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Exploring the forest of Minamioguni

So, when I first moved to Minamioguni, one of the first things I learned about was Minamioguni’s long history of forestry which has supported the town for more than 250 years. Especially the cultivation of cedar trees. Cultivating nature and reaping its blessings while also keeping balance and harmony in the eco-system. This is the heart of “Satoyama”-culture.
In other words, designing a guided tour to experience the forests and the culture surrounding them was a no-brainer. But in all honesty, I have always felt unsure about how if any foreign tourists actually would come to experience and learn about forestry in Japan…?

Imagine how happy I was when I suddenly found a request for our forestry tour from two German travelers!

Let me introduce Konrad and Gaby Freihofer!
They actually have their own small tree nursery in German, but where they come from, conifers are rare. Which explains their slightly unusual interest in learning about the cultivation and industry surrounding the forests here, that mainly consists of conifers!

Without further ado, we headed into the cedar forests with their beautiful straight trunks that stretch towards the sky, a characteristic that has made them known as holy trees in Japan.
Our local guide was Anai Shunsuke-san who is the son of the last “large” lumber mill remaining in Minamioguni.

In the forests we got to watch the exquisite skill of a professional felling a tree, or putting it to sleep, as the Japanese say. Many people might feel uncomfortable at the thought of cutting down tress. A common misunderstanding is that this is destruction of nature when it actually is a vital part of keeping the forest healthy (planted forests). In the same way that a tomato farmer cuts branches that don’t bear fruit to make sure that the healthy branches get enough nutrition, the lumber jack cuts down unhealthy trees to make sure that other trees can grow strong. Furthermore, this allows for sunlight to penetrate the treetops and reach the forest floor. By doing so, many different plants can grow in the forest which helps preserving the bio-diversity. Instead, if you would leave the forest as it is, the root system would become shallow causing landslides and other natural disasters.
Well, you get the point… Let’s move one!

After spending the early hours in the forest, we set aim at one of my favourite restaurants, Irifune. This small restaurant and lodging is run by one of the sweetest ladies in the world, Goto Haruko-san. The actual building is made by connecting and renovating two traditional Japanese warehouses. You can often find these atmospheric buildings in the countryside since they are easy to spot with their tiled roofs and white plastered walls. But getting to spend a night or enjoy a meal in one is a rare experience.

Speaking of meals, Haruko-san cooks local cuisine using home-grown and locally sourced ingredients. Every dish is carefully made and represents the traditional local cuisine of the area. What takes many guests by surprise, is the stunning amount of food though! And even though the first serving is enough to down even the strongest of food fighters, she will gladly encourage you to have another bowl of rice or find a bonus dish or two to bring out as an extra treat. This typical countryside hospitality is wonderful, but you should make sure that you have ample space in your belly before visiting Irifune!

In the afternoon we kept exploring areas that help paint the picture of Minamioguni’s forestry culture. One of the spots is a Zelkova tree, commonly known as the bonsai tree, but this one is more than 1000 years old and way too big to be called a bonsai.
We also explored the lumber mill where our German guests eagerly documented the different machines and asked questions about the ins and outs of processing lumber.

Finally, as the last stop of the day, we went to Shunsuke-san’s workshop where he and his wife make aroma oil from the needle shaped leaves of the cedar tree. This is a part of the tree that decomposes slowly and needs to be manually removed from the forests. Shunsuke-san and his wife could probably get this for free from the lumber jacks but insist on buying it. By doing so, they aim to increase the value of the forest’s natural resources in an age where lumber often gets replaced by cheap plastic and artificial material.

Here you can also enjoy a workshop and craft your own aroma candle. This activity is really popular and I’ve seen quite a few brawny men who started by frowning at the concept of making and decorating aroma candles only to soon find themselves absorbed in the creative process.

Great souvenir to bring back home as well!

It was so great to meet Konrad and Gaby and it made me so happy to see how interested they were in everything we showed and every place we brought them. I opened by saying that I was uncertain whether there would be people out there who would participate in a tour with such an unorthodox theme. But I’m so pleased to say that Konrad and Gaby proved me wrong. Of course, this will never be the main attraction and it is undoubtedly a slim area for people with a particular interest. But I truly felt happy that we made the tour, and it increased my conviction that there is a place for this type of content that truly displays the real and unique culture of an area.

The best part, Konrad and Gaby will come back again and we are already talking about the next tour! On a slightly different theme this type but trust me, it is just as slim, crazy, and exciting!
Look forward to seeing it in a future post!



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