Friday, February 26, 2016

It’s not Big Sur, but … A rainy weekend in Niiharu Citizen Forest

Strictly speaking, Niiharu Forest consists of two (a kind of) parks: one is Niiharu Citizen Forest 新治市民の森 that is not a “Park” as defined by the Urban Park Act of Japan 都市公園法, and another is Niiharu Satoyama Park 新治里山公園 where Okutsu House stands. In total, the area has more than 70ha in size, and preserves rich biodiversity in the middle of Tokyo Metropolitan Area. In order to celebrate 2011 that was the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Niiharu Citizen Forest, the civil society who volunteer within the Forest, the City of Yokohama, and academic communities worked together to articulate a more systematized plan for the Forest in the spirit of Niiharu Charter. In March 2011, it became Niiharu Conservation and Management Plan 新治保全管理計画 that details long-term Outcome and Targets of nature conservation program in the Forest starting from the baseline condition of the area in 2010.

Er, I have not conquered yet in this blog the Rokkoku-toge Hiking Trail from Kanazawa Bunko to the City of Kamakura. I promise I will do that soon and report you what I find there. It will fulfill my original ambition to visit all the Citizen Forests in Yokohama! Meanwhile, as some of my peers told me they wanted to know more about Yokohama’s Citizen Forest scheme (in English), I decided to do fixed-point observations for the workings of civil societies in Niiharu. I happen to live not far from Niiharu Forest, and the place is one of the two largest focal areas for the City’s Green-up forestry policy. (Another is around the Yokohama Nature Sanctuary.) I hope you like this plan. I try to maintain once in a week posting … let me see how I can manage.

Niiharu Conservation and Management Plan is really a good and fun read to know the big picture and how-tos of community-based Niiharu forestry. It is also a perfect reference book for gardening if you have a large forest around Tokyo, I guess. Using this plan, the landowning farmers, 5 volunteer organizations and the City do their daily work that is often a part of very long-term (like for 10 to 30 years) projects. I have joined one of the volunteer organization, Lovers of Niiharu Citizen Forest 新治市民の森愛護会. At the time of registration, they gave me a welcome package that includes further detailed information about their activities in Niiharu. It is a very interesting read too. I like their open-door approach. Starting from today’s post, I report (and translate) some of the contents of the Plan and the Info-pack. One sheet of spreadsheet in the package explained what the Lovers did in FY 2014, with weather reports of each activity day. Very interestingly, RAIN or shine, somebody, often about 20 people, attended the volunteer activity in the Forest. The Conservation and Management Plan explains the timing of thinning or mowing, but it never says a stormy day is good for such activities in the Forest. So, I wondered what my seniors did when it was raining heavily. I was lucky enough to know it very quickly. One February weekend, Yokohama was pounded by a freak typhoon like storm with strong winds, thunders and 20C+ temperature. I am certain it was due to El Niño with global warming.


The regular activity days for Niiharu Lovers are the 1st and 3rd Saturdays, and the 2nd and 4th Sundays of a month. We meet at Ikebuchi Open Space 池ぶち広場 at 9:00 (April – November), or 9:30 (December – March). The standard forestry activity is till 12:00, but some big ones could take a whole day so we have to bring our lunch to join such fun. There is no quota for attendance. Lovers are also in charge of opening and closing the small gate of the weekend Forest Parking (9:00-17:00). But it does not explain why 20 or so people come under 15+ m/s winds in a weekend morning. The Lovers have 6 sub-clubs (for Charcoal Making, Nature Observation, Farming, Woodworking, Nature Crafts, and Dragonfly Watching) whose activity normally starts after 12:00 of each activity day. Having said that, Woodworking and Nature Crafts Clubs open the Niiharu Forest Atelier にいはる森工房 in Miharashi Open Space みはらし広場 every Sunday and National Holidays for a whole day. The Atelier has its own mission: to think how to utilize timber and other things from the Forest in a modern urban life, and to share the opportunity of such thought process with the surrounding community. Well, this world is huge and there could be people who love to visit the Forest even under a weekend typhoon. So, there is a reason forest volunteers venture into strong winds early weekend morning, and be ready in the Atelier before somebody comes.  Sure, Of course, Why Not?

