Japan is a relatively small country given the size of its population. It is also very mountainous, so people have been establishing communities and living near the mountains since ancient times. Japanese people venerate the mountains and the wide variety of trees found there. Mountain forests traditionally provided many of nature's gifts, such as edible plants and nuts, firewood and charcoal, and timber. For this reason local residents always took great care to maintain them.
The Japanese have a special word for locally maintained mountainsides; they are known as satoyama ("village mountain"). Although the forests that cover satoyama are taken care of by local residents, in a sense they are still wild country. This means that satoyama are halfway between untouched natural woodland and monitored forests.
Satoyama contain much undeveloped wilderness and are home to rarely seen animals like rabbits and wild boars. And because local residents regularly visit them, children can play there in relative safety.
Satoyama have been portrayed as havens for the coexistence of humans and nature in TV shows and movies, such as the animated movie My Neighbor Totoro. Many Japanese people say that the tranquil scenic portrayal reminds them of days gone by. Rural populations have been declining recently, however, and there are fewer young people living in mountain villages. Without people around to take care of them, some satoyama have become dark and overgrown.
At the same time, people are realizing that satoyama are a great way to preserve the environment, and various organizations and corporations are lending a hand. Recently city residents have begun traveling to mountain villages on weekends to volunteer to help maintain the local satoyama.
The volunteers' main activities are planting trees, thinning out forests, and removing weeds to promote healthy growth; they also take steps to stop soil erosion. Not only do these actions keep the forests healthy, but by preventing erosion they help to avoid natural disasters like mudslides.
By getting closer to nature and realizing its importance, these city dwellers have brought new life to the custom of maintaining satoyama. Recently these activities have even drawn attention from outside Japan.
Satoyama activities not only bring people in contact with the natural world but also give them a chance to taste food from the land and catch a glimpse of rarely seen woodland creatures. Would you like to visit a satoyama?