Tokyo’s final class this year on shiitake mushrooms took place earlier this month at Noyamakita Rokudoyama Park in the hills of Sayama, straddling the border between Tokyo and Saitama Prefecture.

Held in front of a traditional thatched-roof farmhouse, about 30 people learned how to saw dried oaks into logs, drill holes in them and plant cubes of mushroom spore.

The hills are only half an hour by bus from JR Tachikawa Station in western Tokyo, but the techniques for growing the prized fungus are a countryside tradition.

Behind the farmer’s house, a narrow valley with restored rice paddies, an irrigation pond and streams filled with frog eggs reveal that this place is a typical “satoyama,” or agricultural area, that has survived the test of time.

The class was part of a satoyama seminar organized by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in September. Tokyo is trying to find volunteer caretakers who want to preserve the remaining parcels of agricultural land slowly vanishing from the Kanto countryside.

The land has been neglected for years, but now the capital is trying to restore it. “It’s great fun,” said Eiko Ogawa, a nursing-care employee from Musashimurayama. “I’d never learned farm work like growing shiitake before joining the seminar.”

“Satoyama” seminar participants prepare logs for growing shiitake mushrooms.

In the seminar, participants learned how to clear forest undergrowth, cut down excessive trees and harvest and thresh rice.

Satoyama were a common sight throughout the country and served as homes for Tokyo farmers until the 1950s. Oak logs felled to thin out the small forests in the area were used for mushrooms, firewood and charcoal. Fallen leaves were used as compost.

But satoyama have diminished considerably in the metropolis since the rapid economic growth in the 1960s and ’70s amid Tokyo’s urban sprawl, said Masami Toyofuku of the Seibu District Park Office of the metro government’s construction bureau.

In Sayama Hills, most former rice paddies have been converted into residential areas, and the small forests were left untended as firewood was phased out. Many farmers chose to sell forests rather than pay the exorbitant national inheritance tax, according to Toyofuku.

Farmer Kokichi Miyazaki, 77, a resident of Sayama Hills, said, “People didn’t want to take over in the agricultural business as office workers had higher and more stable incomes.”

Toshio Hiroi, professor of ecology at Tokyo Keizai University, pointed out that there is rich and valuable biodiversity in agricultural areas.

“Satoyama have an interesting world of plants, insects and animals. The biodiversity was created in a natural environment with the hands of human beings,” said Hiroi, who has studied the ecology in Sayama Hills.

There are various kinds of plants and butterflies, Hiroi said, as well as two endangered animals, the “Tokyo-sansho-uo” salamander and the “otaka” hawk. The species are listed as endangered by the Environment Ministry. , and several other kinds of fauna and flora in the area have already become extinct, he said.

To protect nature and meet public calls for conservation, the metro government in 1981 drew up a plan to protect part of the hills as parks by buying plots of land, Toyofuku said.

Under the plan, the Noyamakita Rokudoyama Park project was launched in the southwestern part of Sayama Hills. Covering an area of about 260 hectares in the city of Musashimurayama and the town of Mizuho, it is now the biggest metropolitan park.

Officials of the Seibu District Park Office repeatedly discussed the plans with local residents, environmental organizations and academics.

“The local people know the land and its nature best. So I explained our plan and listened to them to get them involved in it,” Toyofuku said.

Discussion participant Teruaki Mikami, who also works for the Totoro Fund, a local environmental organization working for nature preservation in the area, said, “I think it is rare that a municipal office solicits citizens’ cooperation from the beginning of a plan.”

Farmers in Sayama Hills started growing rice in the park in 1998 under a request from the metro government and began teaching people to grow rice in the Satoyama seminars.

In September, the Seibu District Park Office established a council to further promote discussion with locals.

While these efforts continue, difficulties remain in restoring and maintaining satoyama.

One problem is the aging of farmers who take care of rice paddies. Most of them are in their 60s or 70s. , with only one young farmer in the area taking over the family farm, according to Miyazaki.

Toyofuku hopes participants of the Satoyama seminar will play major roles in managing the environment as volunteers.

“But we do not know yet if we can count on them, because there is usually a wide perception gap among volunteers,” said Kunihiro Honma of the Seibu District Park Office, referring to volunteers in other parks in Tokyo.

“Some have a strong sense of responsibility (to take care of the environment), but others simply want to enjoy farm work,” he said.

Efforts to restore and preserve natural areas are also under way in other hills. Tama Hills in western Tokyo, one of the five hilly areas in the capital, was once covered with small forests and paddies.

The hills were developed into a residential area named Tama New Town by the metro government in the 1960s to accommodate the increasing population, said Yoshio Goto of the metro Office of Tama Urban Development.

But today both local administrators and citizens want to restore nature to the hills.

“The public hopes to have green areas instead of constructing facilities like sports grounds,” Goto said.

Isao Takahata, a well-known animation film director, urged people in his 1994 animated film “Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko” to realize the value of satoyama when he depicted raccoon dogs driven away by the construction of the new town from their satoyama habitat in the Tama Hills.

“In the past, people benefited from its nature while never ruining it. I think it’s a model of sustainable use of nature,” said Takahata, emphasizing the importance of handing down satoyama to future generations. “It is the responsibility of the entire society.”

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