Satoyama: Exploring the Japanese countryside

Fieldtrips are often made to the satoyama countryside by Japanese kindergarten and elementary school kids … where they can go crayfishing in the ponds or marshes, observe dragonflies, fireflies or cicadas moulting, listen to bullfrogs, help harvest rice (at Maioka Park for examples), learn about local natural vegetation and identify and pick acorns and beechnuts.
Why would you want to learn about the Satoyama?
BECAUSE the satoyama is an important ecological as well as cultural concept for Japan …
Many nursery songs feature scenes evocative of the once familiar satoyama countryside. Satoyama was the familiar Japanese rural landscape that had been developed from centuries of traditional methods of agricultural-land-woodland usage.
It is useful for those of us who live in Japan to learn the concept of satoyama which incorporates the following elements:

is a term that refers to the border zone or area between mountain foothills and arable flat land – sato(里) means arable and livable land or home land, and yama (山) means mountain.
Satoyama is an ecological concept that refers to the management of forests through local agricultural communities.
During the Edo era, young and fallen leaves were gathered from community forests to use as fertilizer in wet rice paddy fields. Since charcoal wood was used by villagers for construction, cooking and heating… this had important implications as a traditionally eco-friendly use of energy resources which has been increasingly lost with the conversion of traditional landscapes to urban town landscapes, see our earlier blog Kurokawa: Eco-friendly charcoal resources from the woodland
A coppiced forest of deciduous broad-leaf trees (comprising Japanese oaks and Japanese chestnut oaks)
was maintained by farmers who planted the trees and who cut down the trees for firewood and charcoal every 15 to 20 years to prevent the forest from reverting to the usually dense and dark laurel forest of the wild. Most plant and animal species are able to live in these deciduous forests because of traditional management practices.
Therefore, much more wildlife can be supported by well managed forests than dark unmanaged laurel forests.
Consequently, Satoyama is also a concept that is important in terms of biological diversity for Japan – the term has also been defined as mixed community forests-cum farming landscape. According to this concept, the satoyama landscape is a mosaic of mixed forests, rice paddy fields, dry rice fields, grasslands, streams, ponds, and reservoirs for irrigation. Nearby natural water resources (marshes, streams, ponds) as well as the water of the paddy irrigation channels also play an important role in adjusting water levels of paddy fields and support various diverse forms of wildlife. With the aging farming population and the reduced workforce to maintain the coppiced forests, with farmers using more chemical-weedkillers and artificial fertilizers, and concreting up some of earlier natural streams and irrigationways, the once rich and diverse array of wildlife associated with the satoyama has been seriously diminished. Dragonfly and firefly species for example are on the decline nationwide along with the vanishing of the traditional satoyama landscape.
500 environmental groups exist today, following the satoyama conservation movement of the eighties and nineties … the groups are trying to restore the traditional landscape by mobilizing volunteers to help carry out the coppicing, paddy planting, and various other traditional modes of maintaining the satoyama.
This concept is introduced into the school curriculum and around the fifth grade or so, many school children go on shizen kyoiku summer nature excusions to places such as Aikawa or Yatsugatake to participate in satoyama activities.
Click on the tabblo below to see photos of the rich mosaic of the Kurokawa satoyama, one of the few large belts of satoyama countryside (edging the Tokyo irban landscape) in Kanagawa prefecture. 

… See my Tabblo> Photographed in Kurokawa, Kanagawa prefecture

See also  our other trip to the Satoyama landscape in Maioka Park

Further reading:

Takeuchi, K. & Brown, R.D. & Washitani, I. & Tsunekawa, A. & Yokohari, M., 2008. Satoyama: The Traditional Rural Landscape of Japan Second Edition, Springer. — A comprehensive commentary book of Satoyama, including the conservation. ISBN 4-431-00007-0 978-4431000075

NOVA’s PBS website on Japan’s Secret Garden

Participatory conservation approaches for the satoyama, the traditional forest and agricultural landscape of Japan

The four seasons in the Satoyama Japanese countryside (a photo gallery)

COPYRIGHT Heritage of Japan

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