The parking gate when it is a fine day
Niiharu Forest Atelier when it is a fine day

In that morning, the strong wind blew my umbrella inside several times. The Forest itself howled ominously, whose voice reverberated with my stomach. The rain poured down. The scenery looked very similar to Hiroshige’s White Rain at Shono. Pretty plum flowers were blown off from the branches, and smashed and scattered over the paved roads ... However! When I approached to Ikebuchi Open Space, I could figure out a white chimney smoke coming out. Wow. The huts for Lovers in Ikebuchi Open Space were already warm by a wood-burning stove, and crowded by the volunteers.

Yes, volunteers are coming even if it is a storm!
Wood-burning stove with kettles. Tea?

The way to work in the Forest for the members of Lovers is not like “Today, you do this, you do that.” When it is a fine day, there is a menu of activities scheduled according to the annual calendar that is formulated at the beginning of each fiscal year based on the big picture of the Conservation and Management Plan. You can just come at 9:30, say hello to everybody, and go home if you don’t like to do anything … though, normally it does not happen for the people who bother to come Ikebuchi Open Space deep into the Forest. People select whichever activity they fancy on that day, and join the group for the task. Each activity has a pre-determined volunteer leader (that is arranged by self-recommendation) who is responsible to the procedures and the safety of the group of the day: it’s a serious job. Once you choose to participate in a particular work, you follow the instruction of the leader, which is the fundamental rule. Otherwise, it is very dangerous to work in a forest, you know. However, when it pours, standard forestry works, including patrolling trekking roads, are not done obviously, except for the Atelier. So, in that typhoon day, 5 volunteers who belonged to Woodworking Club and Craft Club gathered at Ikebuchi Hiroba, said hello to everybody, and walked to the Atelier for their regular activities. … Remaining 15? It turned out to be there are lots of things to do when it rains.

Niiharu Forest Atelier in a winter thunder-storm
Volunteers do woodworking from Niiharu woods,
rain or shine.
Their work is very careful, and fun!

The bamboo chips are …

polished before crafted.
Lots of products from the Forest.
Those black lacquered vases of bamboos in the left
are must-haves for students of traditional Ikebana.

November to February is the time when trees do not suck up much water from the ground. Especially for coppicing trees, it is a high-season of thinning without the fear of much damage. The 21st century Japanese forestry combines good’ol edged-tools and high-powered chainsaws. All devises require scrupulous maintenance works for safety, and meticulous handworks are specialty of Japanese. Stormy weekend morning is ideal for concentrating such tasks. Without anybody to ask, the gathered volunteers scattered within the complex of huts in Ikebuchi Open Space, and started to do the tasks each set aside for rainy days. “Is the fuel for chainsaws OK?” “How about the chainsaws themselves?” “It would be handy to have the place for this tool to be stored in this way. I’ll make the proper arrangement … yes, paper clips can be utilized for that …” “I’m sorting the mess in the storage.” “These hoes need to be sharpened. I do it.” “The handle of the hatchet is needed to be replaced. This piece of wood has ideal thickness. Let me see …” “I’ll make sticks out of these bamboo logs. They’ll be good materials for Craft Club to work with …” etc. etc. etc. …

Checking the chainsaws. “Rain? It’s not much!”
“This place is to be sorted in this way.”
Maintenance work for chainsaws
By the way,
this is a chainsaw for bamboos which has fine blades.
This is for woods.
Can you see the difference in the size of blades?
Replacing a handle for a hatchet.
“After doing it, the blade needs a good sharpening …”
Almost done for a new handle!
The new bamboo materials for the Craft Club

My confession. I did not know there really are lots of things to do in a forest even when storm comes. All the members for Lovers of Niiharu engaged in the rainy-day works lively, and indeed happily voluntarily. The howling of the trees in the gale let us focus on our tasks almost in a meditative way …  of Kumbaya. Maybe, when people lived in Satoyama ages ago, the life was like that: when it rains, the community has tons of things to do which cannot be done when it shines. 

