"The Respect for the Cycle of Water and Fire
The Story of Symbiotic Coexistence Passed Down to Generations"
"The Respect for the Cycle of Water and Fire
The Story of Symbiotic Coexistence Passed Down to Generations"
The vast Joshin’etsukogen National Park is the fourth largest in Japan. To be honest, we had a difficult time deciding where to visit, but this time, we decided to focus on Nozawa Onsen Village. The deciding factor was the words of Kenji Kono, The North Face Athlete, who said, "If you're interested in an intriguing story revolving around water, it's the perfect place." With Kenji Kono, who is from Nozawa Onsen Village and currently serves as the chairman of the village's tourism association, let us embark on a journey of water and fire.
- Kenji Kono
- Joshin’etsukogen National Park
First he led us to a luscious beech forest.
The occasional flurry of snow from the sky marks the beginning of the water cycle in Nozawa Onsen Village," said Kenji Kono.
He is a ski cross athlete sponsored by The North Face, and he has been competing in World Cup events around the world since his teenage years. After a 12-year professional career, he retired in 2014. Currently, he serves as the chairman of the Nozawa Onsen Village Tourism Association while also managing a campground called "Green Field" - a somewhat unique second career path for an athlete.
"Nozawa Onsen Village is the perfect place to observe the water cycle."
The circulation of water is at the heart of the harmonious relationship between nature and people in Japan. It was his words that made us decide to focus on Nozawa Onsen Village within the vast Joshin’etsukogen National Park.
Together with him, we trekked through the luscious beech forest. It is located at the northern edge of Joshin’etsukogen National Park, at an altitude of 1,400 meters. The one who has been carefully talking about beech trees is Kiichi Mori. Our initial impression of him was that he has good posture. He does not have a loud voice, but we could not help but lean in and listen attentively. He is someone who has a way of speaking that draws you in.
Why is the start of our journey of tracing the water cycle in the beech forest? When we asked Mr. Kono about it, he gestured towards Mr. Mori for the answer.
Beech trees have a very high water-holding capacity. It is said that a single giant beech tree can nourish a 10-acre area of rice paddies.
They act as green dams and natural filters. The water retained by the beech trees slowly seeps into the earth over 40 to 50 years, eventually springing forth in the villages.
However, beech trees tend to grow near human habitation, and their high water content makes them unsuitable for building materials. As a result, many were cut down and replaced with cedar soon after World War II.
"You know, when written in kanji, the word "beech" is written with the symbols meaning "not a tree." It has been misunderstood for a long time. However, it is indispensable to the circulation of water in the natural world. People's lives would not be possible without the abundance of nature, so we must preserve it, don't you think?"
Mr. Mori is actively involved in the conservations of the beech forest, the source of the water cycle in Nozawa Onsen Village. He established the non-profit organization "Osekkai" and through its various activities, the "Beech Forest 100-Year Vision" was born – a tree-planting project led by elementary school students. Approximately 1,000 seedlings are planted every year. Restoring the once damaged nature is a task that can't be accomplished overnight. The project aims to find a way to restore the forest by passing it on to the next generation.
"We owe a lot to the beech trees, you know."
The fact that "Osekkai" was born during a gathering at a local pub also reflects the heightened awareness of the natural environment in their daily lives. It's an anecdote that showcases how seamlessly the people of Nozawa Onsen Village are connected to nature.
"Kenji, how old are you now?"
"I'm already 40."
"I see, then you still have a long way to go."
In their 40s and 80s, the two have a significant age gap between them, but they share a relationship closer to that of family rather than that of seniors and juniors.
The snow falling now won't reach the village for another 50 years.
It will be during the time of a generation even younger than the two of them.
"There really isn't a big secret."
When asked, "What is the secret behind producing such delicious rice?", Yoshizo Takahashi from "Nozawa Farms" has been repeating that same answer, but there is no way that is true. The rice grown by Mr. Takahashi received the Diamond Award in 2012. This prestigious award is presented by the "Rice and Food Taster Association," and only seven individuals have ever received the award, making it an exclusive recognition.
