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At a mere 374 meters high, Arima-Fuji in Hyogo Prefecture is hardly on a par with the Kanto peak whose name it shares, but its conical shape does bear a passing resemblance. Though it’s almost all clothed with pleasent woodland, from the bare rocky areas near the summit there are good views of the surrounding countryside and the city of Sanda.

To serve what is reckoned to be one of the country’s fastest-growing urban areas, a little over a year ago the Arima-Fuji Park was opened by the prefecture just outside the city. Next to this is the city-run 46-hectare Symbol Park encompassing Arima-Fuji. The prefecture plans to eventually increase the entire parkland area to create a 416-hectare green lung for its growing population.

Unlike traditional Japanese gardens of yesteryear, the 70-hectare Arima-Fuji Park was designed and built to serve modern society by placing emphasis on interaction with nature. In particular, this superb educational facility is aimed at junior and middle-school students — which isn’t to say adults can’t enjoy it, too, and also learn a lot.

Close to the main entrance there is a magnificent educational ecology center known as the “laboratory of Mount Kippy,” focusing on the natural life in the hills of southern Hyogo. Here, drawers are filled with specimens of woodland insects, butterflies and beetles. There is also a model of a zokibayashi (coppiced woodland) of konara and abemaki oaks (Quercus serrata and Q. variabilis), as well as real tama-ike (storage ponds) and streams that are cut through with a large glass window, giving visitors an excellent chance to observe the fish and other forms of aquatic life.

Similarly, a cross section of the woodland allows visitors to see how the native kitsune (fox; Vulpes vulpes) makes burrows in the soft soil, while around Fukujima Ike the two types of rock underlying the area — Osaka sediment and the Arima volcanic layer — are both exposed.

As this building was constructed on sloping ground, the viewpoint outside it is almost at tree-top level, presenting splendid vistas across the park with the old tama-ike of Fukujima Ike in the center. This pond is emptied every four years so local farmers can catch the carp and sell them as they have been doing for generations.

From there, it’s very pleasant to stroll through the surrounding, original woodland, whose trees are labeled with both their Japanese and scientific names. Also, part of this area has been designated for bird-watching, with hides from where visitors can observe unobtrusively.

If you visit the park during this autumn season, keep an eye out for some of the fruits of its forest, including mitsuba-akebi (Akebi trifoliata), a deciduous climber with no common name, but whose large fruits are so beloved by birds that all we usually see are the thick-skinned, 10-cm purple husks on the ground. Kuri (Japanese chestnut; Castanea crenata) are also easy to spot on the ground, their brown seeds covered with a bright-green, prickly bur. Yama-no-imo (yam; Dioscorea japonica) are perennial climbers with edible tubers underground that inoshishi (wild boar, Sus scrofa) root up and scoff at any opportunity. Though not edible, the oval, bright-red bunches of berries adorning miyama-gamazumi (Viburnum wrightii) are a pleasant sight in autumn, gracing this deciduous bush on hillsides throughout Japan.

The woodlands in this area used to be well-known for their heavy crops of matsutake (pine mushrooms; Tricholoma matsutake), and there are numerous theories attempting to account for the recent sharp decline in yields. One is the demise of the aka-matsu (Japanese red pine; Pinus thunbergii), thousands of which are dying every year from infestations of parasitic nematode worms.

With the great and ongoing postwar exodus of people from working on the land to city living, management of the zokibayashi in the ways handed down from generation to generation has, in many cases, broken down. With this breakdown, instead of fallen leaves being swept up and recycled as leafmold soil-conditioner on farms, they are left to rot under a choking sea of sasa bamboo that’s been allowed to carpet the forest floor and leave it in permanent shadow.

In these ways, the previous habitat of matsutake, a mycorrhizal fungi humans have not yet found a way to cultivate, has been totally changed. As a result, for example, in 1985 the annual yield in Sanda alone was 12,000 kg — a yield that has now plummeted to a mere 400 kg as the woodlands fast return to nature, with some now almost impenetrable because of the sasa.

Regrettable as these trends may be, in many ways they do highlight the difficulties of creating or maintaining a balanced natural environment. Perhaps in so doing, these negative trends may lead to a positive result: A revival of people’s efforts to become better custodians of nature as parks like this spread an understanding of what is involved.

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