SHIROISHI, Miyagi Pref. — Mountains are special for Shizue Hata, the 54-year-old owner of a small Chinese dumpling shop in this quiet city of 40,000.
They have always been there to comfort and encourage her to carry on with her life, which has not been easy. So now, she says, it is her turn to pay back the favor.
Hata and others are trying to bring back green to the gusty, barren hills of the Zao mountain range by buying up court-auctioned plots one by one and planting trees on them.
The mountains, which straddle the border of Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures, are known for their autumn foliage and ice-covered trees in winter.
“Generally speaking, the Yamagata side of Zao is more famous for skiing and other resorts, but the mountains look more beautiful from this side (in Miyagi),” Hata said proudly.
Yet, she said, the mountain’s beauty is not apparent on an extensive stretch of hills that were heavily stripped for government-sponsored housing projects immediately after World War II. Now the hills are devoid of trees and the temporary residents who occupied the area after the war have moved on.
To fix this, Hata’s group, the Society to Conserve Beeches and Waters of Zao, has been planting trees, mainly varieties of beech, on the hills.
An avid mountaineer, Hata developed her love for the peaks as a high school student and, except for a short hiatus to have children, has continued to scale summits ever since.
“There are only two mountains in the Tohoku region that I haven’t set my feet on,” she said.
For the mother of two daughters, now grown up, the mountains became soul mates to whom she could confide her hidden sadness and frustrations as she struggled to raise her children on her own.
As she gained weight and was no longer fit enough to climb mountains, however, she became more and more unhappy.
“I couldn’t keep up with fellow climbers. I wanted to continue climbing so badly, but I didn’t want to be a trouble for others,” Hata said.
One of her fellow climbers noticed her disappointment about 10 years ago and invited her to join a preservation group as a way of maintaining her ties with the mountains. “The mountains taught me so many things, and I wanted to do something for them in return,” Hata said.
The group, which began replanting activities as early as 1990, initially tried seeding a camping site owned by the central government. That first attempt failed in the mountain’s harsh climate, with none of the seeds surviving to sprout.
The second attempt was more successful, though still not perfect. The group took seeds from the mountain and cultivated them to seedlings in boxes at home. When the seedlings were not blown away in the wind, creatures such as field mice, rabbits or caterpillars often gnawed through their cherished trees.
Through such trial and error, however, they learned an important lesson; it takes just minutes to destroy a tree but an enormous amount of time and effort to regenerate it.
The effect was dramatic. According to Hata, among about 300 protected trees, only one was targeted by field mice.
The group’s activities reached a turning point around 1995 when an official at the national camping site told them to quit their tree-planting efforts.
“There were some very cooperative camping site directors in the past. But the one at the time told us ‘this is a camping site, not the place for planting trees,’ ” Hata recalled.
Thus, in December 1998, the group began raising money to buy up endangered land for planting trees.
The society bought its first land in January — a 0.7-hectare plot in the Zao mountains for 3.9 million yen. The money was collected through fundraising and personal loans from group members.
The land, located roughly 700 meters above sea level and about 20 minutes by car from the city center, had been auctioned by a local court after its former owner went bankrupt.
The sluggish economy has been both a blessing and a curse for their crusade. The group found few competitors in buying the auctioned plot, Hata said. At the same time, “We are having a hard time raising money.”
The group is hoping to buy another 0.7 hectare plot — adjacent to the one already bought — that is up for sale for 2.3 million yen, Hata said, noting that the same amount of forest is being destroyed every second in the world.
With only 700,000 yen remaining in its coffer, however, that deal will not happen any time soon.
The group has 117 active members who participate in field activities, while 300 supporters nationwide make financial contributions, with individuals annually putting up 3,000 yen and families paying 5,000 yen.
In a sign heralding brighter prospects, however, the group’s strenuous efforts have been steadily winning public recognition.
In March 1999, the group was recognized as the first nonprofit organization in the prefecture under the NPO Law. The legislation, which took effect in December 1998, gives corporate status to citizens’ groups to help revamp their activities.
Also, in January, the Shiroishi Municipal Government granted fixed property tax exempt status to the group, finding that their activities fit the spirit of the city’s environmental ordinance.
The decision only saved the group several thousand yen but was significant in elevating the group’s public profile.
Yet, Hata implied, her group still has a long way to go before winning the full understanding of the local community.
“Maybe people here do not feel the pressing need to do something with the nature of Zao, since it looks perfectly pristine from here (the city),” she reckoned. “Yet up close, we see the environmental destruction.”
Indeed, most members of the group are from neighboring municipalities and none of them are Shiroishi natives. Hata said their main activities from now on will be teaching the young the art of forest making.
“I really want to preserve the beauty of Zao for my grandchildren’s generation and I don’t want to see it deteriorate any more,” Hata said.
The society’s Web site can be found at www.zao.org