Dialogue Between Nature and Humanity
Toward the Future in the Harsh Northern Environment
Dialogue Between Nature and Humanity
Toward the Future in the Harsh Northern Environment
Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park: a place of dynamic and diverse landscapes, including mountains like Mount Rishiri, various alpine plants, and one of Japan's largest plain, the Sarobetsu Plain. As 2024 approaches, the park will celebrate its 50th anniversary.
While it stands as a major tourist destination, welcoming a multitude of visitors, the park also confronts a range of challenges.
In response, the dedicated guardians of the north work tirelessly, striving to discover solutions.
Within the northernmost national park, a dialogue unfolds between nature and people, carrying within it hints for a future of coexistence.
- Shinya Okada / Hiroto Kumagai
- Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park
When you visit Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park, Mount Rishiri welcomes you with its overwhelming presence. Often referred to as Rishiri Fuji, this beautiful solitary peak can be seen from various locations within the national park.
Standing at the northernmost tip of Japan's list of 'Hyakumeizan' (100 Famous Japanese Mountains), many mountaineers choose it as their final conquest, drawing numerous climbers not only from across the country but also from abroad, starting right after the snow melts each year.
However, this stunning mountain is now facing a crisis.
Mount Rishiri's harsh climatic conditions and its easily-crumbling geology, combined with the impact of human use, have made it challenging for trail maintenance to keep up.
At 4:30 in the early morning, at the Oshidomari Trailhead, we met two individuals tirelessly dedicated to maintaining Mount Rishiri's trails: Shinya Okada from Rishiri Trailworks and Youji Kumagai from the Rishiri Mountain Hiking Trail Maintenance and Management Liaison Council.
"Right here is where we've done some maintenance work,"
Mr. Okada pointed out the trail near the fifth station, but it was hard to tell at a glance as the natural rocks simply appear to be arranged in a line.
The approach of the "Kin-Shizen-Koho" construction method involves incorporating the structures of the natural world into the creation of hiking trails. Unlike the common method of making the trail merely "walkable," this approach prioritizes ecological restoration. Its distinctive feature lies in utilizing natural materials as much as possible.
"The fact that it blends in with nature is both a strength and, in a way, a weakness of the Kin-Shizen-Koho construction method. It is not always easy for people to realize that the trails are being maintained through human intervention," explained Mr. Okada.
The most suitable construction method is determined by closely observing the characteristics of each mountain. Thus, with the Kin-Shizen-Koho construction method, there isn't a definitive "right answer."
"The ideal is prevention. Recognizing signs of potential damage is crucial. Deterioration can happen in the blink of an eye, but repairs take significant time and effort."
However, up to this point, the trail maintenance process is not drastically different from that of a standard mountain.
The real challenge for Mount Rishiri lies ahead.
Upon reaching the eighth station on Mount Chokan, the silhouette of Mount Rishiri's summit became distinctly visible beyond the ridge. According to Mr. Okada, its beauty encompasses a sense of fragility as well.
"Please take a look over there."
Mr. Okada gestured just beyond the Mount Rishiri Shelter, indicating a notch in the mountain.
This location is commonly referred to as the "3-meter Slit."
"That place is probably Japan's most 'worn out' hiking path."
Beyond this point, the geology abruptly shifts. Scoria begins to emerge, further complicating the maintenance of Mount Rishiri's hiking trails. Scoria, volcanic debris, blankets the upper reaches of Mount Rishiri. It is highly susceptible to erosion, and when combined with rain and the footfalls of hikers, it perpetually cascades downhill. Walking on it can be quite challenging without destabilizing the ground.
"About half of them are gone. That's encouraging," Mr. Okada mentioned.
In Mr. Okada's view, sandbags were stacked along the hiking trail. These bags were filled with scoria that had flowed down and needed to be carried back up. Signs were posted, seeking assistance from hikers.
With five sandbags securely fastened to our backpack frame, it was finally time to step onto Japan's most "worn out" hiking path.
"In the past, you could actually walk here," Mr. Kumagai, a native of Rishiri, pointed about 2 meters above his head.
Exposed to rain, wind, and the footfalls of hikers, the trail had undergone erosion. Around 2006, this spot had eroded to about 3 meters. Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Okada and his team, it has now recovered to about 2 meters.