I learned
how to build a fire for wood-burning stove!
These logs will be processed for
Woodworking and Craft Clubs.
The weather cleared up in the afternoon. J

Lovers of Niiharu Citizen Forest
Phone/FAX: 045-934-9898 (Japanese only)

Friday, February 19, 2016

Ornithology for “Bond, James Bond”

When people are prohibited to fish, hunt, or collect anything physically in a forest, they take tons of photos (and some videos). If we compare the degree of craziness of photographers of many kinds, those who tried to “capture the best moment of birds” would have the upper hand. There are many locations in Yokohama’s Citizen Forests where birds of many hues congregate. Though, in those places human population with 600mm lenses is often larger than that of their target. When we have to walk in front of these lines of cameras, one might imagine how Neymar feels when he reaches the front of the goal posts of the opposite side … The atmosphere is tense, and with unsaid irritability of media-men whose photo will be in the front page of the defeated side’s paper … “Why on earth do you come here to disturb us!?”

Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, it is a forest for everybody to enjoy in a civilized way. The place is not reserved for you photographers to take a picture of birds. … Anyway, thanks to those enthusiasts, the home page of Japan Wild Bird Society is bursting with brilliant photos that records multi-colored birds’ life in the archipelago. Biodiversity Center of Japan by the Ministry of the Environment also solicits reports, with photos welcome, from ordinary citizens to trace the habitat of many wild lives including birds. (Their reporting site is here.) So, that’s that. But without investing in bazooka-sized lenses, we can join the activity of observing birds for protecting biodiversity in Yokohama Citizen Forests.

All along this road in Maioka Park,
this song continued …

One of the training courses for registered Citizen Forest volunteers in Yokohama offers an opportunity to learn birdwatching in forest management, free of charge. It is held once in a year with Mr. Jinbo from of Kanoko Kankyo Produce Co. The main objective of the training is to introduce basic techniques of birds-observation for forest volunteers who monitor the health of forests. Starting from birds of prey such as Falco tinnunculus, Buteo japonicus, and Accipiter gentilis, birds are indicator species. Vegetarian birds need good food, aka healthy and lots of trees and grasses. Frog eaters need unpolluted wetlands, and falcons need everything for their rabbit-sashimi to be available daily. Lots of many kinds of birds mean the forest is diverse and healthy. “Collective Security Issues.” One of the roles of citizen volunteers in Yokohama’s forest is to monitor the health of the forest. So, knowing how to check the birds’ life in our forest is important.

Ardea alba in Umeda River, in front of Niiharu Forest

FY2015 course for birdwatching was held in one winter day in Niiharu Citizen Forest. Indeed, Niiharu is the richest forest in Yokohama. According to Mr. volunteer who is in charge of monitoring birds’ life in Niiharu, the Forest regularly houses about 100 kinds of birds. 60-65% are resident birds; 30% are wondering birds that change their residence within the archipelago according to the seasons; the rest is migrating birds many of which come from the Northern Eurasian Continent in fall to winter, and from the Southeast Asia in spring and summer. Niiharu is home for lots of owls … He said when we relax over the lawn in front of the Niiharu Visitor Center during nights, we can enjoy the chorus of owls daily. So the venue for the training could not be more apt in Yokohama.

The training is starting in Main Room of Okutsu House.

A fieldwork

The course consists of brief lectures about biology of birds and the key points in birdwatching for forest management. I now know why birds drop their droppings … Their body is to fly: bladder and “keep it till toilet” make them too heavy to be airborne. Better discharging them whenever the stuff reaches to an exit, right? (Oh, how super those tiny toilets in airplanes …)

Foot prints of a rabbit in Niiharu … dinner!

Then, Mr. Jimbo brought us to a walk in and around Niiharu to demonstrate practical know-hows of simple avian census. Some take-aways are
  1. Know the anatomy and biology of birds, and use the knowledge to interpret possible evidence of birds’ life in the forest. For example, birds of prey eat their food on the ground, and if the meal is another bird they cleanly pluck feathers before eating. On the other hand, curled feathers of waterfowls naturally molt. So, if we find a curled feather on shore of a pond it says that kind of bird was there. But if the feather is straight, it is a remnant of the table manner by a bird of prey which occupies the pinnacle of the food chain of birds: i.e., the forest is healthy.
  2. When we walk in the forest, try to keep the pace of 15 min per 400 m. Pay attention to the forms of scenery. If there is a strange spot in a grass field, it may be a bird. When a tree branch has a strange lump, a feathered creature would be sitting there. Remembering each silhouette of species could be handy.
  3. Don’t enter the forest with overflowing ambition to watch or take photo of birds. Imagine you know strangers are waiting there to watch or take photo of you. Are you happy to come out and act naturally in front of the hungry peeping-toms? (er, well, there could be such kind of people … point taken.) Wild animals are more cautious than you. Always become unnoticed when you plan to observe the nature, and keep a critical distance. When a bird is convinced that you in her territory do not cause any disturbance, she will show you how charming she is in her daily life. She can even approach you to say hello. Actually the same methodology applies to observe bears.

