Eco-awareness to the rescue

Eli Kirzner heads for the Niigata hills to see how an environmental nonprofit is working with locals to help revitalize their dying village

by Eli Kirzner

The village of Shimizu in Niigata Prefecture has a long history, but in a few decades it may be gone. Located 600 meters above sea level at the foot of Mount Makihata on a pass between parts of northwestern Honshu along the Sea of Japan and the Kanto region on the Pacific side, Shimizu hosted a military checkpoint in the feudal Edo Period (1603-1867), though its several hundred residents have traditionally relied on timber, coal and silk for their livelihoods.

Now the checkpoint is long gone and those age-old industries are no longer profitable, so this corner of the prefecture’s Minami-Uonuma district is — like much of rural Japan — stricken by an exodus of job-seekers both young and not-so-young. Combined with a fast-falling birth rate, this has led to rapid depopulation. The elementary school closed in 1980, and by the end of 2012 there were only 18 dwellings housing 58 residents, 40 percent of them aged over 64.

This is where a nonprofit organization named Ecoplus comes in. Earlier this month I boarded a chartered bus to Shimizu with around 20 others from Tokyo to participate in one of the environmental group’s programs.

Called Tappo, which means “rice field” in the dialect of southern Niigata, the initiative has since 2007 channeled many volunteers from urban areas to both Shimizu and Tochikubo, a nearby village with similar population problems, to work with locals and outside specialists to protect the area’s biodiversity. In the process, us cityfolk get hands-on education in the local traditions and ecology, while the villagers learn to see their community in a whole new way. This, Ecoplus hopes, will spark revitalization.

“When villagers see others appreciating what they’re doing, they realize their way of life is not backward — but valuable,” says Junichi Ohmae, a retired journalist turned digital-media consultant who operates Ecoplus with his wife and organization founder, Takako Takano. “This program gives the villagers self-confidence, which is a crucial starting point for revitalization,” the 59-year-old explains.

We are staying in an abandoned house in the village. It is a spacious traditional wooden building typical of this area, with ceilings high enough for two sets of windows, one near the floor and the other 2 meters above to let in light during winter, when snow can pile up to 4 meters deep.

Snow falls for six months of the year and can crush a house under its weight unless someone is there to do shoveling every day. Consequently, it is unclear how long the village properties can be maintained, as the aging residents may not be up to the hard winter labor for much longer. And indeed, those who move away usually dismantle their homes beforehand, but Ecoplus has borrowed this one for use in its projects.

“This house is worth preserving even just for the nice breeze that blows through in summer,” says Ohmae, gesturing to the large lower windows above tatami floors in the expansive cha-no-ma (dining room). “It’s an ideal place for an afternoon nap.”

Later, after watching a magnificent fire-purification ritual performed by villagers at the local shrine, we return through darkness to our house.

A white sheet has been hung from the wall just outside the entrance. Attached at the top is a fluorescent light and a black light. This is called a “light trap”: The ultraviolet from the black light attracts nocturnal insects from afar that then home in on the fluorescent light. Already the sheet is covered in large bugs. They cling there peacefully, seemingly unperturbed even when plucked off by the curious child participants on whose hands they contentedly perch. It seems the light exerts a calming effect.

Two ecology specialists, Ryuichi Yokoyama and Kazuki Fukasawa, stand off to the side and answer the kids’ many questions. They are our teachers during the program and stick with us wherever we go. Most of the insects are different kinds of moths, but stag beetles, mayflies, caddisflies and many others also make an appearance.

“The light trap gives us a good sense of the composition of the surrounding ecology,” says Yokoyama. “It’s a lot of work to go and catch so many different specimens, but this way we researchers can sit back and relax while they come to us.”

The following morning we head off to a conservation area created by Ecoplus in 2010. The tour is led by Shoichi Onozuka, a villager in his 60s who says that when the project first started he couldn’t care less about insects — but after participating for a few years they began to catch his interest. He takes us along a boardwalk built by Ecoplus through marshland and forest to a river. As he walks he picks wild herbs such as spearmint and shōbu (calamus) and passes them to us to chew on or savor the aroma.

Children run around with nets on poles, catching insects and bringing them to Yokoyama and Fukasawa for explanations. Along the way, the pair also do their part in pointing out interesting creatures such as the thumbnail-length Northern pygmyfly, which, with its scarlet torso, is the smallest dragonfly in Japan.

Fukasawa then catches an oniyanma, the largest dragonfly species in Japan, which can grow to a body length of 10 cm. He delicately slots its wings between his fingers and has us stroke them. He explains that the bumpiness we feel aids in propulsion and suggests this could be adapted for use in wind generators to create more energy.

“There is still so much we can learn from nature,” he says.

We reach a marshy clearing dotted with ponds between stands of tall grass. This is the wildlife observation habitat created by Ecoplus. It used to be a rice field, but due to a shortage of manpower in the village, many fields like this one have lain fallow for some time. Yet the water in rice fields serves as a habitat for many organisms.

According to Ohmae, elderly locals still sometimes talk nostalgically about the fireflies and other wildlife they used to see. Ecoplus wants to bring all that back and to that end it has, over the last three years, dug ponds in the old fields. Since then, 116 species of plants, 136 species of insects and 56 species of amphibians, birds and other organisms have been observed. Among them 16 species — including the Tohoku Salamander and Japanese Fire-belly Newt — are in the prefectural environment ministry’s Red Data Book that lists species at risk of extinction.

The children continue to frolic with their nets, but for us adults, it’s time to get to work. We’re given small sickles with which to clear invasive reeds from around the ponds. This helps protect smaller plants that support other life and increase biodiversity.

Just when we start to get into a rhythm it begins to rain. Fearing it may turn into one of the flash downpours that have hit Niigata frequently over the last few weeks, causing landslides, the staff decide to call it a day and drive us to an inn named Izumiya for a curry lunch containing locally hunted venison. Ancient weapons hang on the wall and the innkeeper explains he is descended from a long line of gatekeepers who manned the Shimizu checkpoint.

Since it was founded as Ecoclub in 1992, the now renamed Ecoplus has sent volunteers to Yap Island in Micronesia, the Canadian Rockies, Israel and elsewhere for place-based education in ecology and foreign cultures, with the aim of training young people to become members of a future sustainable society.

In addition to its work in Shimizu, the Tappo initiative continues bringing participants to farm organic rice in the once-fallow fields of Tochikubo. Ecoplus has also started small businesses with both villages, believing that the next step in revitalizing them is to provide a stable source of income that will lure young people to return. These ventures include selling nameko mushrooms grown in the traditional way on fallen wood in the mountains around Shimizu.

“For people from the city, this is environmental education. For the villagers it is revitalization,” says Ohmae. “They’re just two facets of the same activity seen in different ways.”