"It all comes down to having good mountains and water. My grandfather used to say that if you go into the mountains, get its soil, and spread it in the rice paddies, you will get good rice."
Therefore, the luscious beech forest is also extremely important for rice. If all the trees in the mountains are cut down, the flowing water will not have nutrients, affecting not only the village but also the ocean.
You can usually tell by looking at the mountains. Places with delicious rice typically have broadleaf forests, like Akita for instance. The key is how much water the mountain can store. Also, there are plenty of microorganisms in the fallen leaves. Since water passes through these layered fallen leaves, it is bound to be beneficial.
If nutrients flow from the beech forest, then Nozawa Onsen Village is one of the first places to benefit from the blessings of the mountains. Just as we suspected, there was a secret. We were able to catch a glimpse of the secret behind the delicious rice of Nozawa Onsen Village in Mr. Takahashi's words, "In the end, the rice tastes better where the water is good."
The central area of Nozawa Onsen Village is a landscape of diverse contours, offering a wealth of captivating sights and scenery. Not only are there many small streets, but there are also differences in elevation everywhere, giving the area a slightly maze-like atmosphere. Perhaps due to the heavy snow, there are also large spaces underground, where there are some pubs. It is a fascinating space for those who love to wander. We walked through the center of the village with Akira Katagiri from Kiriya Ryokan.
We were surprised to hear Mr. Katagiri say, "We cannot dig for more hot springs in Nozawa Onsen Village." In 1984, the "Nozawa Onsen Village Groundwater Resource Conservation Ordinance" was put into place, to legally protect its hot spring and water resources.
If one were to pursue profits, expanding would be the quickest option. However, the people of Nozawa Onsen Village were looking further into the future. In recent years, there have been news about hot springs drying up in various hot spring areas. But in Nozawa Onsen Village, there is no such concern. The abundant hot water flowing in the village's 13 outdoor hot spring baths will surely remain unchanged in the future. And so will its scalding temperature that has astonished numerous tourists.
As we listened to Mr. Katagiri's story, we climbed up a slope and arrived at a place called "Amagama," also known as the village's kitchen. "Even in this day and age, when every household has a gas stove, people still come all the way here to boil vegetables in the hot spring. Why? Because it tastes better," he said with a smile.
Behind Mr. Katagiri, villagers were boiling vegetables in the hot spring water.
Along with the rising steam, the water continues to flow.
Rice crops and hot springs have been part of the traditional blessings of water cycle, in Nozawa Onsen Village, but new endeavors related to water have also emerged.
One such endeavor is the "Nozawa Onsen Distillery," which opened in December 2022. This distillery was initiated by individuals who fell in love with the water of Nozawa Onsen Village, particularly the newcomers who moved here. Upon entering the distillery, you are greeted by a massive distiller visible through a glass wall. They sure know how to make an impressive display.
It all started when Isamu Yoneda, the Distillation Manager, visited Nozawa Onsen Village on a trip.
"While wandering through the forest, a captivating scent, reminiscent of my homeland in Scotland, filled the air. There, I discovered an array of flora, such as cedar, kuromoji trees, and gill-over-the-ground. With that, I was certain that I could definitely make excellent gin here."
As Mr. Yoneda says, since "Gill-over-the-ground is the kind of plant that grows on the side of the road," there are plenty of raw materials around. In gin making, water is added after distillation to adjust the alcohol content; so, water is also a very important factor.
"I want to capture the entire atmosphere of Nozawa Onsen Village in the gin."
Water and verdant plants. The idea of being able to take home the wonders of Nozawa Onsen Village's untamed nature as an unforgettable souvenir seems irreplaceable.
And water also transforms into an energy source.
A small hydroelectric power plant began operating in Nozawa Onsen Village in April 2022.
"Skiing, hot springs, and even agricultural products - they are all blessings given from nature. Therefore, I think it is natural for this village to adopt clean energy in order to preserve it,"
said Toshinari Kanai of the Nozawa Onsen Village Office, who currently manages the hydroelectric power plant. The plant is located on the Makune River, a tributary of the Yuzawa River, and has a maximum power output of 100kW, equivalent to the power needed for about 200 households. Currently, all of the electricity generated there is sold, but they have their sight set of the future.
