House of Wonders and the Nocturnal Rooster

Here’s the fourth chapter of my mini-adventure story.  To briefly summarize my previous three posts, I have arrived in the tiny village of Ooshima in Nagano Prefecture after a long and hair-raising day of travel, attended a festival and chugged up a muddy mountain in a broken-down van.  I have met Hiromi and Geta-san, owners of the organic farm called the Fresh Start School, and heard the story of their daughter Haru; she and her husband Junpei fled Tokyo with their newborn twin boys after the Great East Japan Earthquake and have remained on the farm since then.  I have feasted on fried cubes of goat cheese, hearty miso soup, brown rice and beans, and some unidentified but delicious greens…..and that is where today’s post begins.

Solar panels on the main house are clearly visible from this vantage point ( or at least they are if you enlarge the picture).

So let me start off this new post with a description of the main house at the Fresh Start School. Upon first glance, the large wooden house appears to be thrown together rather than constructed, but although the wood is weathered and unfinished, a closer look reveals that it is in fact quite nicely built. “It’s sturdier than it looks,” my daughter had assured me, and I trusted that it was.  Solar panels attached to the roof produce more than enough power to run the household. “I can’t be bothered with batteries big enough to store all that power, ” admitted Geta, ” so I sell it to the local electric company instead. Then I buy back from them the small amount that our family needs. Heh-heh. Cheap and easy. ” So in fact the Fresh Start School IS connected to the grid, but just barely. The rest of the farm is self-sufficient.

One side of the veranda reveals gourds, laundry, and crates full of dried , salted cherry blossoms.

The veranda is chock full of potted flowers, rubber boots, hanging laundry, hanging gourds, milk crates, and a glorious mishmash of containers and baskets full of mysterious contents. I wondered how they got all these items indoors in a hurry before a typhoon, but did not ask. And from the crazy and colorful chaos of the veranda, the door opens into the main living area, a large central space used for cooking, dining, and relaxing.

My immediate impression of the interior was of a combination Indian bazaar and dimly-lit-but-inviting used bookstore. Naked light bulbs hung from the ceiling, one in each area, revealing floor to ceiling shelves literally stuffed with books (overflows stacked on the floor), as well as statues and souvenirs from various countries. The “entertainment system” consisted of an old analog TV and a dusty shelf of videocassettes. The main room looked to be heated by a good-sized wood stove into which the babies had been peering during our dinner, sifting through the ashes and experimenting freely. Two well-worn sofas with a rough hewn coffee table in between formed a cozy nook for reading or conversation.

The dining area consisted of two low coffee tables pushed together, and the kitchen was a rather uninviting dark alcove with a small sink from which cold water flowed, a gas stove with pull-out fish grill, and a wooden center island heaped with jars of pickles, sauces, teas and condiments.  No store-bought salad dressing, jam or boxes of tea, as literally everything stored (or jumbled together) in the kitchen area had been made from ingredients grown or found on the farm and concocted by Hiromi, Mama Haru or one of the acolytes who come and go according to the season.  “Well, what about things like soy sauce?” you ask.  The answer is the same. Shoyu is home-made, beginning with the soy beans, which are then harvested, cooked, mixed with flour, allowed to ferment and become moldy, and finally squeezed into liquid through a cheesecloth. The whole process takes from six months (according to Wikipedia) to several years (according to my daughter, who insists that the fermentation process cannot be completed so quickly) and is not for the faint of heart who, I surmise, do not last long at the Fresh Start School.

Mini-bird carved by my Ellen now perches on the “viewing shelf” in front of the composting toilet.

And now for the bathroom! It was set off from the kitchen in its own  private space below the staircase leading to Geta and Hiromi-san’s bedroom. Pushing open the door, the standard Japanese bathroom slippers are set out, and a quite regular-looking porcelain toilet sits squarely in the middle of a good-sized room. The quite regular-looking toilet also has the standard fuzzy knitted seat warmer (readers abroad must imagine it), and only the smell gives a clue that this is actually a composting toilet–no flush, no pipes, and a deep hole in the ground at the bottom. The toilet is set with its back toward the door, facing a long shelf attached to the wall. The shelf , which is laden with tiny objects, is the perfect level for viewing when perched on the toilet seat; one can relax and contemplate shells, leaves, small trinkets, and carved wooden objects several times a day, and presumably the odor gets easier to ignore over time. I was delighted to spy a small wooden bird that resembled one of my daughter’s creations among the objects set out for viewing, and Hiromi later confirmed that this was so.

My obsessively neat mother-in-law and most of my Japanese housewife friends would consider the entire interior of the house “migurushii” , or “painful to look at”, simply because things were out in the open rather than stored neatly away in cupboards or closets.  “Oh, the dust!” they would say. And no doubt, any potential acolyte with a house dust allergy would not last 30 minutes inside the main house. Me? I was fine. Like the babies, my eyes were pulled this way and that as I admired knick-knacks, peered into containers, and strained to read book titles in the dim light. Dust was inconsequential.

Of course, unlike the babies, I took care to appear casual and polite rather than open-mouthed and curious. I was also desperately in need of sleep, stifling my yawns with only mixed success.  Hiromi, noting my distress, remarked, “Hmmmm….where should we put you tonight? ”

I immediately offered to sleep in the same cabin that my daughter had used the previous month, if it was available.

“I don’t know…it’s really….primitive…” said Hiromi doubtfully (testing me?).

This, of course, caused my spine to straighten automatically as I protested, “No, no, I’ll be fine! Just point me in the right direction!” ( Is she intimating that I’m a Princess?  I can do “primitive” with no problem.  I’m just out of practice, that’s all…)

“Good, good. The cabin is just past the Octagonal House. Follow the path and you’ll find it, even in the dark, ” said Grampa Geta-san cheerfully. He had taken out his false teeth with a great sigh of relief and looked ready for bed himself.

My room for the night, as seen in daylight.