It’s a philosophy of 007, isn’t it?

A healthy turdus eunomus is there
after escaping from attacks of
a ferocious male lanius bucephalus.
Yeah, I do not have a 600m lens.
An abandoned nest of lanius bucephaluswhich is territorial.
The water in rice paddy is muddy so that
waterfowl(s) was/were active till early morning …
and they left lots of foot prints.
Generally they are nocturnal.

A motalica grandis is taking bath over there.
The bushes could be a place for alcedo atthis.
The reason why we think so is …
there remained white poops of alcedo atthisnear to the bush.
They are poops of egretta garzetta. Messier.
A mistletoe is a sign bombycilla japonica was there.

When we strolled in the forest after a brief lunch, Mr. Jimbo started to say “Oh … it’s too quiet … do you notice the tension? A hunt could begin …“ Wow. Birds of prey live very healthy regular life: 3 meals per day, and it was lunch time for them too. From somewhere in the Forest, the voices of garrulous glandarius came out to break the silence from time to time ... Motacillas flew very high above us, leaving the Forest. Two crying corvus corones hastily flew out of the Forest to the playpark near the houses … then, beyond the flood control pond within the Forest, suddenly, an accipiter gularis jumped out of the trees to chase a cyanopica cyana. Gocha! and it’s gone. The time required: less than 5 seconds (and of course, I could not take a photo). Mr. Jimbo said the claws of birds of prey are so sharp that the inner organ of animals would be shredded at the time the claws clenched the tiny body. Instant death.

Meanwhile in the pond, a phalacrocorax capillatus from the Port of Yokohama was busy swallowing fishes, a harmonious couple of anas zonorhyncha swam the surface in synchronicity, and an ardea cinerea elegantly walked to the shore. A peaceful daily life.

By the way, in the latest 007, “Spectre,” Mr. Bond explained his job to a Bond-girl as “an assassin.” I didn’t know that …

Ardea cinerea on the cat walk
When we walked back to Okutsu House for closing, a P3-C flew over high above … from Yokota Air Base? At that time, Mr. Kim Jong Un declared he’s going to blast a “satellite rocket” ... Collective Security Issues. We had a peaceful Niiharu afternoon.

National security issues

The City Office who’s in charge of execution of Green-up Plan is

Yokohama Municipal Government Creative Environment Policy Bureau 横浜市環境創造局
Phone: 045-671-2891
FAX: 045-641-3490

Friday, February 12, 2016

We made Bambuskuchens! Winter Festival in Niiharu

One reason why forests in Yokohama have been left in neglect was, people no longer needed the resources forests can provide for daily lives. In bygone era of Satoyama, woods and bamboos were the materials to be crafted into fuels, utensils, tools, etc. Once cheap plastics and aluminum pans became readily available from shops around the corner, people stopped to bother entering the forest to collect the bounties. Now IKEA Kohoku sells rice bowls for less than 100 yen, who cares nurturing good beech trees to craft a wooden bowl in KozukueCastle Citizen Forest, located within less than 2k from IKEA Cafe?

Basically, volunteers in Yokohama Citizen Forest are expected to do 3 things. One is to manage the forest vegetation with thinning, weeding, scraping fallen leaves, and collecting trashes in and around trekking roads. Second is to monitor the health of the Forest, by recording the changes and animal lives. The third mission is to enlighten the community about the joy of living with healthy forests. Lovers of Niiharu volunteers have several regular events for the third category. In their schedule, 4 festivals in each season are mainly for kids to enjoy forest. All of them include some forest works of the season, hand-craft session using the collected materials from the Niiharu Citizen Forest, information session about nature in Niiharu, games, and cooking. 2016 WinterFestival in Niiharu was held one recent Sunday. I have been there. It was a fun!

To Ikebuchi Open Place.
Red and white plum flowers
and tangerines welcomed us.