According to Mr. Okada, "There is no precedent for successful maintenance on a scoria-covered mountain." "
Hence, trial and error are necessary.
"We have been trying various approaches. For instance, we used a resin-made material called geocell before. It seems this material was used to reinforce tank paths in the desert during the Gulf War, but it had some strength issues."
It was during this period that Mr. Okada stumbled upon a massive corrugated pipe, commonly used for plumbing work, washed up on the beach.
"I thought, 'This might work,' and I carried it up the mountain as is, to give it a try."
These pipes are positioned vertically and filled with the previously lifted scoria. By stacking them, they provide the necessary height to fill the eroded sections and create a level surface to prevent further runoff, effectively halting erosion.
"Scoria's weakness lies in its tendency to crumble easily, but once we flatten it like this, it absorbs all the water and becomes stable," he explained.
He mentioned that in the future, they need to pile it even higher to match the top's height. I wonder, how many more cycles of lifting and packing the runoff scoria into the pipes will be needed...
"After hearing this, you might feel more inclined to carry extra sandbags, right?" Mr. Kumagai chuckled. However, as we gazed upon the alarmingly eroded trail, such jokes seemed to lose their humor
They have mentioned that some do criticize the appearance. Indeed, the jet-black corrugated pipes stand out quite distinctly in the natural surroundings.
"While this method does receive criticism... I believe that since nature is not just for humans, we shouldn't worry too much about appearances. In 10 years, vegetation should return and once again conceal it," Mr. Okada concluded.
Standing at the summit of Mount Rishiri, a breathtaking view of the expansive, beautiful sea unfolds in all directions. Despite it being a weekday, people continue to arrive at the summit one after another. Without efforts like those of Mr. Okada, there might come a day when the view from this summit is no longer possible. Fueled by such a sense of urgency, a question arises almost spontaneously, "What is needed to continue climbing Mount Rishiri?"
"We're short on people and funding," he replied.
Currently, there are no volunteers. They are also considering crowdfunding as an option.
A multitude of tasks await. Particularly, educating individuals who can serve as leaders will take years.
"The most significant challenge is 'people,' I suppose, both in terms of personnel and climbers' awareness. I do not intend to discourage climbing, but I hope people can at least understand the current situation."
For those who love mountains, witnessing this reality should inspire them to lend a hand. First and foremost, fostering interest and awareness is pivotal.
After descending from Mount Rishiri, we made a stop at Mr. Kumagai's home mountain, Mount Pon, for the day.
"After mowing down the bamboo field, the red shoots of the Todomatsu fir began to sprout," he excitedly pointed out. A popular mountain on the list of the 100 Famous Japanese Mountains and a beloved local low mountain—each mountain has its unique method of maintenance. In the case of Mount Pon's upkeep, Mr. Kumagai takes the initiative voluntarily.
"I'm looking forward to the future," Mr. Kumagai said, gazing at the Todomatsu fir seedlings with a sense of pride, as if boasting about his own child.
Rebun Island bears a sorrowful history
– a struggle against poaching targeting alpine plants. The Rebun-atsumori-so (Cypripedium marcanthum var. rebunense), in particular, which exclusively grows on Rebun Island, was subject to significant poaching due to its rarity for commercial gains in the past. Monitoring stations were even erected at one point, with vigilant night-time surveillance being conducted.
"Even just a decade ago, the Rebun-atsumori-so habitat was enclosed by barbed wire, resulting in a landscape strikingly different from what one might expect at a tourist destination," recollects Seiji Murayama from the Rebun Town Alpine Plant Cultivation Center.
"I believe there's a psychological aspect of yearning to witness something not easily seen. This reinforces the importance of having accessible spots to showcase these plants. At the Alpine Botanical Garden, you can relish approximately 10,000 specimens encompassing 50 alpine plant species, all cultivated to resemble their natural habitats as closely as possible. Moreover, we have laid out seven trekking courses across the island, allowing visitors to observe these plants."
In present times, incidents of poaching Rebun-atsumori-so have diminished, with just one instance involving two plants recorded in the last decade.
