When you’ve been living in Hokkaido for a while, sometimes you want to try something different. Something different from the usual, off the beaten path. Not just location, but the kind of tourism as well. This time I went for a more education route, learning about rural Japan.
In Japan, the population has been in decline, and by 2040 it has been projected that over 800 local municipalities will become extinct. As Japan is fighting to preserve to keep its rural communities alive, people have begun to turn to new ways of living.
One of the new initiatives started by the government is the FutureCity campaign, where towns aim to sustain their social, environmental, and economic values. While this all seems very abstract, what it boils down to is changing the way people live. Protecting the environment, instilling community values, and coming up with new business.
When you think of new trends it’s the big cities like Tokyo that make headlines, but small communities are the ones that can realize these lifestyles.
To see what its like, I decided to visit Shimokawa, a town with a population less than 4,000 people in the size of the 23 wards of Tokyo. Shimokawa is known for its forests, and in fact over 90% of the land are forests. More importantly, Shimokawa is one of the FutureCities in Japan and has even won the Japan SDG (Sustainable Development Growth) Award from the prime minister.
Participating in a rural revitalization project, I took a tour of the town with a group of friends. From Sapporo we took the train to Asahikawa, then transferred to Nayoro, and finally rode the bus to Shimokawa, which took about 3.5 hours.
When we arrived, we visited the town promotion center and had a tour of one the most interesting things I’ve seen: the town’s main industry is forestry, and by using the leftover wood, they find different ways to use every part and not leave waste. Some wood is used to grow Shiitake mushrooms, leaves are used to make essential oils, and most importantly, leftover wood chips are used as biofuel to provide heating in town. More than 60% of the town’s heating is from local materials and is very self-sustainable. We even got a quick peak of one of the boilers, which are sourced from Sweden to get the best efficiency.
We also took a tour of the local forests with a local NPO called Mori no Seikatsu, which roughly translates to living with the forest. Our guide, Fujiwara-san, brought us first to pruning branches from trees to create essential oils. While I felt bad cutting the branches from the trees, Fujiwara-san explained that since the low-hanging branches do not see much sunlight, the branches actually needlessly sap nutrients from the tree and that cutting the branches actually help the trees grow taller. Also, in Shimokawa, for every tree cut, a seed is planted, and only the necessary amount of resources are taken from the forests.
After collecting our branches, we returned to Mori no Seikatu’s headquarters and distilled the leaves to create our very own essential oils.
In the afternoon, we then went to another forest nearby to collect sansei, or wild forest vegetables. These vegetables are seasonal and we were just in time for spring foraging. Soon enough, we found a huge patch of gyoja ninniku, which you can sometimes find in supermarkets. Before I could think about starting a foraging business, Fujiwara-san instructed us to only take 1/3rd of what we saw: 1/3rd for us. 1/3rd for the animals, and 1/3 for the plants, so we there is enough for next year as well. Sustainability and living with the forests is really a theme here in Shimokawa.
Outside of the forests and back in town, I was pleasantly surprised to find absolutely delectable food as well. Aside from the environment, Shimokawa also puts a lot of effort into their community, and have attracted various people from around Japan to come and open up their own shops, particularly restaurants.
One of the most popular lunch spots in town was Minami-tei, an udon shop opened by a chef from Kyoto, who was attracted by the lifestyle in Shimokawa.
For another meal, we dined at Apollo, where we tried to specialty deer steak, and Fujiwara-san, our forest guide, also joined us and whipped up some dishes from the vegetables we foraged. Yum!
All in all hopefully you got some sort of image of town. Shimokawa is all about sustainability. Sustainability of the forests, sustainability of lifestyle. Furthermore, it’s interesting and fun! I was able to explore the lush forests and enjoy great cuisine, plus knowing the reasons behind it and the passion of the townspeople made it an unforgettable trip.
While Japan explores an imminent problem on population, the potential for the future is exciting and can be fun! Maybe next time you come to Hokkaido, you can visit Shimokawa, and learn about the future of living in Japan!
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