Friday, February 24, 2017

Air pollution … yes, but … Complicated situation in Satoyama of Yokohama

People say the problem of Japanese forests these days often comes from the fact people do not use them as before. Tools of ordinary daily lives are made of plastic, not woods or bamboos harvested from forests. Fertilizers are chemically provided from big plants, not from the open-air composts of leaves situated at the corner of forests. Above all, people do not use trees for fuels, but gas and electricity generated by hydro-carbons or nuclear plants. It seems to me the last one could be the biggest reason why we city-rats often consider forests a derivative of Disney Land for escaping from rat race, not something closely connected to our ordinary day. Though, come to think of it, oil and coal were once plants. A community of hydro-carbon poor but in deep forests, like Japan, would naturally have turned to the original form of oil for energy. That was charcoal.

I personally feel charcoals in Bizen ware are elegant. 

I have learned that until 70 years or so ago there was a saying that “Operating a charcoal kiln won’t make your family hungry.” It was lucrative business. Some had enough forests to make it a stand-alone operation. The others moved around the forests nation-wide and asked landlords a permission to operate kilns with the logs harvested from nearby. My mom, who was born in a house within a deep forest of Shikoku, remembers every winter there were visitors to the family mountains. “They were Sumiyaki-san (炭焼きさん: Messieurs Charcoal Cookers).”

Present day charcoal for BBQ sold in a Home Center
in Yokohama

When in 1923 the Great Kanto Earthquake 関東大震災 hit Kanagawa Prefecture which was the epicenter, literally millions of trees in Tanzawa 丹沢 and Hakone 箱根 mountains fell with massive landslides that completely destroyed the communities in valleys. According to Mr. Isao Ozawa 小沢操 retired from (now defunct) Kanagawa Public Cooperation of Forestry かながわ森林づくり公社, to clean up the post-quake mess, people made charcoal from whatever the logs carried by the landslides, and sold the product widely. The kinds of trees included species that were not suitable for good charcoal, like firs. Even though, Mr. Ozawa said, “Look, before, people knew the usage of charcoal quite well. Of course, they were important source of heat for daily lives, for cooking and hibachi 火鉢, you know. Moreover, they can be deodorizer in house. If you place a piece of charcoal in a pan at the top of rice, and cook them, the cooked rice tastes great. They act as soil conditioner to make and preserve farm lands neutral or slightly alkaline. Finally they are very good filters to purify water. When the Great Earthquake hit, the rivers in Kanagawa became extremely muddy. So, people submerged tons of charcoals at the strategic locations of rivers to restore water source. The charcoal made of coniferous trees cannot retain fire long enough for BBQ, but they were good enough to sieve the water.” Wow, giant Britas in rivers. People 100 years ago really knew the value of the charcoal, and the forest.

Kin’me River 金目川 in Tanzawa.
By Great Kanto Earthquake,
this river turned into a flash flood
that annihilated a village of 15 household
around the point of this photo.

These days, people certainly understand the savory BBQ with the best quality charcoal, like Bincho charcoal 備長炭. But to purify water, we visit shopping centers to purchase mechanical tools for faucet … Oh, by the way, in Yokohama, we don’t need such things for tap water. Ours is one of the bests in Japan, with historical reason. I’ll tell you our story when we visit the forest of Doshi Village 道志村 in Yamanashi Prefecture 山梨県. ;-) Anyway, we now have hard times to find the way for charcoal usage in our ordinary lives. True, nowadays people become more conscious for organic gardening and allotment so that it is easy to find charcoal-based product in garden centers … e.g. Charcoal itself is for soil conditioner. Wood vinegar, the by-product of charcoal making, is now sold as 100% organic pesticides, although Japanese Pesticide Act 農薬取締法 prohibits the sales of wood vinegar as scientifically proven pesticides. The usage as deodorizer is well-known. It’s now easy to find in drug stores commercial deodorizer made of charcoal. I guess they are made from some industrial process, which would be different from traditional charcoal making in Japanese forests. Some say they are made of tropical mangrove intended to use for fuel, not for the other usage … Global deforestation … So, for people in Yokohama, charcoal is not something produced nearby, but should be found in Home Centers. That has posed a problem to maintain Satoyama tradition in Megalopolis Tokyo area. 

For present-day usage of charcoal in Japan.
It’s for flower pots.
Wood vinegars found in a Home Center.
It’s for room deodorant cum dehumidifying agent.
Room deodorants for dog-lovers
also have a layer of charcoal.

About 30 or so years ago, when the City Offices or the Prefectural Governments found large enough greenery to be public parks in the middle of residential area, they often designed the place to “preserve traditional way of life where people and nature live harmoniously,” i.e. to recreate Satoyama. Charcoal making was one of the important parts of the concept. Consequently, in Metropolitan Tokyo area we can find charcoal kilns in large parks with an affix “Satoyama.” (One example in the City of Kawasaki is here.) In Yokohama’s Citizen Forests, I have met kilns in Maioka Forest 舞岡, Araizawa Forest 荒井沢, Yokohama Nature Sanctuary 横浜自然観察の森, and Niiharu. Although they are not in the Citizen Forest family, Hongo Fujiyama Park 本郷ふじやま公園 near Segami Forest 瀬上 and Shikinomori Park 県立四季の森公園 have kilns. Out of these, I guess, currently operational kilns are just two: in the Nature Sanctuary and Niiharu. The rest are broken? Definite NO. They cannot operate because the neighborhood complained.

Charcoal kiln in Koyato-no-Sato of Maioka
Charcoal kiln in Araizawa
Charcoal kiln in Nature Sanctuary …
hmmmmm looking back, every kiln is different.

Unlike microwaving, charcoal cooking takes time. For the best quality Binchotan Charcoal, for about two weeks the pros burn the firewood under their kiln containing logs of Quercus phillyraeoides. Even for the high-tech kiln in Araizawa Citizen Forest where the amateurs operate, the process takes 8 hours. During the process, the system spews smokes. Unless your facility locates in the middle of the forest removed far far far from a nearby condo, with an ideal air flow that makes difficult for the emission to waft over the gardens of neatly lined houses, residents shall complain. So it happened in Shikinomori Park. Although their homepage boasts a charcoal kiln as one of the facilities to transfer the traditional Satoyama knowledge, the volunteer group to operate the kiln was dismantled several years ago. Against their activities, fierce complaints came from the neighborhood associations of huge Hikarigaoka Housing Complex spreading in the north of the Park. Before, the admin office of Shikinomori Park proudly showed the charcoal cooked in the kiln within the park. Now, there is nothing to display … I don’t know I can describe it “sad.” I now know how smoky it is to make charcoal. I have joined Charcoal Making Club of Niiharu Lovers. The activity itself was quite a fun. I loved it. But, if you live nearby without any prospect to receive positive utility from our activity, the all-day-long smoke would let you call the police. Probably, it is one of the examples to nurture culture of the forest within our 21st century society where it is difficult for us to have first-hand experience of the joy with the nature. … Next week, I tell you the excitement I am having with 2 rickety charcoal kilns in Niiharu. You doubt if cold forests in front of smoky kilns from 6:00 in the morning is really enjoyable. I tell you, it was. I think if kids can have an opportunity to do this, they may find a pleasure of engineering with a help of forests ...

Charcoal made of Niiharu is available at the Visitor Center!

If you find a problem in Yokohama’s Forest, please make a contact with

Office for the administration of Park Greeneries 公園緑地管理課
Yokohama Municipal Government Creative Environment Policy Bureau 横浜市環境創造局
Phone: 045-671-2648 (I guess in Japanese only)

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