"I'm convinced that increasing awareness through visibility and fostering a protective attitude is more impactful than relying on barbed wire at this stage," remarks Mr. Murayama.
Currently, around 6,000 Rebun-atsumori-so flowers have been documented. However, since their habitat remains restricted to Rebun Island, any significant decline in their numbers could render recovery nearly unfeasible.
In preparation for such scenarios, Mr. Murayama has been leading an initiative to cultivate Rebun-atsumori-so.
"The project originally began with the intention of reintroducing cultivated plants into the wild during periods of decline. However, given that current conservation efforts have successfully maintained the population, we are continuing cultivation as a precautionary measure against any potential drastic decrease," he explained.
Plants in the Orchidaceae family, including Rebun-atsumori-so, require symbiotic fungi to germinate naturally. Although a method for sterile cultivation has indeed been established, Mr. Murayama emphasizes that they have opted for a more challenging approach that involves using symbiotic fungi for cultivation, in order to preserve its natural state as much as possible.
"Rebun-atsumori-so is a plant that demands a considerable amount of time. The process from germination to flowering takes about 6 years. This means that the results of my current efforts will only become apparent 6 years from now. Patience is my only option,"
Mr. Murayama remarked as he observed the seeds of the Rebun-atsumori-so being cultivated within a petri dish.
When traveling around Rebun Island, you will notice that flowers are not only found in designated alpine plant areas but also practically everywhere.
We extended our journey to the Momoiwa Observatory Course, a place known for its flowers. Despite being an area designated as a national natural monument, this is a unique location where people have been actively working to protect it, such as experimental mowing of the bamboo grass over the past seven years.
"While in the past, there might have been an idea of untouched nature, I believe we have reached a point where human intervention is necessary to maintain it," I recall Mr. Murayama's words.
Protection has no endpoint. It should not be concluded or terminated. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that we won't need to walk the same path again. Listening to Mr. Murayama's insights and understanding the current situation even a little bit, I notice that I am definitely paying more attention to my feet than before.
Balancing Human Activities and Wetland Conservation
Encountering the Future of "Conservation and Utilization" in Sarobetsu
Within the Sarobetsu Plain lies Japan's largest high-altitude wetland. Adjacent to this wetland is the distinct pastoral landscape of the region, where many cows producing the local milk, a specialty of the area, also call home.
Wetlands are classified into three major types: low, intermediate, and high-altitude. High-altitude wetlands, characterized by thick peat accumulation that raises the surface above surrounding groundwater levels, include famous examples like the Ozegahara Marsh. The high-altitude wetland in Sarobetsu, covering approximately 650 hectares, currently holds the record as Japan's largest. However, the original expanse of high-altitude wetland here was about 1,400 hectares. This emphasizes the urgent need to halt this crisis.
In response to this critical situation, the Upper Sarobetsu Nature Restoration Council was established in 2005. Comprising relevant government bodies, local residents, NGOs, and experts, the council formulated a comprehensive plan with the goals of "wetland restoration," "agricultural promotion," and "community development." One of the strategies conceived in line with this plan is the creation of buffer zones.
Since the wetland and pastureland are contiguous, the wetland dries out while the groundwater level of the pastureland rises. Hence, the aim was to elevate the wetland's water level and lower the pastureland's water level through the establishment of a buffer zone between them.
However, excavating portions from the wetland for the buffer zones, designated for conservation, was deemed impractical. Amidst this challenge, the idea emerged to designate agricultural land as buffer zones.
Predictably, queries arose from dairy farmers pondering, "Is it necessary to safeguard the wetland at the cost of our profits?" Striving to balance profit and conservation, Yasuaki Yamamoto, chairman of the Sarobetsu Agricultural Liaison Conference, played a pivotal role in this endeavor.
"It was quite a challenge to persuade them," Mr. Yamamoto says.
Just by the sound of his voice, you can tell that Mr. Yamamoto is a man of great heart and open-mindedness. There's an atmosphere that instinctively draws everyone in, an air that makes you want to follow along.
After all, this land was developed through our ancestors' immense struggles. We cannot simply say 'yes, sure' without consideration, he explained.
This is why Mr. Yamamoto decided to put effort into understanding buffer zones and wetland conservation on a deeper level.