So I set off alone into the black night, wondering exactly what my landmark was, as I had not understood “Octagonal House” in Japanese. Really, it does not come up in everyday conversation. Squelching down the muddy path in my rubber boots, I made my way toward what appeared to be a lighted building (I did not notice its unique shape as I passed by, though from the sounds I understood that Haru, Junpei and the babies lived here) and literally bumped into my destination, which was a tiny shack at the end of the path. My room for the night.

There was no knob, no latch and the door was not tightly fitted.  I simply pulled it open and stumbled in, fumbling to get out of my muddy boots. Thankfully, I could make out a lightbulb with a string attached, and thankfully it worked when I gave it a hopeful tug. I took stock of my surroundings in the light: enough room to set my backpack on the floor, a flimsy shelf for my glasses and iPhone, and a ratty-looking futon laid out on a wooden pallet.  Literally no room to move about, so sleeping was the only option here. “This is the cabin that my daughter adored,” I thought, seeing her through new eyes. By the foot of the futon was a pile of rather musty-smelling quilts which I spread out, ignoring the odor.  At this point, any aesthetic preferences were pointless and I only hoped to spend a pain-free and relatively comfortable night.

Now I am not only a good sleeper but I am a determined sleeper as well, especially when faced with the prospect of an early morning in unfamiliar circumstances. So without bothering to change into fresh clothes I fell into my makeshift bed, pulled up the covers, and was sound asleep within a matter of minutes.

The first few hours were blissful. Or I assume they were, as I have no memory of them. I cannot, however, forget my rude awakening at an ungodly hour by a hoarse cry that seemed to come from outside my window. Despite being sleep-befuddled, I soon identified it as….a rooster!  Wait–roosters mean morning! ….Was it morning?? ….Where was my iPhone? And I had to pee!! ….Suddenly, I was wide awake, and fumbling for my faithful iPhone, which read 3 a.m.  Noooooo.  I stumbled into my rubber boots, pushed open the door, and immediately wished for a penis. It was seriously cold, and the grass was high and wet. I did my best to pee neatly and discreetly (the rooster might be watching) in the muddy grass outside the cabin.  Then back inside, out of the boots again and into bed, I determined to return to sleep. I am good about being able to do that.

This time, however, my determination was most severely tested by the rooster, who had convinced himself that it was morning and was now obligated to alert the rest of the world. The persistant fowl squawked and crowed intermittently until at last it truly WAS morning, at which point he was joined by a chorus of bleating goats.  And then I knew that I was up for the day as well.

So passed my first and only night at the Fresh Start School. Having spent the last few hours in a torturous cycle of sleeping and waking, I gave up the fight. Shouldering my backpack and grabbing my glasses and phone, I and threw open the door to the cabin to face the day ahead. My daughter had warned me that bathing was an “event” occurring every third day since bathwater had to be heated by making a fire, so I knew there would be no refreshing shower to start the morning. Instead, I trudged back through the squelching mud and up to the main house, where I would spend the day working at whatever tasks were set out for me. But that will be my next and final post. Until then, take good care and thank you again for reading.

Morning on the veranda of the main house.


Can Hole Diggers and Acorn Gatherers Save the Earth?

It takes patience to save the earth.  It’s not glamorous, and most times its downright dull.

Japan’s Tree Guru, Akira Miyawaki.

Back in 1958, a young Japanese researcher working on a German nature preserve complained to his mentor about the tedium. His words fell on unsympathetic ears, and he was firmly instructed to dig more holes. The researcher, Akira Miyawaki, is now referred to as Japan’s “tree guru”; well into his 80’s, he is currently heading the project to redesign the coastline of the city of Sendai (Miyagi Prefecture), creating a forest-covered embankment to protect the heart of the city from future tsunamis. He’s developed a new theory of forestry that bears his name, travelled the globe (visited 17,000 places, according to one estimate), and single-handedly planted 40 million trees. Yet he got his start studying the humble weed (majored in “Weed Ecology” at Hiroshima University), and digging holes in Germany….for two long years.

So what was all the hole digging about?  Basically, it was about studying the soil of the nature preserve, which was actually a non-productive wasteland at the time, searching for

Luneburg Heath Wildlife Park in Germany, where Miyawaki got his start digging holes (photo by Micheal Gabler, 2012).

clues. What was the forest like in its original state, hundreds of years ago?  What traces remained of the flourishing ecosystem that had once existed?  Miyawaki slogged on digging his holes, testing the soil, recording his findings, and beginning to understand nature in a new way.  He learned that, with patience, what man has destroyed can be rediscovered and reconstructed.  To be more specific: careful study of damaged environments reveals much about the ecosystem as it once was.  It is possible to then “re-generate” the area’s natural vegetation by planting a mixture of the same species that existed in the past, which are perfectly suited to the soil and climate of the area.  No longer absorbed by weeds, the young researcher became obsessed with re-creating entire forests.

Armed with his new ideas, Miyawaki returned to Japan from Germany.  To his dismay, he was promptly ignored.  This was Japan in the 1960’s, and business was booming.  No-one was interested in saving the environment, the forest, or even a single tree.  With no audience for his research, the Weed-Man-turned-Tree-Guru went back to slogging away on his own.  He began walking across the country compiling data, making vegetation maps,

Example of what Miyawaki-san considers a “fake” forest: all trees same height, same species, carefully pruned, and ramrod straight (taken here in Hadano City).

and maps of potential new forests based on former species that had once flourished.  Very few remnants of Japan’s ancient forests existed, as most had either burned, or been converted to arable land or real estate.  What remained were manmade forests (“fakes” as he referred to them) , often consisting of only one or two species and thus lacking in biodiversity.  Methodically, he studied the forests as he had in Germany, testing the soil and searching for clues as to what trees had once flourished in these areas.  He kept at it for ten years.

