by Nanbu Sachiko
The Decline of Primary Industries Caused by Depopulation
With the rise of high economic growth in Japan, many rural areas suffered a significant decline in population as droves of people relocated to larger cities. Even today, this is one of the most severe problems facing Japanese society. Until merging with five other towns and cities in 2004, approximately 30 percent of the village of Shimagahara, Located in Iga, Mie Prefecture, was over 65. Moreover, some 80 percent of the total land area is occupied by forests, 80 percent of which were planted. But as cheap imported timber has increased, the need for domestic wood has dropped, workers in the forestry industry have decreased, and the milling and processing plants required to make wood have begun to disappear. Forests that are no longer maintained properly have deteriorated and are in danger of becoming the site of various natural disasters. A new approach to dealing with the problem, however, has recently emerged with the Hozumi Lumbermill Project (or hoz-pro).
The Origins of hoz-pro: Promoting Exchange between the City and Agricultural Communities
The launch of hoz-pro has its roots in a symposium called Speaking of the Region, Saving the Region: A KNS Collaboration, which was held in Iga in January 2007 (interestingly, all 150 of the participants dressed up like ninja – one of the area's most famous tourist attractions). After listening to a presentation in the town development portion of the event by Nishigami Arisa (of studio-L), another presenter, Hozumi Sumiko, the head of an NPO called the Iga/Shimagahara Okamisan no Kai (Association of Proprietresses) and the wife of Hozumi Toru, the owner of the Hozumi Lumbermill, was inspired to approach her. As it turned out, the director of studio-L, Yamazaki Ryo, who was also participating as a specialist in the field, was already aware of the threat posed to artificial forests and this fateful meeting gave him a chance to try something new.
Initially, the Hozumis asked about the possibility of turning the lot on which their now inactive mill stands into a park. Toru's father had served as village mayor for five consecutive terms over a total of 20 years, and the family was interested in creating a place where local people could gather and exchange information on the plot of station-front land.
Yamazaki looked over the site and the lumber that remained inside the mill, and thought it might be possible to create something even more attractive. The Iga/Shimagahara area can be reached in less than two hours from the nearest major city and is also located near a hot springs. In addition, next to the lumbermill, there is a coffee shop called Yume no Michi, which is run by the Okamisan no Kai, so they were already prepared to deal with tourists. More than anything, however, Yamazaki was interested in the abundance of lumber and well-equipped facility, and the technical prowess Toru had cultivated over the years. What emerged as a result was an exchange program between people from the city and local residents.
If one wanted to buy a piece of furniture in the city, a table made out of domestic wood would be extremely expensive. And even if one decided to get the lumber and make it themselves, the transportation cost alone would huge. But if instead of moving the materials, one went to the original area of production and created the table there, it would be possible to get ahold of high-quality materials at a reasonable price. And if the participants in such a project could see the forest that was maintained by the lumbermill, and take part in the entire operation of processing the trees that were cut on-site and putting them together, it would encourage an interest in the environment as well as creative activities. And if one could also organize a variety of programs in the area, it would be possible to expand on the Hozumis' original notion of creating a place for interpersonal exchanges. The basic elements needed to implement such a project (a supply of lumber, someone to teach milling techniques, a facility to implement the plan, a bathing area, and food supplies) were already there. The only thing missing was a place for the workers to sleep. Thus was born the Sleeping Quarters Project.
First, a group of Kansai university students majoring in architecture and urban planning were enlisted to take part in this joint effort between industry and academia. At present, some 500 people are involved in the hoz-pro project which, in order to cut down on wasted time and effort, is organized to enable people with free time on weekends, primarily students, to assemble in Shimagahara.
When I visited the area to research this article, some young workers from a Kansai design firm were in the midst of creating a sleeping area with a unique and functional design by reusing the wood and mill ends from a dismantled barn and covering the walls with special paint. The movable units were designed to accommodate one entire family (3-5 people). At present, there are six of these sleeping units, some completed and some still under construction, and in the future, additional structures can built as needed.
Beginning this fiscal year, a program to allow the general public to take part in a furniture-making, residency program was launched. Staying in the mill for a weekend, participants have a chance to experience a creative process from beginning to end, and also learn how to repair things. In addition, by living together, they develop a more meaningful relationship with area residents and their fellow participants.
Slowly Discovering Value and Making a Commitment to Regional Society
According to Yamazaki, the philosophy behind the project is "to develop it in a gradual way without rushing. It's important to plant seeds and prepare the soil, so that the project can be carried on by the next generation."
