In July I traveled to Kyoto, Japan for its Gion Festival. With a few short respites due to wars or massive fires, it’s been held annually for more than a thousand years – talk about sustainable!
And like many traditions, the Gion Festival is deeply challenged by our rapidly changing society: rising real estate prices in central Kyoto mean that traditional families and businesses have been forced to sell out to pricey high-rise apartment buildings. Nowadays these are bought up by tourists from Tokyo, attracted to the prime festival-viewing location. Naturally they aren’t very familiar with the festival, and so aren’t in a position to support it in a meaningful way. So the communities that historically supported the festival over generations are being eroded from the inside, like any tourist town. Or primary resource town. Or rural community. Or … more and more places.
In this sense we modern people have a tendency to “love our favorite things to death.” When we make that extra effort to travel somewhere pristine, how can we also make the extra effort to make sure it remains so? When we travel to enjoy Bali, how can we ensure that our tourist dollars stay on the island rather than going to Javanese businesspeople?
There aren’t any easy solutions: our understanding of sustainable communities and ecosystems (part of the same unit, really) is ahead of our ability to support their flourishing.
We can do our best. As a frequent traveler, I enjoy doing business at co-ops, organic stores, and fair trade stores when those options are available: it’s a rewarding way to learn about the local communities and culture and ecosystem. Morocco’s argan nut oil is good for health, provides a living for many women’s co-ops in rural areas where they’re traditionally challenged for livelihoods, and the resilient argan tree prevents desertification. My trip to Morocco got way more interesting after I learned all that cool stuff in a women’s Argan Oil co-op. Buying a bottle of argan oil felt like a very worthwhile investment in a healthy future for that place, one I could support as a visitor.
I do the same my hometown, so in that sense I’m not making much extra effort; rather I’m maintaining consistency with my personal vision to think globally and act locally. Hotels give me an opportunity to speak to staff about their hotel, its philosophy and practices. There are fairly regular pleasant surprises; I’ve learned that many have good practices about buying local or supporting local culture that are often underadvertised, and I get to connect with people about how they take pride in their profession and workplace. This helps me reprogram my own cynical tendencies. It’s also very inspiring and satisfying to dialogue with other people who care, an essential resource for carrying on this work.
In Kyoto I developed a wonderful network within the Gion Festival community, who’ve been so generous as to share this lifelong dedication of theirs: supporting the festival is a year-round occupation for a hefty subpopulation of volunteers. Can you imagine back to when the local harvest festival in Europe or North America was willingly embraced and supported by the whole community, before the word “volunteer” existed? Well, the Gion Festival is still in that community-run situation, rather misnamed as volunteerism.
The Gion festival community has taught me how to think in terms of the last and next thousand years. When I speak to them of the sustainability of the festival, I can tell that it’s a new – and very relevant – addition to their conceptual framework. Sometimes just getting good dialogues going can be a key part of our cultivation of greater sustainability.