At last, in the early 70’s, the realization that Japan’s natural environment was in dire straits began to set in.  Suddenly, Miyawaki was “popular”, and his idea for creating “authentic” forests of densely planted species indigenous to their environment was given a name: the Miyawaki Method.  Miyawaki advocated planting a mixture of appropriate species at random, which would ultimately result in forests with trees of tall, medium, and low height, serving as barriers to both fire and flood, and supporting a diversity of plant and animal life.  These native trees would be rooted deeply and firmly in the soil, thus preventing erosion.  Weeding and management would be required for the first three years, but thereafter the forests would fend for themselves and

Remnant of one of Japan’s fast-disappearing ancient forests, the “authentic” kind. Miyawaki estimated that only .06 % of Japan’s sacred groves are still in existence (photo of forest on Yakushima).

continue to flourish.  These forests would be known as multi-layer “community forests”, and serve as havens of biodiversity.  The first such forest in Japan was created in 1971, through the joint efforts of local residents who gathered acorns, grew trees from seedlings, and held a ceremony to mark the planting of the seedlings.  Their efforts  eventually resulted in a spacious forest boasting a canopy of over twenty meters in height.

Miyawaki went on to organize and oversee the planting of many more “authentic” forests, both in Japan and abroad.  He became a noted scholar and director of the Japan Center for International Studies in Ecology, and is currently Professor Emeritus at Yokohama University, as well as a recipient of the Blue Planet Prize for environmental conservation.  A quick Google search reveals photos of a small man with a twinkle in his eye and a good-humored grin, planting seedlings in China, Malaysia, Borneo, Kenya and other countries desperate to restore health to land damaged by industrialization.  He was, in fact, abroad in Indonesia when the Great East Japan Quake struck. Deeply disturbed by the tsunami coverage of coastal destruction, he rushed back to his own country to put his expertise to work in Northern Japan.

Miyawaki arrived in Tohoku shortly after the quake, and was dismayed to realize that

A full year after the tsunami, uprooted pine trees still littered the shores of Rikuzentakata.

entire forests had been swept away by the tsunami.  These forests bordering the shoreline were largely made up of pine trees, whose roots had not penetrated deep into the sandy shore; they were uprooted in their entirety, not only having failed to serve as tsunami barriers, but having caused secondary damage as they were washed inland.  Of course, the most famous of these coastal forests was in Rikuzentakata, where only a single pine remained standing in what was a grove of 70,000 trees which had been planted over two centuries before.

Wasting no time, Miyawaki and  Doryu Hioki, a Buddhist priest from Sendai’s Rinno Temple, began surveying the ravaged coastline of Miyagi.

The Tabunoki, or Machilus, flourishes throughout Japan. Its resilience was proven in last year’s tsunami

Their purpose?  A thorough assessment of the remaining trees along the shore, to discover which species had stood firm and provided protection from the force of the tsunami, and which species were unable to withstand the raging waters. After touring several of the most severely damaged areas,  Miyawaki and Doryu were encouraged to note “green walls” of Tabunoki (Machilus) which remained standing.  Houses directly behind the thick-bodied, pliant, firmly-rooted trees were also standing.  In one case, a Tabunoki remained standing, its roots partly exposed, although most of the surrounding soil had been washed away.  Clearly, the Tabunoki would be central in the reconstruction of Sendai’s coastline, and Miyawaki’s plan for a Green Tide Embankment began to take shape.

Miyawaki’s project, an “authentic forest of life”, will serve as a memorial to lives lost and as a symbol of new beginnings.  The forest will be planted over a mound, in which processed debris from the quake and tsunami will be buried.  The mound will form an embankment stretching along the coastline, protecting human lives and property and weakening the force of future tsunamis.  Tabunoki will be the main species, supported by other native species of varying heights.  After the first three years, the forest will not need tending, and will continue to flourish for…..9,000 years!  Now that’s smart long-term planning.  The forest will come to fruition through the efforts of ordinary citizens, who have been gathering seeds from the Tabunoki, planting them, and tending to the seedlings.  Private enterprises and NPOs will fund the project.  Miyawaki’s goal?  To transform the coast of Sendai into an authentic forest of 40 million trees within 20 years.

Long ago, Japan’s forests were sacred places, dedicated to the gods and protected from

Shinto ropes mark this tree as part of a “sacred grove”. (photo by Ray Kinnane)

destruction by unspoken taboos.  Spirits dwelled in the rocks, plants, and trees, and men were forbidden to intrude.  Even today, my friend Misao only cuts trees from the forest on a certain day of the year (in February), when it is said that the spirits will not be angered.  These days, sacred groves such as those made famous in Miyazaki Hayao’s  “Mononoke Hime” are nearly extinct.  Forests are man-made rather than “authentic”; they are vulnerable to disaster, and are no longer sacred.  One could  say that the image of the sacred grove has been further profaned since last March, when the forests of Tohoku were poisoned by cesium.  Men dare not enter these forests, children are forbidden to play in them, and their bounty goes unharvested.  Miyawaki Akira dreams of creating new sacred groves in Japan, and has dedicated his life to this end.  In his own words, “Forests are life itself. Humans have survived until today supported by forests. The life for surviving tomorrow begins with creating true ‘forests of life’ by planting trees today.”

Miyawaki Akira and other respected and knowledgable figures such as C.W. Nichol have made significant progress in repairing the damage done to the environment due to a combination of greed, thoughtlessness, and lack of vision.  They have also become popular and well-loved educators, spreading their message of conservation and care to Japanese

Japanese citizens protesting on June 15th, outside the Prime Minister’s headquarters in Kasumigaseki.

citizens and foreigners living in Asia as well.  As long as the Japanese government insists on following a nuclear agenda, their entire life’s work is at risk.  I am deeply saddened and disappointed at Prime Minister Noda’s announcement that the Oi Nuclear Power Plant will re-start two of its reactors this summer, in spite of citizen protests, lack of proper and timely safety precautions, continued delay in establishing a nuclear watchdog committee free from inside influence, and new and irrefutable evidence of large quakes yet to come. While the nuclear industry and the central government think ahead as far as September, risking everything on the fallacy that they have made adequate preparations to withstand anything that might befall from hereon in (my guess is that no-one believes this now) , Miyawaki and other unsung heros are thinking in terms of thousands of years.  They fight the good fight to preserve the earth, which is the true source of our life and nourishment.  As Rinno Temple priest Doryu Hioki states in the video below,

“Until now, it has been considered right to change and adapt nature for human convenience using power and technology.  The Great East Japan Earthquake taught us this lesson: Science and technology are not meant to control nature, but to be used as pieces of wisdom making it possible for us to coexist with nature…..Now is a turning point of history. We have to shift from the age when materialism was central to an age where every life and soul will be loved tenderly. The Green Tide Embankment that protects life is a wisdom for living with nature.”