The program of this year’s festival was 1. Bamboo thinning, 2. Bamboo cup and chop sticks making for lunch with miso soup with lots of organic veggies and pork, 3. Fun-booths for information about early spring buds in the Forest and for cocklebur darts, and 4. Bambuskuchen. Bambuskuchen?

It was really a fine day.

The melee started at 10:00 in Ikebuchi Open Space of the Niiharu Forest. About 70 people, kids + moms + dads, gathered to enjoy weekend bringing family bento boxes. (Fee: 300 yen for adults, 100 yen for kids under 15). Forest volunteers prepared huge pots of quasi-traditional miso soup with lots of winter vegetables with pork, which was free refill. Veggies were brought from the field of the farming club of the Lovers of Niiharu. The leader of the Club proudly declared: “AUTHENTICALLY organic!” They were leeks, carrots, Chinese cabbages, and taros, with konjak. The Lovers used stoves made of empty drum cans. The source of the heat was gentle firewood. The smell of miso (+ shoyu + mirin + veggie broth + pork) started to waft already in 10:00. But we must wait … Gentle heat of logs cooked the ingredients thoroughly. Kids loved it. Some 1st graders ate 3 cups of it. The time of winter in the Forest was slow and tender.

The very first family to register
Forest miso soup is to be cooked there.
Hot soup in the Forest
Picnic with miso soup

Though families brought bento boxes for lunch, the utensil for miso soup was made on site. The Lovers invited kids to work in one of the bamboo forests before lunch.  We all went into the forest to search for suitable bamboo trees for cups. “How do you reckon the height of this bamboo?” A 2nd grader replied, “100m!” “Er, it’s not that tall, but more than 10m already.” A volunteer leader told us. “Have you noticed the color of sections of this bamboo? It is white, isn’t it? This one is young, sprouted last spring. It’s still too tender to be a good cup. Look for a well-sized bamboo of 2-3 years old. Find one with brownish sections …” “Was it born just last year?” “Oh, yes.” “Wow… so tall …”

Let’s go to a bamboo forest!
We are getting there.
A young bamboo tree
They were more matured, and stood a bit densely.
Good place for thinning.
Our group chose an older bamboo tree, of diameter about 17 cm, stood side by side with the other older ones. Our leader instructed us to look upwards. “First, we have to notice this forest spreads on a very steep slope, and the canopy of all the bamboos are drooping to the valley side. Which side of a bamboo do we start to cut for harvesting?” “Hmmmm, the valley side?” “Well done! Correct. You know, bamboos have sections that get narrower upwards. Maybe we can have good cups from this tree near the bottom. So, we cut the tree at here … First we cut a section of this tree facing the valley. Safety first! I’ll do it for you to look.” He inserted his saw at the bottom of the trunk, and cut a section from there. It looked like a chunk of small pumpkin. 4 years old got excited and decided to have it for his treasure. “Bamboo pumpkins!” “Now, you can saw the tree from the other side.” “Yap!” the 2nd grader big brother started to saw the ridge-facing side of the trunk with an angle. This was his first attempt to tackle with a real tree.

Let’s cut it here.
I can do it!

He and his kindergarten brother came to the festival with their grandma and grandpa who was a professional carpenter. Grandpa looked his grandsons grinning, and gave very sharp advices. “Hey, hey, why do you think a saw has lots of tooth? You use the tool in its length!” “Ha, ha, ha, you need 10 years to cut this tree.” The 2nd grader replied. ”No! I can do it instantly!” The volunteer leader supported the trunk and advised, “Use your both hands and clench the handle when you catch the saw … yes, well done. Keep your pace, don’t rush …” 4 years old joined the fight. “I want to do it too!” After kids’ endeavor for a while the bamboo fell over the slope, and its top was caught by the boughs of 2 other bamboos. “Hey, Grandpa, it was only 5 minutes!” From both the stump and the cut end of the tree oozed out water, real bamboo water. “Look, the tree was drinking from the ground this much …”

