye-catching logo for the ‘Save the Japanese Giant Salamander’ campaign being run in the Daisen region. Image source: Sustainable Daisen website.

Coyote Peterson, the extremely popular host of the YouTube channel Brave Wilderness (BW), was also drawn to the remarkable Japanese Giant Salamander. In 2018 he visited Tottori Prefecture to spend time with Dr Okada, the world expert on the JGS, and film the species in captivity and in the wild. Three respectful, entertaining and informative videos were subsequently released in January 2019: BIGGEST Salamander in Japan! (20 minutes mostly spent at the Hanzaki Research Institute facilities); Japanese Giant Salamander CAUGHT! (12.57 minutes showing the JGS in its natural habitat); and Finding Baby GIANTS! (18.10 minutes of behind-the-scenes material filmed at Base Camp). The number of viewers and comments on the videos are truly impressive, especially the one about the BIGGEST salamander. As of May 2022 it had more than 19 million views and over 11,500 comments. As an awareness raising exercise this can only be deemed a great success. It would be instructive to learn how many went on to directly support conservation activities in the Daisen region.

The 20 minute video ‘BIGGEST Salamander in Japan’ was released on the Brave Wilderness YouTube channel in January 2019. Shown here is  Coyote Peterson and the star salamander of the show at the Hanzaki Research Institute. Between its release and May 2022 the video has had over 19 million views. Image source: YouTube.

Coyote was deeply affected by the salamander encounters, calling them the keeper of the river’s spirit. He expressed deep concern about the future of the species without urgent changes being put in place. Dams, concretisation, channelization, and the alteration of river courses deprive giant salamanders of their breeding dens, reduce daytime shelter and refugia during high water flows, and limit breeding and feeding opportunities. At the end of each BW video about the JGS, Coyote directs people to bushidojapan.com if they want to help secure the future “for these magnificent animals”. Richard acted as guide and coordinator for the Brave Wilderness (BW) team in the Tottori region. His ability to converse in Japanese and broad international experience enables him to act as a bridge between cultures.

A section of the Bushido Japan website documenting the conservation and viewing options for the Japanese Giant Salamander in the Tottori region. Image source: bushidojapan.com

A holistic approach to JGS conservation

A lot has happened since the Brave Wilderness videos were posted in January 2019.  The biggest development in Japanese Giant Salamander conservation in the Tottori region has been the establishment and launch of Sustainable Daisen in 2022. Dr Okada wanted the local community to be involved in the protection of these river giants. A Non-Profit Organisation (NPO) was identified as the best fit to help achieve this goal. Richard Pearce (CEO and Co-founder of Sustainable Daisen) and his wife Kazumi (Campaign Co-ordinator and Co-founder) are at the helm of this exciting new venture. With an impressive website and team of people, the NPO is working with the community and local organisations, including the Tottori University of Environmental Studies. Immersed in a rich cultural setting, Sustainable Daisen is implementing a holistic approach to managing JGS habitat, focusing on rivers, forests, farmland and villages.

Sustainable Daisen is addressing four interconnected themes at a river-basin scale, described in detail in English and Japanese on their website and illustrated below:

Each theme has several components. Many activities are underway and others identified for future attention. Of critical importance is the installation of bypass structures in local weirs to enable salamanders to naturally move up and downstream during critical breeding seasons, or when they are washed downstream by increasingly heavy rainfall events linked to climate change. Providing artificial nest boxes in disturbed habitats and creating sanctuaries for the JGS at and around important breeding grounds are also essential actions to help save the giant salamander. The lack of hybridisation in the Daisen populations is most likely due to their location near the Sea of Japan where a mountainous barrier helps separate them from other populations. Sustainable Daisen, and the research community they work closely with, will keep a close eye on this major threat to local JGS by undertaking eDNA surveys.

Animal conservation and environmental protection that explicitly addresses indicator species and multiple, interconnected threats is a relatively new concept in Japan. Non-Profit Organisations are also relatively new. They were first legislated in 1998 following the unparalleled growth of volunteer groups after the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake in Kobe. The intervening years have seen many river-focused groups adopt NPO status. In the Nawa River Basin the wide experience of the Sustainable Daisen team is helping foster a sustainable approach to health and well-being by working closely with the local community and being informed by current research. The ultimate goal is to encourage respect for nature by demonstrating that alternative lifestyles exist that nurture rather than destroy the environment.

Sustainable Daisen plans to make it easier for organic farmers to sell directly to consumers through initiatives such as regular farmer’s markets and advertising season products for sale. Image source: Sustainable Daisen

Implementing basin-wide conservation and sustainability activities requires a range of human and financial resources. As an NPO, donations are of vital importance for Sustainable Daisen to carry out their extensive work program. A total initial fundraising goal of 3.7 million yen (around $28,000 USD) has been identified and itemised on the Sustainable Daisen website, spread across four immediate priorities.