It is my hope that my children and grandchildren will be able to visit, or even live near, one of the new authentic forests being created.  As their generation will be responsible for the decommissioning of Japan’s remaining nuclear power plants and finding a storage solution for decades of accumulated nuclear waste products, it does not seem too much to hope that they might also enjoy the benefits of the forest as well.  I hope against hope that the Green Tide Embankment and other similar projects come to fruition.  Take a look at the video, and see what comes of patiently digging holes and gathering acorns.

Forests in Japan: Under Attack, and Under Construction

One of Tokyo’s delightful green spaces. (photo by Jared Braiterman)

Although one can easily lose sight of reality living and working in an urban center such as Tokyo, Japan is actually 67% woodland.  Tokyo is chock-full of small green spaces (check out the blog of Jared Braiterman, a Design Anthropologist who posts almost daily from the city), and carefully tended showcase parks (like the beautiful and popular forested grounds of  Meiji Jingu Shrine in Shibuya), but what’s it like in the real countryside?

Well, first, a bit of history, taken from talks with my geologist friend Yukari, and from an excellent article by Winifred Bird, a graduate of Amherst College (Suma Cum Laude, Political Science) who now lives in Nagano. She writes free-lance for a wide variety of publications on topics including nature, science, and architecture, and was a Media Fellow at Vermont Law School’s Environmental Law Program in 2011. See her full profile–it’s rather fascinating in itself.  In a recent article for Yale Environment 360, Bird writes of the large number of Japan’s forests that are actually “artificial plantations”:  government

Aaaa-choo! … it’s Japanese cedar. Not only Japan’s national tree,  but also the country’s worst allergy offender.

subsidized projects containing mostly Cedar and Cypress, rather than a healthy variety of trees. Having grown up in rural New England amidst well-tended forests boasting a mixture of species, I noticed this myself on first moving to Japan, often thinking, “Why doesn’t this look like a real forest?” The forests I saw looked carefully arranged, with no variations in height or color–in short, fake.

True Old Growth forests are extremely rare in Japan, and the newer single-species plantations designed to feed Japan’s growing construction industry do not provide an ideal haven for wildlife.  In her Environment 360 article, Winifred Bird speaks with Mariko Moriyama, a representative of the Japan Bear and Forest Association, about the limited diversity in Japanese forests.  According to Moriyama, she writes, the outcome has been, “…the creation of forests where few animals can survive. Vast single-species stands of timber lack the plant diversity found in natural forests, and plant diversity forms the foundation for animal diversity. Black bears, for example, are omnivorous but prefer to eat young leaves, insects, berries, and acorns–few of which can be found in timber plantations. ” Does this not make perfect sense?  Moriyama-san puts it bluntly: “The results of the experiments are in. Japan’s traditional culture preserved amazing forests up until World War II. Our post-war approach has failed.”

In other words, even before the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, many of Japan’s forests were suffering.  Next, consider the current state of Fukushima Prefecture, which is 70 percent forestland.  The Japanese government has chosen to decontaminate much of the

Okuma, Fukushima: 10,000 tons of bagged waste from the decontamination process, temporarily stored in a baseball stadium. (Photo by Takayuki Kihara)

farm and forest land within the evacuation zone (areas outside of the zone are the responsibility of local governments) in order to bring families back and revitalize deserted neighborhoods. The process is well underway, and involves cutting (of tree branches),  scraping (of topsoil),  power-washing (of houses and trees in fruit orchards),  shaving (of bark from trees!),  bagging (of leaf litter), and thorough plowing (the deeper the better, to turn over the soil and dilute the cesium contaminating the topmost layer).  Technically, the focus of decontamination is on residential areas rather than forestland, but since there are no clear barriers in many rural areas of Fukushima, parts of the hilly woods in close vicinity to houses are being “cleaned” as well. And what’s being done with the refuse? The cut branches, scraped-off topsoil, and mountains of cesium-laced leaves?  As the photo shows, there’s no long-term, safe, or aesthetically pleasing solution. Some towns deposit the bulging bags in shallow pits, and some keep them above ground.  Meanwhile plastic bag manufacturers, along with companies specializing in geiger counters and power hoses, are making a tidy profit, I’m sure.

Going back to the writing of Winifred Bird, this January, she wrote another article for the  Environment 360 publication that deals with the projected effects of decontamination in Fukushima. By her assessment, the process (due to be completed in 2014) is likely to cause “huge amounts of radioactive waste that no-one wants to store long-term; immediate investments of money, labor, and time; damage to wildlife habitat and soil fertility; increased erosion on scraped-bare hillsides; and intrusion by people and machinery into

A Japanese Wild boar; human health trumps his habitat. This particular guy is from Kyushuu, but there are plenty of boars in Fukushima as well.

every area scheduled for remediation.”  In her article, she quotes Kiyomi Yokota, a naturalist and secretary of the Fukushima Nature Conservation Association.  Although Yokota regrets the upsetting of the forest’s ecological balance, he sees it as a necessary evil.  As he states, “If people want to go home, I don’t think I could tell them, `No, stop the decontamination and save the fish.”  In other words, declares Bird,  human health trumps habitat.

