Tapping into Nature: Three Innovators Connecting People to Japan’s Woodland Environments


Alongside my work as a radio news anchor, I am currently studying for a graduate degree in global environmental studies at Sophia University. In this article I introduce three people who are engaged in unique activities to protect and reinvigorate Japan’s woodland environments. I hope their stories will offer hints for engaging with these precious wooded ecosystems and ensure they are handed on to future generations.

Nurture Through Nature: Gamoo Michiyo

Gamoo Michiyo founded the NPO Childrin eight years ago with the goal of building local networks to provide mutual support in bringing up children. As representative director of the organization she helps run events across Japan. I became interested in Childrin after hearing of an event called mokuiku. Coined from the kanji for “tree” and “nurture,” it aims to help children cultivate rich inner lives by bringing them into contact with trees and woodlands.

Gamoo Michiyo talks with a participant at a Mama Matsuri event.

Gamoo gave the new concept a try after a representative of Japan’s Forestry Agency who had heard of Childrin’s activities approached her wanting to collaborating on a project. She admits she was not especially interested in trees or forests at first, but following the meeting she started taking trips to the woods and talking to specialists at universities to learn about issues affecting Japan’s forests. As her familiarity grew, she came to understand the devastating impact cheap imported timber has had on the Japanese forestry industry. After seeing firsthand how many of Japan’s managed forests were falling into neglect, Gamoo became convinced of the importance of instilling in children an appreciation for the wonders of trees and an understanding of how vital they are to our lives.

Seeing how families living in big cities have few opportunities to travel to the woods, Gamoo created the Mama Matsuri. These events are designed to help bring kids closer to trees and are usually held on weekends in large shopping malls.

I took part in one event that was attended by around 20 parents and their young children. Participants decorated small wooden houses with cones and twigs and made lanterns lit with solar-powered LEDs. Slats of red cedar from Nara Prefecture were used as flooring and the soft feel and sweet aroma of the wood lent a pleasant, relaxing ambience to the event. The wood had an almost magically soothing effect and whenever a mother laid a crying baby on the flooring the child soon stopped crying and nodded off into a gentle sleep.

The projects used freshly cut, unpainted wood, and I watched as children happily rubbed their cheeks against pieces and commented on how nice they smelled. Some of the smaller children were even biting and licking the wood. As I watched one group building a doll house, I got a definite impression that the mothers, their eyes wide with excitement as they worked, were more eager about the project than their children.

“When my own children were small, I had just launched a company and often didn't get home until late,” Gamoo explains. “I received a lot of help from friends and neighbors, which made it possible for me to raise a family and work at the same time. Thanks to them I was able to get the company on the right track and make sure my children got a decent start in life too. Once my kids were older, I decided I wanted to give something back to the local community, and that’s what made me decide to start Childrin. The mokuiku activity has brought a new dimension to the program and given new depth to the activities of the organization as a whole, in terms of helping us to build a community for bringing up children.”

Childrin recently established what it calls the forest mama certification system that gives participating parents specialized training and helps spread the mokuiku idea. Through the system around 400 people across the country are currently working to pass on their love of trees to the next generation.

The Healing Power of Woodlands: C. W. Nicol

C.W. Nicol (photo courtesy of C.W. Nicol’s office)

C. W. Nicol for many years has been working in areas affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011. The Welsh-born writer and environmentalist firmly believes that trees and woodlands have the power to help heal people traumatized by the disaster. In Higashimatsushima, a city in Miyagi Prefecture that was ravaged by tsunami, Nicol and his team are working to build a school in a local woodland that will tap into the area’s rich natural environment. Called Mori no gakkō (School in the Forest), the idea is to provide classes to children that make use of the surrounding woods, lakes, and rice paddies.

The 2011 disaster claimed the lives of more than 1,000 residents of Higashimatsushima, and six of the city’s fourteen schools were inundated by the tsunami. When authorities began rebuilding the schools on higher ground they had the idea for the Mori no gakkō after Nicol invited local children to visit the Afan Woodland Trust that he administers in Kurohime, Nagano Prefecture—the name Afan comes from a Welsh word meaning “place where the wind blows.”

For a number of years the trust has run a project that invites children with physical or mental disabilities to spend time in the rich natural environment of the woods. “All living things are interconnected; we’re all part of a balanced circle of life,” Nicol says. “Over the years, I’ve seen the children who visited us here pick up on that natural connection, and understand that the woods are alive and that we are joined to the trees and the forests. It convinced me that we could use the healing power of the forests to help children from outside Kurohime as well.”

Nicol says the hope is that ultimately these disaster-stricken areas will not just recover but prosper. “We continue to work with people in Higashimatsushima with that idea in mind. Our hope is that eventually the children who studied at the school will grow up and fulfill their dreams. And that these areas, previously ravaged by terrible disaster, will give birth to a new hope for Japan.” Nicol’s activities have attracted international attention, and the school has been visited by numerous educators from China, Korea, and other Asian countries.

Mitsuka Norie: Bringing the Aromas of Japan’s Woodlands to Market

Mitsuka Norie, who has a special talent known as absolute sense of smell, produces aromas from pure, natural Japanese ingredients in the mountains of Takayama in Gifu Prefecture.

Humans typically have around 400 smell receptors and can distinguish among some 10,000 types of odors. Just as people with absolute pitch can identify individual notes in complex chords, Mitsuka can pinpoint specific smells and then use her sensitivity to devise more attractive scents.

Mitsuka Norie , left, oversees an aroma-blending class.

Mitsuka blends aromas extracted from trees native to the surrounding Hida Mountains, such as kuromoji and willow-leafed magnolia, relying on her uncanny sense of smell to help her find the perfect ratio to bring out the best possible blend. Her aroma blends are highly sought after, and one of her scents was presented as an official gift to US President Barack Obama and other world leaders at the G7 Ise Shima Summit in 2016.

Many kinds of natural aroma are on sale in Japan but most of these are manufactured overseas using tropical plant species. Although the number of aromas refined from domestic species has been steadily increasing in recent years, these do not yet have a major presence on the market.

“We have wonderful woodland resources right here in Japan,” Mitsuka says. “The sad thing is that most of them are hardly being used on a commercial basis at the moment and are going to waste. The timber and foliage we use to extract the aromas are parts of the tree that are usually just thrown away.” She emphasizes that the production method she used is environmentally friendly and that nothing goes to waste. “We happened to find out that the liquid left over after we have extracted the essential oils makes highly nutritious feed for beetles. So we really do use every drop!”

Synthetic chemical scents still dominate the market, but Mitsuka is looking to change this. “I want to help people incorporate cosmetics and other items made with natural Japanese into their daily lives. I want to bring people closer to nature and help them lead healthier lives.”

(Originally Published in Japanese on August 13, 2018. Photos by Takeda Yuri, unless otherwise noted. Banner photo: A mother and daughter make solar light lanterns at a Mama Matsuri event organized by Childrin.)

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