In the 20th century, things developed at a tremendous pace and people sought nothing more than immediate results. But the ultimate trade-off for only thinking in the moment was a natural environment that can no longer renew itself and a society plagued by faulty communications. Developing personal relationships and creating new communities isn't something that happens overnight. First of all, it's necessary to gradually acclimate oneself to an area. Then, the evolution of connections that are formed over time eventually leads to a sustainable society.
hoz-pro is now in its fourth year. Every weekend work has continued without fail, convincing the local residents that the project wasn't just a passing fancy. At this point, everyone has become well-acquainted with each other and the agricultural produce that local residents donate takes care of all the group's meals. To the students, who are living away from their families while going to university, the village has become a second hometown.
When the weather is good, everybody eats meals prepared with locally produced fresh vegetables on the terrace of the Yume no Michi coffee shop, or in the square that was created on the former site of the barn. And in autumn (October), events to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Okamisan no Kai becoming an NPO, and a festival to unveil and celebrate the completion of the sleeping quarters were held.
The Future of hoz-pro
Although they have already graduated and started working, some of the students who helped launch the project continue to participate on their holidays.
From here on, the group will of course continue to revolve around the Hozumi Lumbermill, but an attempt will also be make to expand the scope of their activities in order to deal with other problems facing the Shimagahara area, and cooperate with people who are involved in resolving similar kinds of regional issues as well as groups that are connected to forestry. hoz-pro also hopes to eventually be able to create employment opportunities for young and handicapped people in the area.
Some of my questions sparked off a discussion that suddenly turned to the future of the group and inspired a chain reaction of ideas, including one to set up a sweets factory. To the Hozumis and Yamazaki, hoz-pro is filled with an infinite number of possibilities.
Another Iga-Ueno: Locally-Run Corner Museums
I also made a visit to some of the facilities affiliated with the Machikado Hakubutsukan (Corner Museum) project in Iga. Unlike regular museums, the exhibitions here consist of collections that are displayed in local shops and private houses, and deal with subjects like traditional arts. The explanations are provided by the owners of the shops and residents of the houses (who are, as it were, the directors of their own museums).
As of July 2010, the project, started in 1993, had turned into a huge undertaking, with over 500 shops and houses registered as museums in Mie Prefecture. On my visit, I spoke to a city representative about this practical attempt to develop the town through local cultural resources.
Tsujimura Katsunori, who is in charge of promoting the project in Iga, explained, "As far as selling points, Iga has ninja and Matsuo Basho, but it's hard to attract repeat visitors with these things alone. By stirring up more interest with these corner museums, we thought we might be able to inspire people to come back again."
The real charm of these museums lies in their owners. And among the list of requirements to receive approval as a corner museum is the following item: "The director must be able to provide enthusiastic explanations." As one stands in the welcoming atmosphere of a private home or shop, the owner delivers an emotion-filled anecdote or explanation of the displays – and a new discovery awaits in every museum.
The people running the museums also learn a variety of things in the course of their conversations with visitors. The director of the Yokanzuke Miyazakiya (a storied maker of Iga melon-cucumber pickles), Miyazaki Keiichi, mentions that one of his visitors informed him that the small windows in his pickling storehouse were probably handmade by someone in the Taisho or early Showa Period (i.e., early 20th century): "Even though I've been in this business a long time, there are still lots of things in my day-to-day life that I don't notice. But now I know that I have one more treasure here."
When you visit the Murai Bankoen (specializing in Iga tea among other things), the shop's owner Murai Motoharu introduces a collection of ninja devices that his grandfather collected with a winning sense of humor. Murai also devotes a great deal of energy to other activities such as developing a unique line of ninja souvenirs.
Since the spread of the nuclear family, it has become unusual to see people interacting with their neighbors and housewives engaged in outdoor gossip sessions. But the Corner Museums remind us that the greatest asset of any town is the people who live there.
Creating a New Community: Forming Links between People
Yamazaki Ryo says, "The way I see it, every kind of project, including art, is based on meetings between people."
He continues, "This isn't limited merely to the clear-cut relationship between artists as people who 'create things' and viewers as people who 'look' at them, but includes the links that are formed between workshop participants and event-management volunteers, and often maintained long after a project is finished." Yamazaki sees this as the ultimate value and the ideal outcome of these projects.
In recent years, art projects have become increasingly popular in Japan. Events that make use of art's special power bring visitors to the area and help people come up with ways of creating new attractions there.
On the other hand, the level of awareness regarding "art"-related things is still relatively low among the general public. And if for no other reason than that these pursuits are free of fixed concepts, by "making use" of the extensive possibilities inherent in the medium of art, one can anticipate an increase in the number of places that lead to the creation of new communities.
(English translation by Christopher Stephens)
Landscape architect/Director of studio-L. Active in landscape design, park management, comprehensive planning for regional municipalities, and support for town development activities. While dealing with the design of public spaces, he is also involved with program design and project management to help make more effective use of already completed public spaces.