By Koichi Saijo / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterHANNO, Saitama — The forest in the early morning was damp, and the water of a river flowing through mountains was a bit chilly. The source of the Komagawa river is found in this area in Hanno, Saitama Prefecture.
High-quality Japanese cypress and Japanese cedar trees grow in forests in Hanno — where forest covers about 70 percent of the total area — and Hidaka, among other cities in the prefecture. The wood harvested from such trees is called “Nishikawa wood,” and it has been used for building houses since olden times.
Towns in the Edo period (1603-1867) frequently suffered big fires that burned down many houses. Timber that is straight and easy to process was supplied to the towns from the mountains in this area.
The environment here is well suited to the growth of wood. The altitude of the mountains varies from 400 meters to 1,200 meters, average annual temperatures range from 12 C to 14 C, and the annual rainfall is between 1,700 and 2,000 millimeters.
“In olden times, people amassed logged timber into rafts, and thus transported it to towns around Edo (now Tokyo) via the Komagawa and Irumagawa rivers, which are tributaries of the Arakawa river. At some point, the material came to be called Nishikawa wood as it is carried from rivers that are west of Edo,” said Tadanori Goda, 50, manager of Kyukamura Oku-Musashi, an accommodation facility in Hanno. “Nishikawa” literally means “western river.”
The facility, which opened a new guest wing on July 10, embraces the concept of local production for local consumption, using Nishikawa wood for wall decorations, a large cypress bath, tables and other purposes.
The nation’s self-sufficiency rate for wood was about 35 percent in 2016.
While Nishikawa wood and other high-quality domestic wood has been rediscovered, it also is true that domestic lumber is put under pressure by foreign wood that ensures a stable supply.
“I want children who will play important roles in the next generation to know the quality of Nishikawa wood,” said Junji Inoue, 58, who owns forest in the city. He has provided lectures about the wood at local elementary schools, using slide photographs of forests and trees, for about 30 years.
“Nishikawa wood has narrow ring widths and a fine grain, which is so beautiful,” he said, gazing at a piece of lumber destined to become furniture as fondly as one might look at a child.
“I’m so moved when I count the number of rings in a tree after cutting it down,” he said. “When I counted 200, I realized that there was someone who planted a tree 200 years ago, and there are others who preserved and raised it. I also want to pass [this spirit] on to the generation of 200 years later.”
While planting trees, he also operates his studio Kimama-kobo Kirari, where he selects pieces of wood with customers and teaches them how to make furniture. Here I saw his pride as a forester dealing with Nishikawa wood.
The following day, I drove into the mountains of the western part of Hanno and visited Takedera, a temple where a syncretic blend of Shintoism and Buddhism is practiced.
After the Meiji Restoration, the Meiji government decreed the separation of Buddhism and Shintoism nationwide. The temple, however, remained a place of syncretism, which is rare in the eastern part of Japan.
The temple belongs to the Tendai sect of Buddhism, but has an imposing gate in the style of a Shinto shrine.
When asked why the Meiji government’s separation policy did not affect the temple, 71-year-old chief priest Ryoko Ono said: “In the past, this temple was located on the border of two administrative districts deep in the mountains, so it might have been difficult to receive such notice by the new government. But we’re not sure about the actual reason.”
Probably because people hope to receive blessings both from Shintoism and Buddhism, this temple has been attracting people’s attention as a power spot.
Many visitors are uncertain about whether they should worship at this temple in a Buddhist or Shinto manner, he said.
‘Ippon’ activity attracts attention
“Ippon” activity, in which people can purchase a specific tree for its Nishikawa wood, is drawing attention. For example, a 31-meter-tall Japanese cedar tree estimated to be 90 years old costs ¥120,500, including felling and lumbering, before tax, according to the Ippon Jimukyoku organization.
The tree can be used as a central pillar or a roof beam of a house, and any extra pieces can be turned into furniture such as desks. (Manufacturing is a separate cost.)
Some purchasers are present when their trees are cut down. They included a parent and a child who wanted to learn the blessings of the forest.
About 50 minutes from Ikebukuro Station to Hanno Station by express train on the Seibu Ikebukuro Line. It takes another 25 minutes to Agano Station on the same line, which is the nearest stop to Kyukamura Oku-Musashi.
For details, call the Okumusashi Hanno Tourist Office at (042) 980-5051 (weekdays only).
To purchase wood, call Ippon Jimukyoku at (042) 970-2117 (closed on Sundays and Mondays).
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