Last Sunday, the Japan Times featured another article by Bird, entitled, “Chernobyl Expert Takes a Look at Tohoku’s Trees”.  The expert, Dr. Sergiy Aibtsev, a Ukranian forest ecologist who has been studying contamination in wooded areas for 19 years, flew to Japan to tour the Tohoku forests and confer with Japanese ecologist Dr. Tatsuhiro Ohkubo (who’s only been studying contamination since the time of the triple disaster).  In Chernobyl, 26 years have passed, and the exclusion zone is still off-limits. Its forests are untouched, save for experiments and minimal management, and forests outside the zone are carefully regulated and monitored. Aibtsev, concerned that the removal of leaf litter, undergrowth, and branches from Fukushima’s forests “could undermine forest health”, explained the Russian approach to contamination.  Bird writes,

A forest?  Or a “holding tank for contamination”?

“Zibtsev explains that as long as trees and leaf litter are healthy, forest ecosystems trap radionuclides and prevent them from seeping down into the groundwater, or being carried into streams by erosion-or blowing away as dust in the wind. Ukraine’s management policy has aimed to maximize the role of forests as holding tanks for contamination rather than attempt decontamination. “

Bird also directly quotes Zibtsev, who uses a graphic comparison to make his point:

“The approach has been to let the ecosystem work. Fungi is much more effective than millions of people (at containing contamination).  It’s like if your body is functioning, and you decide, why don’t I remove my liver to clean it? And then you realize you can’t live without it. People in Japan want the forest to be clean. They want to rewind (back to) before 3/11. (But) we’re living in a new reality.”

Even Shinichi Nakayama, a nuclear engineer at Japan’s Atomic Energy Agency who is overseeing 19 of the decontamination pilot projects admitted that over-cleaning could present new complications. “You take it all away (“all”, meaning the greenery) and the eco-system is destroyed,” he pronounced.

Back to Bird’s phrase: human health trumps habitat?  I always thought the two were not rivals, but inter-connected. That connection, it seems, has been broken for Fukushima residents.  The forests that once sustained are now being stripped of their own sustenance.

So that’s how things stand in Fukushima. Now let’s move to Tokyo, where forests are

Jared Braiterman, reveling in a green space!

not under siege, but being created.  Although many Tokyo residents are unaware, a fabulous architectural project is under construction. I learned of this through the aforementioned blog of Jared Braiterman, the Design Anthropologist and seeker of green spaces.  The title of the post caught my attention: “What if a Forest is Created and No-One Knows?” , and I began reading, learning of a project that’s been steadily progressing since 2007 to create a “Forest on the Sea” or “Umi no Mori”.

Designed by the renowned architect Tadao Ando, the forest is an attempt to restore beauty and function to a landfill in Tokyo Bay, an 88 hectare raised landmass built of…waste. Ugly, eh? On his introductory site,  Ando speaks plainly about the landfill site, stating,

“The modern practice of mass production and mass consumption has given rise to a negative legacy throughout the wold in the form of refuse. In Tokyo Bay as well, a consequence of our urban activities is seen in a landfill of refuse and surplus soil that reaches 30 meters in height and stretches over 88 hectares-about the size of one golf course.

Umi no Mori (Sea Forest) will become a symbol of our recycling-oriented society through which Japan, a country that has a tradition of living hand-in-hand with nature, can make an appeal to the world about the importance of living in harmony with the environment. In view of the fact that landfills exist in all corners of the world, I perceive this island as a forest that belongs not just to Tokyo, but to the world, and through this project, wish to communicate the message of `living in harmony with nature’.”

Chart showing the “Wind Passages” effected from Ando’s Forest on the Sea.

Ando’s plan, begun five years ago, is to create a forest of mixed species, not only to beautify a barren space, but to create a passageway for breezes to blow into the city, providing relief from the sweltering summer heat.  As another part of Ando’s plan, local children have been involved with the planting. Various planting events have been held since 2008, including one attended by U2’s Bono. Funding for the project is purely through personal donations-also the idea of Ando, who hopes for donations of 1,000 ¥  from 500,000 people to complete his project. Here’s the link to his Umi no Mori site if you wish to make a donation, or know someone who is interested in the project. Better yet, spread the word!  The blog post I stumbled on was from 2009, and the author was lamenting the fact that so few folks knew about its existence. Well, though the Tokyo Sky Tree has been so over-publicized that I see it in my dreams, looming over me, this forest project hasn’t made much of a splash at all. Braiterman berates the Tokyo municipal government for not making the project more public:

“I think this park will eventually be fantastic. However, it’s a missed opportunity not to make its creation more participatory, more transparent, more public, more connected to the rest of the city, more educational, and a catalyst for public and collective thinking of the urban environment and waste production.”

And Braiterman’s right. Instead of putting their energy into the promotion of a project that

“Forest on the Sea”, shown in photo from summer, 2010. How many forests will need to be planted to cover new landfills?

isn’t costing the city a cent and serves the purpose of rehabilitating a shameful eyesore, the municipal government is busy accepting debris from Tohoku and burning it along the Bay, creating yet more pollution and showing an appalling lack of judgement and concern for its citizens. It’s a sickening cycle in the end, as the remains of the incinerated rubble are being buried in yet another Tokyo Bay site, creating yet another landfill ripe for rehabilitating.  Are there enough creative minds to deal with the mountains of refuse that are plaguing this already overcrowded country?  Not by a long shot; the landfills are winning the battle.

Meanwhile, up in Tohoku, the city of Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture is planning to use part of its own tsunami debris to build “tide-prevention groves”.  Rather than concrete sea wall barriers, city planners envision a raised coastline built from landfill and lined with trees, which will serve to slow the speed and reduce the power of future tsunamis as well as preventing land erosion. I love the simplicity of the design.

And that’s where I’ll close for now. Growing up surrounded by forests, living in Japan has led me to re-think my definition of their purpose.  Thinking of the woodlands in Russia and Fukushima that will remain as repositories for cesium, lying untouched, unexplored, untended, and unused, fills me with terrible sadness.  Human health trumps habitat, and for the sake of man’s safety, they will remain off-limits. The animals residing there are on their own.