"In 20 years, the FIT (Feed-in Traffic) system will expire, so ideally, we would be able to use the electricity locally for the village. The facilities themselves were built and equipped with this in mind.
Currently they are considering using the hydroelectric power to power the facilities around the ski resort.
Back at the inn, while enjoying a glass of Mizuo, a local favorite sake, we listened to Mr. Kono's vision for the future.
"We are exploring the possibility of implementing a self-sustaining system for the entire Nozawa Onsen Village, inspired by what we are doing at my campsite, GREEN FIELD.
"For example," Mr. Kono continues,
"we could provide a breakfast at the inn called the '10 Mile Breakfast,' only using ingredients sourced within the 16 km radius. Actually, this can be implemented immediately. This would eliminate transportation costs, and when combined with the hydroelectric power, it opens up the possibility for a fossil fuel-free future."
Mr. Kono's vision is also supported by the circulation of water. It provides energy and nourishes delicious vegetables and rice. Even entertainment such as skiing and hot springs can ultimately be traced back to water.
"I think it would be interesting if Japanese municipalities became more and more self-sustainable. If there are more small communities that are unique, rather than being a part of a larger economic system, I think the connection between these communities will become even stronger. It would be like the old days when people brought food from the mountains to the sea and traded it for fish.
The source of Nozawa Onsen Village's distinctiveness is, of course, its water. And it is also the key to the self-sustainable village that Mr. Kono envisions.
"I believe that self-sufficiency is possible as long as we are able to embrace the blessings of nature. After all, Nozawa Onsen Village used to be called Toyosato Village (written as "prosperous village" in kanji), and there are still traces of human habitation here from the Jomon period."
What is remarkable about the developments in Nozawa Onsen Village is that their main motivation is not driven by resolving problems. Usually, new initiatives often arise in response to existing issues or challenges, but Nozawa Onsen Village has a continuous and evolving tradition of living in harmony with nature.
Joshin’etsukogen National Park is vast,
spanning across 3 prefectures - Gunma, Nagano, and Niigata. It is the fourth largest National Park in the country.
After parting ways with Mr. Kono, we met up with Naohiro Orihara, the Planning Officer for the Ministry of the Environment, and we decided to explore the volcanoes, which are as crucial to Japan's nature as water.
Tsumagoi Village. Located at the foot of Mount Asama, this village is renowned for producing high-quality cabbages. One of the factors contributing to the superior quality of these cabbages is the unique soil derived from the volcanic eruptions of Mount Asama. Composed of volcanic ash and decomposed organic matter, the soil known as "Kuroboku soil" holds the key to delicious cabbages. In the old days, the locals used to refer to it as "nobou soil," from the word "dekunobou." However, with advancements in soil science and fertilizers, it has become one of the most suitable places in Japan for growing highland vegetables.
Last year, a new chapter was added to the long-standing story of Mount Asama and cabbages - the "Fuketsu Cabbage," an initiative led by Miho Yamada of the Tsumagoi Village Tourism Association.
In Tsumagoi Village, cabbages are harvested only from July to the end of October. To enjoy these delicious cabbages even during winter, the idea of utilizing the wind holes, called Fuketsu, located at the foot of Mount Asama in an area known as the "Oni-Oshi-Dashi Garden," came to mind. Fuketsu are places mainly found on the slopes of volcanic areas where cold air flows out from underground cavities, resembling natural refrigerators created by the combination of volcanic terrain and underground water flow.
"I've heard that in the past, people used to store alcohol in these wind holes. So, I thought, why not use them for cabbages too?"
Although there are still some challenges, such as the cabbages freezing during the severe winter, some also note that their sweetness increases compared to conventional cabbages. Ms. Yamada said they are continuously looking for ways of improvement.
"To promote the use of national parks, I would love to see more initiatives like the Fuketsu Cabbages, which go beyond just tourism and become deeply integrated into the daily lives of the local people," said Mr. Orihara from the Ministry of the Environment, who accompanied us.
