‘Twin’ trip full of pleasant surprises


First of all, let me wish you a very happy new Year of the Dog, which Chinese people all over the world welcomed in last weekend.

For my part, here’s a little dog story for you — but not before a bit of background to put it in context.

In fact this story starts in 1984, when I was inspired to begin buying up connecting parcels of neglected and abused woodland here where I live in Kurohime, Nagano Prefecture, with the aim of returning it to its natural, healthy diversity. That inspiration stemmed from a letter from, and visit to, the Afan Argoed Forest Park in South Wales.

When the British government began to close the many coal mines in Wales in the 1970s and ’80s, a lot of men were put out of work. Then Japanese companies began building factories in Wales, giving people jobs, hope and pride again.

The letter I mentioned came from a scientist working with the forest park — together with questions as to which native Japanese trees would survive or thrive in Wales. At Afan Argoed, I learned, they wanted to plant a reclaimed area with Japanese trees as a gesture of thanks and goodwill to Japan and to the many Japanese technicians, managers and their families who came to work and live in Wales.

I hadn’t been back to Wales for many years, and I was, to say the least, intrigued by the thought of there being trees in that particular valley just over the hill from where I grew up in Neath. I clearly recalled how its woods and streams had been devastated by the mining industry, and scarred with slag heaps and dumps.

Astounded and impressed

When I returned I was astounded and deeply impressed by the work that had been done to bring back trees, wildlife and healthy streams. Consequently, I determined to devote my life in Japan not just to writing, filming and bitching about environmental degradation, but to actually working with forests, trying to make things better.

Later, as I have related in this column before, I donated our forest land to a prefectural trust we set up. A few months later, at a small ceremony in our woods in the summer of 2002, we “twinned” our little forest trust to the Afan Argoed Forest Park. Since then we have maintained close and excellent ties, and I have been over to visit our “twin” forest at least once a year.

I have just spent Christmas and New Year’s in Britain, where I was somewhat amused at the near-panic over what the media called “heavy snows” . . . of 10 to 20 cm. There was already a meter of snow on the ground round my house before I left, and while I was away my staff were telling me about our version of “heavy snow” — so that when I returned it was almost two meters deep around the house.

Since our two forests “twinned,” they have successfully made a Japanese section of the park in Wales, and called it a Kanji Wood. Several Japanese species of trees and shrubs have been planted, and some large wooden “kanji” sculptures made, signifying forests, life, mountains, streams and so forth.

Richard Wagstaff, Chief Warden of the park, took me to see one of the largest of the sculptures, the kanji for “forest,” on which is carved — in English, Welsh and Japanese — the story of the links between Japan and Wales, even mentioning this lad from Neath who was recreating a forest in Japan. I was really touched to see that, and also delighted to have my dear friends Christian and Natsuyo Searle with us, as they did so much to get it all together.

Just then, as Christian was taking a photograph of Richard, myself, and the big “forest” kanji, an old gent with a black-and-white Border collie came strolling past. When Richard called out to him the old-timer came over, beaming, to shake my hand.

“I know you,” he said, “you’re the chap from Japan. You bought me a pint when you came over a couple of years ago for the big do Richard put on.” The old gent’s name was Elwyn, the same as my younger brother. In fact, Richard told me he was Elwyn Davis, from Tynpant Cottage on the road that runs through the forest park. Although he is 85 years old, Richard said that he is a fit as a fiddle and takes a walk in the woods — no matter how fair or foul the weather might be — every day of the week, the whole year round.

“Well I have to, Megan here comes to call on me,” Elwyn said, ruffling the dog’s fur. Megan was 13 years old herself, but as frisky as a young dog. Her owner had died four years before, and for a while she grieved. The children and grandchildren of the house had no time to take her out, but she must have remembered her owner’s old friend. She started calling on him, getting him to walk with her through the woods. After the walks, she goes home. Every day Megan calls, and won’t leave until old Mr. Davis gets his walking stick, puts on his cap, and comes out.

It was a dull, cold, gray day when we visited, with spatters of rain and sleet. Not a day I would choose for a walk. However, the woods, and especially the Kanji Wood, had lots of visitors, from young parents with small children, on up to older folk. About half of the visitors had a dog. Everybody was so cheerful and friendly, including the dogs.

Forest and nature walks for both physical and mental health are being stressed in Britain, and I was very interested to hear that the Afan park now has a 10-week program in the woods for kids who have a tendency for truancy. These kids have to come once a week to do various woodland projects, and I’m told that many of them continue to enrol in forest work and study programs after their 10 weeks of “Forest School” is over. Many of the kids are resentful at first, but at the end of the program they are enthusiastic and interested. One lad, a very determined truant, said he learned more in one day in the forest than he learned in a whole month in school.

Cow back to life

Japan has a very serious truancy problem, as well as millions of acres of woods that need attention. Could the two problems not be brought together? I am sure the results would be positive.

But now, just before I finish, I have one amusing story to tell about those big wooden kanji sculptures.

One time it seems that a visiting Japanese businessman came back to the visitor center in the park, very puzzled. “Why do you have a large wooden kanji character for ‘cow’ in the park?” he asked.

Chief Warden Richard doesn’t read Japanese and didn’t know what he was talking about. But Natsuyo Searle, who has done so much good work in co-ordinating Japanese contacts for the park, overheard the exchange and laughed. She told Richard that he’d better cut the grass, because the bottom stroke of the character was hidden — changing “life” to “cow.”

When I visited this time, the grass was neatly cut around the character, so the cow was back to life again.