"I wanted to learn more about it before discussing it. If you don't know anything and just keep saying 'no, it's not good,' the conversation will not progress. As a result, the more I learned, the more I understood how valuable Sarobetsu's wetland is. From there, it was just a series of discussions."
Six locations were designated to provide agricultural land as buffer zones, covering an area of 25 hectares. Naturally, the burden on the farmers within the buffer zone is significant.
"So, I called for everyone to be in the same position. We created a system where all farmers share the burden equally. Well, it was tough, but if you talk patiently, you understand – we're all humans, after all."
He mentioned that this conservation effort has also provided an opportunity for people who had no previous connection with each other, such as dairy farmers, the Ministry of the Environment, nature conservation groups, and fisheries cooperatives, to interact with each other.
"I think communication is crucial. We are trying to value both the natural environment and human activities, even though they can be contradictory. Everyone talks about nature, but I think it is difficult to protect the environment unless people from different perspectives can work together as a team."
Before connecting with nature, it is equally important for people to connect with each other. Following Mr. Yamamoto's advice, we visited the Sarobetsu Wetland Center to hear from individuals who are looking after the wetland from a different perspective.
Pushing through grasses that had grown to shoulder height, we walked with Masato Hasebe from the Sarobetsu Eco Network towards the buffer zone.
From a distance, it appeared as if there was a vast grassland, but standing within the buffer zone, you realize that the vegetation clearly divides into pastureland on the left and wetland on the right.
In addition to the buffer zone, which the dairy farmers literally entrusted with great personal sacrifice, various initiatives led by the Ministry of the Environment, are being made to protect the high-altitude wetlands.
One of their biggest struggle is the expansion of the bamboo grass. Due to the drop in water levels, bamboo grass has encroached into the wetland.
Although efforts are made to cut back the bamboo grass, this task must be repeated annually, as it quickly regrows.
"Please come over here," Mr. Hasebe calls out, leading me to an area where the soil is exposed.
"This is an area where we are trying to remove the bamboo grass completely by stripping the surface, in hopes of suppressing its regrowth from the roots. Over the course of a few years, plants like dew grass have started to return. However, since heavy machinery is used, it becomes a challenge in terms of cost and the removal of other wetland vegetation that grows alongside, making it difficult to find the best solution," Mr. Hasebe explained.
Upon closer inspection, you can see the unique plants of the high-altitude wetland, such as dew grass and cranberry.
Conserving the wetland is not solely about maintaining the landscape. It also involves protecting the plants and animals that inhabit the wetland.
Many birds also inhabit this wetland. It is said that there are over 200 species, including rare ones like the Yellow-breasted Bunting (Shima-aoji), which can only be found here in Japan. Recently, Red-crowned Cranes (Tancho) have begun to breed here, and Penke Marsh serves as the largest stopover site for the Bean Goose (Oohishikui).
Mr. Hasebe is actively involved in studying and conserving these birds that reside in the wetland, keeping himself busy every day.
"It is important for people to first understand that having nature is not something guaranteed. Unless we protect it, the wetland, along with the wild birds that inhabit it, could disappear," he stated.
Various individuals from different positions are working to protect the Sarobetsu Wetland. Even the Toyotomi Town Hall is not an exception. We were surprised to hear that Masahiro Yamagata, a town hall employee, is actively involved in the "Sarobetsu Eco-Mo-Pro Project" aimed at promoting the Sarobetsu Wetland. This involvement goes beyond his official role as the secretariat of the Upper Sarobetsu Nature Restoration Council. He participates not as part of his official duties but in his personal capacity as a supporter.
The following morning, as we stood in the wetland and listened closely, we realized that the songs of birds could be heard from all directions, 360 degrees around me. This is yet another positive impact of trying to "understand." Even the smallest actions can make a difference.
The people we met in the Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park were all humble towards nature.
If the pursuit of human interests has led to the current environmental destruction, then it is humanity that must change.
"First, you must understand," was a sentiment echoed by everyone. Only through this understanding can the dialogue between humans and nature for the future begin.
And we must treat nature with respect. This applies to interactions between humans and nature, as well as among humans themselves.