He passionately discussed with Ms. Yamada on the various ways the Fuketsu can be utilized.
It seems that there are many other new endeavors emerging, aimed at embracing the wonders of nature, such as an aroma oil set made from porous lava stones of Mount Asama.
Next, with the freshly harvested Fuketsu Cabbage in hand, we visited the cabbage farmer's house.
We were welcomed by Motomi Matsumoto and Mitsuri Takizawa from the "Tsumano Teshigoto" brand.
"We use spoons now, but back in the day, we did it like this,"
they said, as they grabbed and threw in a piece of raw dough into the pot with their hands. Grab ("Totte") and throw ("Nage") - that is where the name "Toccha Nage" derived from.
They both have radiant and glowing skin, just like fresh cabbages. We could not help but ask a slightly silly question, 'Does cabbage also make your skin beautiful?,' but actually cabbages are rich in Vitamin U. Come to think of it, the famous stomach medicine is also derived from cabbage. Recently, 'intestinal health' is a trend, but it seems that Tsumagoi Village has had a culture of promoting intestinal health for a long time.
In the month of January, we found ourselves drawn back to Nozawa Onsen.
Mr. Kono's words, "You simply must witness the festival," urged us to return.
Dosojin Festival - a timeless celebration, steeped in tradition, holds a sacred place in the heart of Nozawa Onsen Village, with historical records dating back to the late Edo period. Throughout this ancient festival, villagers come together to construct a shrine over two days, using five sacred trees carefully brought down from the nearby mountains. Then, on the final day, they set the shrine ablaze in a grand display of flames and festivities. As one of Japan's three major fire festivals, it has been designated as an important intangible folk cultural asset by the country.
The sacred trees utilized for the shrine has long been beech trees - meaning that the fact that the beech trees are essential to the circulation of the water has been passed down from generation to generation.
While the performance of the vibrant battle with the torches often steal the spotlight, the locals say that the significance of the festival is the "Hatsu-Toro," the first lanterns.
In Nozawa Onsen Village, when the first male child is born, a "Hatsu-Toro" is dedicated to the Dosojin Festival to pray for the child's healthy growth.
Therefore, the Dosojin Festival is a heartfelt dedication to the children, a radiant celebration of their healthy growth and prosperity, symbolizing the hopes and dreams carried forward to shape the village's future.
"Let's go for the fifth time!"
A group of cheerful children, seemingly close friends around the age of ten, exclaimed with excitement. They enthusiastically transfered the fire to the torches and made their way to the shrine. Children actively engage in the festival alongside the adults.
We wonder, as these children, their eyes glowing orange from the fire, reach the age of 42 and become the central figures of the festival, what kind of place will Nozawa Onsen Village become?
The fiery sparks danced in the night sky, their warm glow juxtaposed against the gentle fall of snowflakes, creating a breathtaking spectacle of light and nature's embrace. As we felt the heat on our faces, the shrine burst into flames. There was a tinge of sadness knowing how much effort was put into building it, but perhaps that, too, is part of the cyclical nature of things.
As we turned around at the voice that said, "This scenery will remain unchanged forever," there was Kiichi Mori, the one who had shared stories in the beech forest earlier. The circulation of water and the blessings of the volcanoes; the power of nature has always been the backdrop of a bountiful life. We were reminded once again, of the importance of passing this on to the next generation.
There are many unique places throughout Japan that have long enjoyed the blessings of nature, such as Nozawa Onsen Village and Tsumagoi Village. Recognizing that many national parks are designated to coexist with people's lives rather than just being tourist attractions, it was a journey that allowed us to deeply feel the significance of Japan's national parks.
“We successfully built the shrine, if we are alive, let's do this again next year. And the year after that too. If we are alive, let's do this again next year. Sing and be friends, what a wonderful day."
The festival reached its climax, and the melody of the Dosojin Festival song refrained. Nature and people, and people with people. Standing before the burning shrine, we could not help but ponder, what harmony and coexistence between nature and humanity truly means.