Water: an eternal elemental cycle

The short bilingual video on the home page of the Sustainable Daisen web site highlights the importance of the salamander to the Daisen region and its essential and significant connection with water and the surrounding environment. Hiroyuki Sumi (the Chief Priest of the Hiyoshi Shinto Shrine in Daisen Town) describes Daisen as being rich in nature, emphasising the inseparable relationship between the salamanders and the wonderful water found there. The famous Miho Shrine in the coastal city of Mihonoseki is another Shinto sacred site located close to Mt Daisen. It is dedicated to Ebisu and his mother. Ebisu is worshipped as the deity of safe sea travel, bountiful catches of fish, good fortune in business, and song and dance. The long history of worship at Miho Shrine demonstrates the importance of both mountains and the sea to the spiritual traditions of the region.

The influence of the Sea of Japan on patterns of rain and snow on Daisen is significant. Changes in ocean surface temperatures and currents are already influencing the frequency and intensity of rain and snow fall, as well as having detrimental effects on oceanic plants and animals. Appreciating and understanding the entire water cycle, especially in the context of climate change, is key to seeking sustainability in the Daisen region.

Daisen and the Sea of Japan are connected by a cycle that sees the storage and flow of water in the oceans, atmosphere, ice/snow and the ground. The elements of Fire (sun), Air/Wind and Earth play a crucial role in the eternal cycling of Water, the giver of life. Annual maximum snow depth along the Sea of Japan has been decreasing and will continue to do so according to climate models. Less snow means reduced runoff with subsequent impacts on salamander habitat and food production. Image source: US Geological Survey.

The quality of the river water produced by the sacred mountain and sea will be monitored through Sustainable Daisen. This will assist both salamanders and the farming community. The quality of water for rice growing is of particular concern for local communities in the Nawa River Basin. Sustainable Daisen aims to recreate a healthy, chemical free rice/vegetable field environment, “Satoyama“, in the Nawa area, below the middle sections of proposed sanctuaries for the salamanders. The concept of Satoyama (sato = village, yama= mountain/hill) encompasses traditional Japanese agricultural practices. It has generated great interest globally. In 2009 UNESCO established The Satoyama Initiative as a good model for conservation of biodiversity and human well-being.  Sustainable Daisen provides an important working example of incorporating Satoyama practices in a river basin setting.

Shugendo and sustainability

My first visit to the Mt Daisen region in 2018 was to experience the Nageiredo, the awe-inspiring ancient Shugendo temple located on the side of a cliff-face on Mt Mitoku (Mitokusan). This is where I met Richard, who acted as my guide at this remote and mysterious site. Mitokusan is around 30 km east of Daisen as the crow flies. Prior to the separation of Buddhism and Shinto, and the banning of Shugendo in the 1870s (revoked after WW2), both Mitokusan and Mt Daisen had large temple complexes with thousands of monks. While the religious sites are considerably smaller now, the mountains continue to provide spiritual and healing opportunities surrounded by nature. Their energy is being re-imagined as ‘power spots’ including the 700m long path leading to the Ogamiyama Shrine on Daisen which has Feng Shui (J. fusui) origins.

Richard Pearce is CEO of Sustainable Daisen and a yamabushi (a Shugendo practitioner and priest given the name Yanchabou), amongst many other ‘hats’ he wears. They all reflect his intimate connections to nature and the rich cultural heritage of Japan. Here he stands in front of the phenomenal Nageiredo at Sanbutsuji, Mitokusan, Tottori Prefecture. Image source: Richard Pearce.

Shugendo is experiencing a renewal across Japan, with many people entering the mountains to be closer to nature and learn more about their inner selves. The Nageiredo is considered one of the three most important Shugendo temples in Japan with its origin and construction intimately tied to the Shugendo founder En no Gyoja. In addition to experiencing the challenging mountain path at Mitokusan to be reborn, each August visitors are invited to join the takigyo (waterfall practice) held at Misasa. Praying under sacred falls is an elemental experience that connects you to the spirit of the water cycle in a most intimate way.

Richard (left) and Ryoujun Yoneda (right; a priest at Sanbutsuji) assisting a visitor (just visible in the middle) with the invigorating takigyo purification ritual. My experience (during Shugendo pilgrimages on Mt Ontake)  is that chanting focuses your mind while undertaking this intense ascetic waterfall practice, especially in winter.