Thinking of the newly-conceived forests built as cosmetic covers for landfills gives me mixed feelings as well. In the case of Sendai, city planners are making the best of a terrible situation, planning responsibly and considering aesthetics and practicality as well. Hopefully the trees along the coast will help to save their lives in the future. Still, the trees are covering a waste dump, containing the remains of its past life, and parents should educate their children to know the city’s history and teach them to create as little waste as possible in their lives.

Tree planting at Ando's "Forest on the Sea".  A sea of green to cover a multitude of sins. (photo by Andy McGovern)

Tree planting at Ando’s “Forest on the Sea”. A sea of green to cover a multitude of sins?

In the case of Tokyo, I feel deep disappointment and a sense of hopelessness. A project reflecting a positive transformation for the city does not receive enough attention, and landfills continue to multiply, rather than diminish. I also learned, while writing this post, that another of my favorite green spaces in Tokyo, Yamashita Park,  is built over landfill.  Strange, that more people do not find this unnerving.  Those who see only the surface of things, I suppose, are able to carry on their daily lives without questioning why. Baseball stadiums filled with radioactive soil?  Stripping the  leaves and bark from trees?  And still the question of whether Japan should continue to use nuclear power remains an issue?  As far as I’m concerned, the more pressing issue is the de-commissioning of each and every nuclear power plant across Japan: a long-term challenge, complicated by the reality that college students are already steering clear of any nuclear-power related programs. They know that the future is somewhere else.

Thank you for reading, and good night.

Advice from a Former Swashbuckler (now an Old Bear)

“Reading and watching the news can be so damned depressing. I am sure that many of

Here’s the Big Bear.

you, like me, are sick to death of hearing about plummeting economies and useless, senseless wars. It is much more fun to nurture woodlands, land and streams, to collect delicious mushrooms by the bucketful, to gather firewood and make charcoal to render harsh winter more comfortable, and from our own little fields to harvest potatoes and parsnips, cabbages, broccoli and brussel sprouts, leeks, turnips, carrots, bell peppers, cucumbers, eggplants and what-have-you–all to be shared and enjoyed and to bring nothing but good to the land.”

That’s “Old Nic” speaking,  from a 2008 entry in “Old Nic’s Notebook”, a nature blog carried by the Japan Times that I have recently begun reading with great interest. Described by an interviewer as “….a character straight out of a swashbuckling 18th century novel”,  C.W. Nicol has lived an extraordinary life, and I only wish I had discovered him sooner.  You do Karate? Old Nic, whose interest in the discipline is what drew him to Japan in the first place, is revered world-wide in Karate Circles; his book, “Moving Zen-One Man’s Journey to the Heart of Karate” has been read and re-read by Karate aficionados.  You dream of one day visiting an African game preserve?  Nicol has not only visited, but has worked to establish a National Park in Ethiopia, where he served as a game warden for two years. You’re a fan of Moby Dick?  Love those old whaling museums in Nantucket?  Well, Old Nick has lived in Taiji (the setting of the controversial film “The Cove”), sailed to the Antarctic with a whaling fleet, and written a historical novel, “Harpoon”, while onboard ship. The novel sold well and set him up as a writer upon his return to Japan.  Born in Wales, he has also had Canadian citizenship (from his days of study at McGill University), and is now a naturalized Japanese citizen, having continued his studies at Nihon University. He is fully fluent in Japanese. He has published in both English and Japanese and, in 1980, won the Japan Broadcasting Writer’s Award for his screenplay of a TV drama written in Japanese.

This is all well and good (you say), but why is this timely? Why would I choose to write about a man who describes himself as a big old bear from the deep woods when it’s the 6 month anniversary of the Tohoku Triple Disaster (“Daishinsai” in Japanese) AND the 10 year anniversary of the 9-11 terror attack on New York City?  Well….precisely because these two events are being covered in such detail; for the past few days there’s been nothing else on TV in Japan, and newspaper editorials and facebook posts seem obsessed with squeezing out the last drop of meaning from the disasters.  I will let them squeeze away, and instead introduce you to Old Nick, whose writings are, in fact, very relevant to the issues at stake in Japan’s disaster recovery process.

Let me start with the first article from “Old Nic’s Notebook” that made me sit up and take notice (I had been briefly skimming the blog whenever I got the  weekend edition of the Japan Times from the train station, but hadn’t had any jaw-dropping revelations. Probably hadn’t been concentrating hard enough, in my eagerness to get to the book and movie reviews).  It was last Sunday’s post, entitled “Children-and their children-must be saved from Nature Deficit Disorder”.  “Aha!” I thought. “Fukushima!” (for those of you who have not been following, children in the emergency preparedness zone in Fukushima have not played outside in months), and I dug right in to the article. I was well-rewarded. Nicol begins by reminiscing about his first years in Japan (he arrived in 1962), and how the

Found in the river: what a prize! ( that’s my river-loving daughter)

Nagano Prefecture countryside was a place for children to play. He writes of his joy in observing children catching tadpoles, frogs or beetles, helping in the rice fields, and gathering sticks for firewood. Now, he says, the rivers in his district are empty of children; because of a drowning in Miyagi Prefecture (two boys out frog-catching), the local elementary school has forbidden children to play in the river at all.  As Nicol stated, these things happen, but still children are probably in more danger crossing the road every day (Japanese children ALL walk to school, sometimes navigating extremely narrow streets shared with cars , bicycles, and motorbikes) than they are playing in the river.

Well, before you start feeling sad or indignant, let me inject some humor (though there’s a poignancy in this story as well).  Nicol was so disgusted with the school’s ruling  that he began plying his friends’ son (his “little buddy”) with the promise of money to disobey the rule and go down to the river to play.  “His parents and I encourage the little chap to ignore this order,” he writes. “I have offered to give him pocket money if he will just write down simple observations, such as the birds or fish or dragonflies he sees out there. That way, should some sneaky twit play teacher’s pet and report him to the school, he could claim he is doing a holiday river-assignment research task for me. If the school then tried to push him around I will give them, and their bosses, a right Celtic bollocking.”  Well!  You can understand why I liked the man immediately. The poignant part of the story is that the little boy absolutely refused to disobey the school rule, no matter how hard Old Nic (and his own parents) poked and prodded. This is unsurprising  given Japanese children’s reluctance to go against the grain or stand out in any way, but still disappointing.

