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)

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