Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Seto-gawa (瀬戸川): little known jewel of the Kiso Valley

I've been away in Kyoto for the past week, busy with university busi-ness, so haven't had the time to post. However, just before I left for Kyoto I took an afternoon to walk into the Seto-gawa (瀬戸川) area here in Otaki, and have wanted to share a bit about the place ever since.

I heard about Seto-gawa soon after I arrived in the village. People told me if I wanted to see a more "pristine" forest, that was the place to go (I recognize "pristine" is a problematic word; here it means that SOME of the trees haven't been cut since the Edo Period (1603-1867)--so, 200-300 year old trees perhaps). Anyway, I had wanted to see the place since that time, but never seemed to find the right time. Well, a week ago I had one of those moments when I knew it was time to go. . .nigiri-ed some onigiri, grabbed my pack--a few essentials, and flew out the door.

The Seto-gawa (gawa, or kawa, by the way, means river) tumbles down a steep mountainside to join the Otaki River from the south-east. I took a long road that winds along the southern shore of Lake Ontake (a reservoir) on its way out of town. From here I turned south onto a smaller forest road that clung tightly to the mountainside and gained elevation quickly. The road passed through straight lines of planted trees, probably 20 years old--their eery symmetry gave me goose bumps.

When I woke the sky had been overcast, but by mid-morning patches of blue were tempting me to go walking. As I wound my way up through the forest, the sky remained partly clouded. Before long I reached a gate--the entrance to the Seto-gawa area--only Forestry Agency personnel allowe beyond this point; the selfish bastards. I parked the car and flung myself into my pack. The familiar sensation of the weight of the pack settling onto my frame was a welcome relief from the recent days I had spent huncked down in front of my computer, typing interviews.

I stepped over the gate and began up the dirt road before me. A couple of days prior an announcement had come across the village radio cautioning that there had been a bear sighting recently. Although I was wearing a bear-bell, I felt compelled to practice my rendition of "Amazing Grace"--I figured that would drive away nearly any beast.

After about 20 or 30 minutes walking on the road, signs appeared denoting a path leading into the woods along an old forest rail line; they also promised large trees (大樹)--this is what I was looking for. Inside the forest it was damp and cool. I followed the path as it wove its way along a small stream, criss-crossing it with small wooden foot bridges. My feet were light as I bounded up and into the forest.

About a half an hour in the trail in front of me ended abrubtly; to my right a small path led into a narrow stream bed. I discerned a faint trail leading up the stream, so I forged ahead. I would learn later, on my descent, that I had made a mistake here--lost the trail completely. However, for now, I was happy using fancy footwork to move myself from rock to rock--half slipping and falling, half stepping.

On each side of me were steep, grass-covered hillsides where a variety of broadleaf trees grew in mixed stands along with giant sugi and hinoki. Light filtered through the canopy at a low angle, giving vibrancy to the varied hues of green.

Soon the trail was completely gone, but I kept kidding myself that I could see faint signs of it; in reality, I was blazing a new trail straight up the stream. I was, by this point, intrigued by the stream and the narrow ravine that cradled it, so nothing was going to stop me from finding the source of the water. Hunger finally did stop me once. I gobbled down three onigiri and washed them down with a generous amount of water.

Weary of bears, my singing continued--my repertoire had expanded beyond "Amazing Grace" to include: Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty", "Jesus Gonna Be Here" by Tom Waits, and "I Never Cared for You", a Willie Nelson tune. I was also clapping my hands. I allowed my eyes to shift, for brief moments only, from the maze of rocks below me in order to scan the hillsides above for signs of danger--I felt like an extremely easy target. I could almost hear the bears talking to one another, "look at this asshole singing Tom Waits."

Fallen trees had created dams in some sections of the stream, and I was made to go up, over, through, or around them. Before long I could discern a series of ridges running perpendicular to the ravine; I knew I was topping out. I never did find the "source" of the stream (Seto-gawa is a watershed so the streams just sort of flow outta nowhere), but was soon on a ridge looking down into the ravine I had ascended. On the other side of me was another ravine, and another on the opposite side of it, like I was standing at the head of a ruffled curtain; I made sure to keep my ravine to my left.

The top ridge of the mountain I had been climbing was in sight, so I continued upward. I figured I'd keep going up as long as there was "up" to go. My figuring was overrun, however, by stands of bamboo grass that towered above my head. The stuff was miserable to walk through and limited my vision to the point that I wouldn't know if I'd stumbled upon a bear or a cliff until it was too late. Still, the ridges above me were alluring enough to keep me moving--but they were illusory: false ridges, always seeming to be just over the next rise. Reluctantly, I stopped and squatted my sweaty self on a large tree stump.

The forest was quiet; wind rustled the bamboo grass and insects buzzed around me, but there was no sound otherwise. I sat there for some time facing the forest, also being quiet. Unlike below, this forest consisted of only two layers: a high canopy and a low covering of bamboo grass. The area before me had been cut and replanted--probably several times over--likely because it is more readily accesible than the ravine I had emerged from. How fascinating, I thought to myself, us humans and out interactions with the natural environment--how complicated and wonderful, these historical ecologies.
Sipping the the last of the coffee I had brought with me, I shouldered my pack. These quiet moments always end. I swam back through the bamboo grass until I found the ridge I had climbed, my ravine now to my right. Soft dirt gave way to my boots as I stepped hard to maintain my balance while descending to the stream. My ballet started once again as I made my way, rock by rock, back down the ravine.

Near the bottom of the ravine I finally realized the mistake that had led me scrambling up this particular stream. After descending into the stream bed from the main trail I was supposed to cross and pick up a trail on the opposite side--I had gone straight ahead, never looking back. Feeling a bit tired, I started back on the trail I had started on, but abhorred the idea of leaving without having made my original destination. I turned back, descended back into the ravine and then climbed up the other side--a well worn trail awaited me.

The trail followed what used to be a rail line, part of series constructed in Otaki by Japan's Forestry Agency (then called the eirinsho 営林署) to haul out timber logs in the middle part of the last century. The trail, therefore, passed several collapsed bridges that had once been part of the line. Each had an eery feel about it--I wondered about days past. It was getting late, so I kept my pace up as much as possible.

A few larger trees remained in the area, but most of it consisted of plantation style forests, complete with signs denoting the date of the planting. The forest was intriguing, but the thick canopy allowed little light, which made the place feel unwelcoming. At one point I came across the shoes of a junior high student, surely just forgotten, but nevertheless a bit of an unsettling sight. I continued as long as I could up the path, until encroaching darkness and pit-pats of rain finally convinced me to turn back.

Places like Seto-gawa are, in my opinion, the best natural resource that Otaki has to offer. How best to use this resource is a critical question--one that villagers should be actively involved in answering. As it is now, the Seto-gawa area is owned and managed by the national Forestry Agency, which has little stake in the area: economically, culturally, or ecologically. Seto-gawa is a place of amazing natural beauty--one of the best I've seen in Japan--on top of this, the area is historically and ecologically significant. It helps to tell the story of resource use and abuse surrounding Otaki's forests. For these reasons I think the area is important for the village, and so residents should be allowed to play a more active role in making and implementing management decisions.


ted said...

Fantastic post.

KenElwood said...

Great story, well told.


Martin J Frid said...

Big trees are such treasure. Hope to read more as you discover them. Maybe the few people who know where they are, are not telling... to protect them.