As a side note, I was curious to know how Nicol could declare his intentions to give the school board a “bollocking” with such confidence. Most foreigners here are low on the totem pole; their voices go unheard, or are heard with condescension rather than respect. That’s when I began digging around to find out who the man actually was, and how he came to be writing the “Old Nic’s Notebook” column. Here are some tidbits of what I learned.

After his swashbuckling days, C.W. Nicol decided to settle in Japan. Some years ago, he was asked, in an interview by a Karate devotee, why he

Nagano is over 70% forest land. (photo by Kenji Minami)

never returned to his native Wales.  Word for word, here is his reply:  “I am as proud to be a Japanese citizen as I am of being Welsch. A Welsch Japanese.  As a country for wildlife, it is amazing . For example, more the 70% of Nagano Prefecture is covered with forest, in which there are bears, wild boar, monkeys, deer, and so many other creatures.  If you don’t include Alaska, Japan has a longer coastline than the United States.  We have sea ice in the North, coral seas in the South. I look out of this study window to see Mount Kurohime…the Black Princess..a dormant volcano, forested to the top….Really, Japan is a beautiful and varied country if you get out of the big cities.” (interview w/Shaun Banfield, 2009).  Nicol has also written of his first impression of Japanese farms in the Nagano area, which he likened to gardens, because of their beauty. He admired the Japanese ability to strike a balance between nature and human culture, and their respect for the land they worked. He decided to buy land in the Kurohime district of Nagano, and thus began his settled life in Japan.

Within two years, Nicol began to see changes in the Japanese attitude toward forest land (“sato yama” in Japanese).  After the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, woodlands fell into neglect, many becoming tangles of brush rather than well-tended havens of bio-diversity.  At the same time, a forest in his native Wales was being revived and restored after suffering the effects of years of coal mining.  Nicol, drawing inspiration from the restoration of the Afan Argoed Forest in South Wales, became determined to do the same for forest land in Nagano.  With the money acquired from the sales of his historical novel and other writings and appearances (he had already become somewhat of a celebrity in Japan), he was able to buy up a succession of neglected and abused land plots in the Kurohime area. The land was originally called  “Yurei no Mori”, or “Ghost Forest”…..well, that name was thrown out immediately. Re-named after the forest in Wales, Nicol decided to make his land in Japan a “twin” of the Afan Argoed forest.

Nicol and Princes Charles, taking a stroll through the woods.

To make a long story short, he and his head forester, Nobuyoshi Matsuki (who has lived in the forest since age 15)  still live in their forest.  It is now officially a “woodland trust”, recognized and protected (Nicol became a Japanese citizen in 2002 in order to legally establish the trust), and has been visited by the royal families of both Japan and Britain ( I loved Nicol’s blog entry describing Prince Charles’ visit as “The Proudest Day in my Life”).  More to the point, he and his co-workers have so far brought back 22 endangered plant and animal species, and have established a college that trains young people to work in eco-tourism, wildlife conservation, and research; according to Nicol, they graduate around 80 students a year. The woodland is a flourishing mixed-growth forest, made up of oak, chestnut, walnut and other species, and access to the public is strictly controlled to preserve the fragility of the eco-system. Nicol remains in close contact with the staff of the twin forest in Wales, and the two woodlands share resources and information.

Because of what he has done to repair the damaged eco-system of Nagano, C.W. Nicol has become a well-loved and respected figure throughout the country.  If he decided to give the school board of his hometown a “bollocking” , they would undoubtably listen. He has earned the right to speak his mind bluntly.  In fact, in other writings he has mentioned his own personal war against Japan’s “yakuza” (think “mafia”) , because of their practice of dumping toxic wastes in deserted forestland.  Believing  that his status offers him a certain protection (though he tries not to tempt fate), he is unafraid to be quoted in his criticism of Japan’s underworld criminals.  Though he talks tough, he is also modest, often referring to himself as a “stupid man” or “a big old bear, bumbling through the woods”.  In dipping into the many C.W. Nicol you tube videos (all but one in Japanese, with no sub-titles), I was quite surprised to note that his speaking manner in Japanese was actually very gentle and unassuming.  A big old gentle bear in Japanese, whose strong opinions seem softened by his direct, open gaze, and pleasant speaking manner.  Quite a contrast to his written English!  He often writes of his propensity for strong drink, so perhaps he does let loose in rough Japanese when off-camera at an izaka-ya (drinking hang-out) with his buddies.

Most unlovable-looking insect brought home by my children: Kabuto- Mushi.

Back to the Japan Times article from the “Old Nic’s Notebook” column.  In his Sept. 4th post,  Nicol promotes a book by another Welschman entitled “Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder” (Richard Louv, Algonquin Books).  The book proposes that “children in nature are becoming an endangered species,” and this has been brought home to me repeatedly as I’ve watched my own children growing up in rural Kanagawa prefecture.  Technically “rural”, the population of Kanagawa has been steadily growing, and its schools and community centers for seniors are now packed to overflowing.  In the twenty years that I’ve known my neighborhood (in the city of Hadano), its grassy empty lots have all disappeared, and every inch of space has been taken up with buildings.  That grass was where my kids spent afternoons catching grasshoppers, crickets, or butterflies and finding wildflowers. No grass means fewer insects, and no wildflowers at all.  I never even catch a glimpse of a dandilion, and those things are supposed to be ubiquitous.  I rarely see kids running around outside with their insect nets and plastic bug cages, covered in sweat but determined to score a prize beetle or cicada before the day’s end.  Man, my own kids caught some strange and unlovable-looking insects in their day, and had a blast doing it.