Coming doooown …
Wow, water, water …

The grandpa and the volunteer leader cut the trunk of the fallen bamboo to release it from the tangle, and laid the entire tree on the slope. The canopy part was bushy with several dead branches. “Hmmmm, the canopy was a bit damaged. It was good to thin this tree for the forest. For the lunch, we need only the bottom 4 sections. Let’s cut the tree in several parts, and bring the bottom with us to the lunch place. The rest are to be gathered over there for clearing later.” So, we all attempted to dissect the bamboo. Grandma helped her grandson. “I’ll hold your body from slipping into the valley. You cut here.” I delimbed the busy branches of the bamboo. Each branch went to a different direction even when they came out of the same section. When I muddled, the volunteer leader showed me an example. “You hold all the branches at once, and saw the bottom of them just above the section ... like this. There, it’s easy.” True. My 3 minutes per branch was shortened into 1 minute per two branches that were cut simultaneously. “Wow, he’s quicker than my grandpa.” “Grandpa does not cut bamboo branches for his job, you know.” “Oh, yeah.”

Grandma as a stopper
These will be utilized later for forest management.
Today’s bounty!

We brought the trunk at Ikebuchi Open Space, and cut it into 4 sections for lunch bowls of the family + chop sticks. The bamboo cups are large enough as soup mugs whose edge was trimmed by Lovers of Niiharu members. During lunch, educational exhibitions about early spring buds in the Forest and handcrafting for bamboo toys were presented, and kids gathered around a cocklebur darts contest.

Cups and chopsticks
We hold the trunk for cutting.
This is my cup!
And this is mine!
Chop stick making
The mouth of a bamboo cup is trimmed for safety.

The finale of the festival was to bake baumkuchen … no, bambuskuchen. 3 bamboo trunks whose sections were pulled out became the “baum.” The ladies of Lovers of Niiharu developed a special recipe for bambuskuchen whose slippery bamboo-baum requires a bit different consistency in dough. For about 50cm kuchen around a 10cm diameter bamboo with 3cm thickness,
  1. Separate whites and yolks of 20 eggs. Beat yolks and 600g of sugar in a VERY large bowl until thick and pale yellow. 
  2. Fold in 600g of flour and 600g of pancake mix.
  3. Fold in 400ml of milk and 600g of melted butter and stir until just smooth.
  4. Whisk whites until it forms stiff peak. Gently fold in the flour mix. The dough is now ready.
  5. For the first batch as the base of the kuchen, repeat 1-4 with smaller amount of ingredients in a smaller bowl. Fold milk and butter in a smaller portion than the main dough that makes the consistency of this bowl is heavier.

The volunteers caused charcoal in open stoves, and bambuskuchen making began. First, 3-4 ladles of the first dough from the small bowl was poured around the middle of about 2m bamboo trunk. Then, two people held each side of the trunk, rotated the bamboo once (and a bit) to drain little the dough, and moved the bamboo with dough over the heated charcoal to roast it by rotating continuously.

First, cover the bamboo with dough …
Now the bamboo is over the oven.
How to turn was tricky. Especially when the dough was still wet, unless we rotated the “bambus” at a proper speed, the dough fell down over the fire.  At the very first roasting, the diameter of the kuchen was still small, and so the speed of dough-dripping over one rotation was faster. Though, too quick spin made the distribution of the dough over the bamboo uneven, which made valleys and hills covering a bamboo trunk. In addition, the heat from charcoal only was not enough. The good firing up from added logs could brown the dough with nice color and aroma so we had to add logs and to watch the distribution and the height of the fire continuously to maintain the proper oven operation. Once the entire layer was nicely colored and dried, the next ladles were added, and the “bambus” returned over the oven. People took turns to rotate and ladle the kuchen. We roasted the bamboo for more than 30 minutes.

It is still at an early stage …
Growing kuchen
There were several kids who ended up with the charge of rotating. I asked them “Are you OK? If you’re tired, I’ll follow you up …” But they were remarkably diligent and determined. “I DO want to finish it by myself!” Their labor of persistence became very sweet. During the roasting, everybody was wondering if the kuchen could come out smoothly from the bamboo. No problem. Though the shape of kuchen was rough with hills and valleys, it emerged as really a “bambuskuchen.” We cleaned the plate in no time!

First the burnt chunks at the edge were removed.
By the way, they too were tasty to nibble.

The City Office who’s in charge of execution of Green-up Plan is

Yokohama Municipal Government Creative Environment Policy Bureau 横浜市環境創造局
Phone: 045-671-2891
FAX: 045-641-3490