Volunteers work to clean up, reforest Kyoto’s ‘Poet’s Mount’

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Sitting on the northern side of the Hozu River gorge, on the western side of Kyoto, Mount Ogura has long been associated with the literary world, and is known as the “Poet’s Mount.”

Heian Period (794-1185) courtier poets sang of its natural beauty and, most famously, Fujiwara Teika (1162-1241) compiled “Ogura Hyakunin Isshu” (“100 Poems by 100 Poets”), here.

Later, the famed haiku poet Basho (1644-1694) wrote his “Saga Diary” at the foot of Mount Ogura. Today, those with an interest in Japanese literature at home and around the world journey to Mount Ogura to compose their own haiku or simply to enjoy the spectacular scenery along the hiking trails, where kingfishers, deer, rabbits, wild boar and wild monkeys abound.

Unfortunately, however, Mount Ogura, or the parts usually unseen by the never-ending tourist groups taking photos of the mountainside and river gorge from afar, is also a dumping ground for everything from soda cans and bottles to used automobiles and refrigerators, while tree damage from insects is spreading.

But thanks to efforts by locals and foreigners to clean the area up, as well as a reforestation initiative launched this year by the city of Kyoto with help from the private sector and individuals, Mount Ogura’s future is looking brighter.

Located only a few kilometers from the hustle and bustle of central Kyoto, Mount Ogura had been an illegal garbage dump for years. But about a decade ago, British poet, translator and artist Stephen Gill, who lives near the mountain, decided to do something about the problem.

Along with other concerned residents, Gill began walking along the narrow footpaths and deep to ravines to pick up, or in many cases pull up, garbage people had thrown down the often steep mountain.

Today, People Together for Mount Ogura (PTO) is a nonprofit group with about 40 members. Activities it is engaged in include garbage cleanup, clearing the hiking paths of fallen trees and other natural debris and widening the paths or making them safer, replanting pine trees and putting up natural fencing around the bamboo groves.

PTO outings take place roughly twice a month, although that can vary depending on weather conditions. Around 30 volunteers show up, although that number also depends on the kind of work that is planned for the day. No special training is needed. But volunteers need to bring their own food and drink, while PTO provides the necessary gloves and tools.

“Since 2004, when we began our activities, we’ve cleared about 60 truckloads worth of garbage from Mount Ogura,” said Gill, who serves as the group’s executive director.

In addition, PTO’s lobbying efforts finally persuaded the city of Kyoto to install four surveillance cameras in the mountain area to catch the license plates of cars that make the trip for the express purpose of illegal dumping.

Volunteers come from all over, and include Japanese and foreigners, local residents and students.

“Interested students can participate in PTO’s activities. We’ve had college students from Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University, as well as foreign exchange students from Kyoto University and Osaka University graduate students help out,” said PTO Chairman Okiharu Maeda.

Gill added that while there is a core group of volunteers, even tourists passing by the group while it’s working have been known to stop, ask what’s going on, and then pitch in and help.

While PTO engages in its activities, the city of Kyoto, along with another local NPO, the Association for the Preservation of Scenic Ogurayama, whose chairman is the chief priest at Nison-in Temple near the mountain, and assistance from Mitsubishi-Tokyo UFJ’s Environment Foundation, launched a decade-long project beginning this fiscal year to restore and preserve the forests of Mount Ogura, which have suffered from oak and pine tree wilt in recent years.

The reforestation plan calls for volunteers to provide saplings, help cut back undergrowth on Mount Ogura, and replant between 500 and 1,000 trees each year for the next decade.

“The city of Kyoto will provide forestry experts to help with the project, and the projected budget is ¥10 million annually,” said Katsushi Ono, a municipal official in charge of the project.

The first replanting is scheduled to take place this autumn, but the details are still being worked out. City officials also note the project will reduce the risks of forest fires and aid the mountain’s biodiversity.

However, the city has other concerns as well. The growing number of dead trees on the side of Mount Ogura means those spectacular autumn foliage photos tourists pay lots of money to snap may end up being less spectacular, and thus draw fewer tourists, in the future if reforestation efforts are not made today.

But whatever the motivations, the activities of Gill, Maeda, and the city-led reforestation project means Mount Ogura is on its way to becoming, if not exactly the same, then certainly one with a view and an environment that will be far more similar to what Fujiwara, Basho and many other literary giants of the past once experienced.

For more information on People Together for Mount Ogura, contact Stephen Gill at heelstone@gmail.com or Okiharu Maeda at aceokiharu@yahoo.co.jp, or visit the group’s website at www.ptogura.org/ep.html (in English).

  • http://www.jaapdenhaan.blogspot.nl/ JAHAAN

    Trees are a mediator between heaven and earth. What greater poetry than a tree, an example for the world to be.

  • Charlie Hayward

    This is wonderful news. Nature should be respected, preserved for all creatures. Beyond that, it’d be a shame for a site steeped in so much history to be destroyed thoughtlessly by human action