Now let’s talk about rivers. Old Nic would be happy to know that the river in my

neighborhood is still clean, and populated with wigglers of all sorts, and that my children (now eighteen and twenty) still love

My daughter Ellen’s wild river adventure!

hanging out there. My daughter, especially, still considers the river a “big adventure”, and looks forward to a chance to splash around and check out the wildlife.  This July, while cruising the internet, she found a “River Wildlife Adventure Tour” advertised, and decided to sign up. The river was quite a distance away and her friends were all uninterested or unavailable, yet this did not deter her. She would go alone (for the record, her grandmother protested loudly, and was convinced she would drown), and it was no big deal. So off she went.  Arriving home that evening, imagine how surprised we were to hear that the “tour” had in fact consisted of only herself!  Two park rangers led the expedition, and she and a ranger from a neighboring park (who had come to help, but ended up as a participant) were the only trekkers to show up. Since the tour was a “reservations only” deal, the rangers must have known about the lack of interest, yet they jovially went on with the show, taking the entire day to teach my daughter about the fish, reptiles, amphibians, and insects they encountered (“some really rare ones, too!” she said) and recommending books and articles for her to read.  Again: a lucky chance for my Ellen (she was given royal treatment), but how sad that a “river adventure” did not appeal to anyone but her. Parents would rather have their kids inside playing video games? Or maybe they were all off at Disney World. If so, too bad for them; the poor suckers shelled out several hundred dollars, while my daughter got an adventure and an education for free.

Mothers are leaving Fukushima for Tokyo….Bye, Dad!

Now back to Fukushima. The ecosystem has been changed and damaged (not just from the dispersal of radiactive particles, but from the tsunami as well.  NHK news reports that there will not be cicadas on the coast of Tohoku for many years, as all their larvae were washed away), and families and communities have been broken up.  Because nature has become something to be feared (those radioactive particles cling stubbornly to grasses, moss, leaves, and soil and reappear with each rain shower), children are either taken away from their communities or sealed  inside their homes and schools.  New reports tell of mothers who have fled to Tokyo to raise their small children, choosing to live apart from their husbands or parents, and of children who remain close to the Fukushima evacuation zone and can no longer play in community parks or swim in the school pool. Mothers must be driven to distraction keeping their children inside on sunny days, and consumed with worry when they do go out.  Nicol writes in his blog, “Children need to play in nature with other children in order to properly develop their brains and characters, their power to make decisions and to work with other people. They need nature to teach them to listen and hear, smell, feel, look and see.”  He recognizes Nature Deficit Syndrome as a very real condition that carries serious consequences for society as a whole, and his woodland trust is attempting to counteract the situation.

For the past eight years, the Afan Woodland Trust has brought abused and neglected children, as well as visually challenged children, into the woods for three days of play and direct contact with animal life in the forest. Three days seems like just a taste of a very rich and tempting dessert to me–enough to linger in your memory and make you want more. Hopefully those kids will return every year, and seek out bits of nature wherever they find it during the other months. This year, Nicol has extended the program to include the children from Tohoku who have lost homes, schools, family, or friends. Or the combination of all of these things. Listen to his description of the program: ” These children will be encouraged to play in the streams and ponds, to swing on a rope in the trees and run

Japanese Dormouse: Yamane. Much easier to love than those horned beetles.

around in woods that are the domain of bears, boars, deer, raccoon dogs, badgers, foxes, civit cats, martens [my daughter saw a martin on her river trip] , weasels, squirrels, dormice [would love to see one!], moles and shrews…..not to mention frogs, toads, newts, salamanders and snakes. And needless to say, there are insects and spiders galore there, too……The kids just love this experience away from electronics, and many of them cry when they leave because they don’t want to go.”  Hey, sign me up, too!  I’d happily throw my responsibilities to the wind for a chance like that, especially if I didn’t have to cook dinner after traipsing through the woods all day long.

So that’s an introduction to C.W. Nicols, and a reminder of what is at stake here. The ocean has been violated ( and I don’t want to hear any more explanations of its vastness, and how potentially harmful radiation will be dissolved and dispersed. What’s wrong is wrong, and it’s not a matter of degree), the ground has absorbed poison and is being used as a dumping ground for even more poison–tons of it, neatly bagged and labelled).  Because the earth, the ocean, and the air are the ultimate victims, every living thing dependent on them will be affected in some way, some sooner and some later. And a generation of children may very well grow up not having known or experienced the natural world because of decisions made by adults.  There’s no denying that something terribly wrong has occurred. And as an indicator of just how twisted people’s  thinking has become, I was stunned to read the comment of a man  (on one of the many Tohoku-related blog sites) who belittled the potential after-effects of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. “Even if people do get thyroid cancer,” he wrote, “that’s a form of cancer with a high recovery rate.” ……Do I need to remark on how strange and surreal the situation has become?

In the 2009 interview by Shaun Banfield,  Nicol speaks about the “heart” of Karate. What he says also applies to our responsibility as adults in regards to children, and to all of nature as well. Here it is: “[we must]…have the courage and morality to stand up and protect those creatures who are weaker, more vulnerable, unable to protect themselves. To speak out against evil. Never to be a bully. To never stop studying.”  The nuclear industry in Japan is a powerful force, and one that has caused as- yet- unmeasurable damage across the globe, both physical and emotional.  Until now, those who have fought against it in Japan have been labelled as crazy, “meiwaku” (someone who makes a disturbance), or embarrassing.  Slowly but surely, these labels are disintegrating, and people are finding the courage to speak out. Whether it will be enough, or come in time, has yet to be seen.  I am doing my best to keep studying, to pass on what I learn, and to be open to what I learn from others. My own children have moved safely into adulthood, and I feel a responsibility to ensure that other children do as well.

Let’s turn away from Fukushima now and take a walk through the woods with C.W. Nicol. This short clip was filmed in his woodland trust in Nagano, and should refresh your heart and serve as a reminder of what’s left of the natural world that we are yet called upon to preserve and protect. Learn from the Old Bear, and thank you again for reading.