Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Forestry and fall leaves

This last weekend I was able to get out to see some parts of Kyoto I hadn't seen before.

On the 17th I joined a volunteer course on forestry offered by Nagaokakyo City where I live. The course took place at a place called 西山 Nishiyama on land that belongs to a nearby temple (Youkokuji 楊谷寺).

In the morning we learned about thinning techniques, known as kanbatsu 間伐. This includes felling trees to create space for nearby trees to grow and to open the canopy so that more sunlight can come through. We did the cutting with little hand saws, which was quite tiring, but they don't let the rookies have chainsaws.

I felled two trees myself, which was quite satisfying I must say. We cut the trees into sections about 3 meters long and laid them perpendicular to the hillside so that the forest could "take them back"--a glossy phrase that conceals the fact that there is no market for wood in Japan (hence volunteers are used to "manage" forests).

The second half of the day was spent inside one of the halls of the local temple where we listened to lectures about the local forests, forestry, and volunteer programs. In the end the purpose of the courses seemed to be to raise awareness about volunteering for forestry activities. Again, this reflects larger trends in Japan of forest abandonment.  In Otaki-mura, where the majority of my fieldwork will take place, the number of government-employed foresters has shrunk from about 500 to 10 over the last forty years. Ecologically, it's hard to say if "hands off" approaches to forest management are beneficial or not, however it's apparent that such approaches can have negative impacts on human communities, particularly mountain communities located in proximity to forests.

Unfortunately, this perspective is not what is championed by government officials in charge of forest management. Instead, what one hears--indeed what I heard during this course--are appeals to broader concerns about clean water, prevention of natural disasters, and combating global warming. While none of these benefits is entirely absent when speaking of Japanese forests, however the belie the particular histories of local forests and the communities that have utilized and lived alongside them for many years. In other words, they link ideals of cleanliness, protection, and beauty directly with notions of "natural" forests, so that the presence of forests becomes the only factor influencing these ideals. Concealed in this rhetoric are broader elements that impact negatively on the natural world, for example: water pollution and the paving of Japan's rivers with concrete; Japan's contribution to global warming through voracious consumption of foreign forest resources; and the decline of village communities in rural Japan.

Anyway, volunteering was fun, and I will be going to work in the forest again this weekend. However, I hope that those in positions of power in Japan can begin to think beyond volunteerism for managing Japan's forests in the future.

My wife's friend was here for the weekend and so we took some time on Sunday to visit a temple to see the fall colors. We visited Tofukuji temple in the south of Kyoto. It's a Rinzai Zen temple that has origins in the Heian Period (700 a.d.). However, like most temples in Japan, the buildings that stand now date from the Meiji Period (late 19th century).

The temple is famous for it's momiji 紅葉 (Japanese maple); in particular, there is one valley that runs up the temple's grounds that is filled with momiji trees which were ablaze on the day we went. I was really impressed, but, as is it always is this time of year, the temple was packed with people, so much so that you have to walk in a line with the other sightseers. Also, have to beware of the mean old women (they stalked us because we were taking too long to take a picture)--scariest people in Japan.

Next weekend should be even better for kouyou 紅葉 (fall leaves), so hopefully I'll have some more to report then.


1 comment:

kelli alicia said...

I think you should quit your "day job" and write poetry about Japan. Aki won't mind supporting you, right?

Sounds like things are going well for you. I'm jealous of the fall weather and the forest - been really having a craving for those things lately! The baths sound heavenly. Most of the time I am staring at the lovely concrete walls of my office, so keep posting those photos so I can spend more time imagining I am somewhere else.

Unfortunately we aren't going to make it to see you guys this holiday season - Pedro only got about a week off over Christmas and we couldn't find a decently priced flight at that time - doesn't help that gas prices are sky-high right now and it's really affecting flight prices. I'd still like to try and get over there within the next year...!

We're going to head to Seattle for Christmas so I can at least see some pine trees. Pedro has never been there and I haven't been back since I was a kid, and we got a sweet deal on an old hotel on the water that'sbeen refurbished as a lodge or something. It's not Kyoto, but at least it's not Hawaii!

Things are quiet around here - I've found it kind of depressing since you guys left - our cohort has sort of faded away, and I find myself less inclined to get involved with the anthro socializing. Usually it's just me and Adam and Pedro holding court at Manoa gardens on Friday afternoon.

How is Aki? Is she enjoying being back home?

And by the way, it's all over the news today that Neil Diamond has finally announced who he wrote "Sweet Caroline" about.....