Coyote Peterson could feel, and commented on, the vital energy and sacredness of the lands he was filming in Tottori Prefecture. Sustaining these intangible qualities is as essential as ensuring the river water is pure and free-flowing for the salamanders. Japan has a long history of animism that carries through to this day, where all living or non-living objects have a spirit or a soul. In Japanese mythology and art, the giant salamander may have been a foundation for the kappa, a mischievous water spirit. The temples and shrines in the Tottori region, whose histories are inextricably intertwined with Shugendo, have an indispensable role to play in regional sustainability by extolling the sanctity of nature and the importance of caring for it.

As a Shugendo practitioner and priest, Richard leads by example. Followers of Shugendo undertake ascetic training in the mountains as a way to seek enlightenment. Richard has made the pilgrimage to Japan’s ‘Most Dangerous National Treasure’  (the Nageiredo) over 150 times and is learning the many ascents of Mt Daisen from mountain climbers with long experience. These close encounters with nature reinforce the awe and wonder of the natural world and our connection to it. The contemporary Japanese artist Niwa Yuta experienced a similar sense of wonder when he first saw the Ōsanshōuo, as he describes in the 2022 Kyoto Journal edition Water in Kyoto.’

Seeking sustainability across Japan

Sustainability is a hot topic in Japan, a topic with multiple interpretations. Since the launch of the ‘Seek Sustainable Japan’ podcast in 2020, JJ Walsh has interviewed an impressive range of speakers (over 420 and counting) who are seeking solutions to a broad range of sustainability issues in Japan. Many of the interviewees, like Richard, are native-English speakers representing the range of partners and collaborators they work with. His recent conversation with Joy about the Japanese Giant Salamander and his sustainable tourism offerings provided the impetus for writing this blog. Seek Sustainable Japan espouses the ‘People, Planet, Profit’ approach to sustainability.  People have a responsibility to speak for the planet as its voice is one that most of humanity are unable to hear.

Richard was the second person from the Tottori/Shimane region interviewed on Seek Sustainable Japan. Sharing his experiences from this little known part of Japan helps educate and engage people with some of the sustainability projects occurring there and raises awareness of the threats to the JGS.

Stories about sustainability initiatives in Japan are also shared by organisations such as ZenBird Media and the Japan Times who produce a ‘Sustainable Japan’ email newsletter. In March 2022 the Japanese National Tourism Organization (JNTO) released a sophisticated brochure titled ‘Explore Deeper’ on sustainable travel in Japan, identifying 50 of Japan’s ‘most remarkable sustainable experiences.’ Many books, reports and programs have been written and developed in Japan that address the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The prominence of the SDG symbol (a circle with 17 colours), including in konbini (convenience stores), is a reminder of the development goals as people go about their daily lives. The ‘byline’ on the Japanese government SDG website is ‘Creating a prosperous and vibrant future by seeking the SDGs’.

It will be instructive to see how the SDGs and other programs play out, especially those related to the environment and human-wellbeing. The creation, implementation and long-term support of sustainable practices across a range of scales will be the test of their success. Sustainable Daisen demonstrates the importance of thinking globally and acting locally in the quest for sustainability. By taking this approach the Japanese Giant Salamander, the keeper of the river’s spirit, has the best chance of long-term survival. The next 3-4 years will be the make or break period for this extraordinary animal in the Nawa River Basin.

4 thoughts on “Salamanders, Shugendo, Sustainability and the Sea of Japan

    • Thank-you for your comment Jodi. Pulling together the different threads and sources of information to write the post was a pleasure.I’m pleased that you found it of value.:-)

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  1. I will be reflecting on your blog post for some time, Jann. Like a perfectly balanced meal, there is much to savour. The main aspects of this beautifully told story of the Japanese Giant Salamander that are currently swirling through my thoughts are, firstly, what an amazing creature the JGS is, secondly, how fortunate that Richard and Kazumi have dedicated their life and time to raising awareness and actively doing what they can to avoid the JGS becoming extinct, and thirdly, my appreciation for the effort you have made to research, write and share this valuable information with us.

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    • Thank-you for your reflections. There is a lot to tell about the the efforts to protect the Japanese Giant Salamander on the foothills of Mt Daisen. Originally I had included some thoughts on the rewilding project that is a component of Sustainable Daisen. The lessons learnt should be helpful to efforts elsewhere in Japan attempting to restore some of the massive plantation estate to more biodiverse forests. As this post was already long enough that section was removed. It’s something to address elsewhere. There’s also more background available about Daisen itself. It has an amazing and culturally important history. I’m surprised that more hasn’t been written about it in English. Hopefully that will happen one day. The real star of course is the Japanese Giant Salamander. May it continue breeding in the foothills of Mt Daisen for many more millennia.

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