Yumi Asano, Nature Conservation Tour Guide of Shiretoko

Nature Conservation Tour Guide with Stuffed Animals

Yumi Asano is a kind of woman who projects an image of being active and gets attention easily when she talks.
It was November, 2003 when I first met her at the Ninth National Gathering to Bridge between Forests and Citizens 2003 in Hokkaido. Hokkaido is the Japan’s largest island located to the north of the main island. She was lecturing about a theme “How to Play with Bugs” at one of its working sessions called “Getting Along with Forest Life.”
I was impressed to see her talking earnestly holding high up a big stuffed ant over her head. It seemed that she had a strong will to convey something to audience through her lectures. The stuffed ant was elaborately designed, and she used it to explain that ants have constricted waists.
I guessed from her lecture that she made the ant by herself. There was also a stuffed springtail. She said she made them morphologically same as real bugs and animals. They were more like accurate replicas than stuffed animals. She explained about ants’ constricted waists to the audience using these animas. The audience then nodded and laughed while she was lecturing.

Leaving for Shiretoko

Asano belongs to Shiretoko Nature Center of Shiretoko Nature Foundation. She usually used the stuffed animals to explain visitors about natural environment of Shiretoko. I thought it would be fun to learn about nature with those authentic-looking animals.
I was also interested in characters of the place. It is famous for Shiretoko One Hundred Square Meters Movement and is a pioneering land in nature conservation movements in Japan. It is now on the UNESCO List of World Natural Heritage Sites and remains one of the most valuable natural environments in the world. It is also one of the major tourist spots in Hokkaido with a number of huge hot-spring hotels.
I left for Shiretoko in the end of March of 2006 when drift ice was still there to find out how they conserve its natural environment and how to find jobs related to its conservation.

Utoro with Drift Ice

I exchanged some e-mails with Asano before I left for Shiretoko. I asked her when to visit there in early spring, and she recommended to come in March to see drift ice or in leafy month of May.
I arrived at Shiretoko on a sunny day in the middle of March on her advice. When I checked weather report in Tokyo, they said temperature of Shiretoko was minus two degrees Celsius during the day and minus twelve degrees Celsius at night. I thought it would have been bitterly cold. It was sunny and comfortable actually when I got there. I felt the warm sunshine through the cold air, and the blue sky was so clear and bright.
There was no ice in Abashiri which is about half an hour drive from Memanbetsu Airport where my airplane landed. They said the ice disappeared a long time before I arrived there. There were sightseeing ice breaking vessels “Aurora” docked at the harbor quietly.
It is about two hour drive toward Shiretoko Peninsula from Abashiri to Utoro, where the Shiretoko Nature Center is. I passed the central area of Shari town, which covers north area of the peninsula, and drove along a coast toward Utoro. . The ports in Utoro were still blocked by drift ice. White massive ice covered the sea so far as to the point where buoys would have been set to show the area in which people are allowed to swim if there was a bathing beach.
There were some places on the ice where people gathered. They say people dive under the ice. If they are lucky, they can watch cliones, known as sea angels. It is a new highlight of experiences in natural environment of Utoro at this time of year.
A couple of huge hotels are built in the center of Utoro, which are as luxurious as those in Tokyo. I was amazed to see those brand-new hotels standing contrastively in the great natural environment of Shiretoko.

Shiretoko Nature Center

The Shiretoko Nature Center that Asano works for is located at about seven kilometers away from the central area of Utoro, which is the entrance of the sightseeing area of Shiretoko. It stands at a fork of a national road leading to Cape Shiretoko and a road to Shiretoko Five Lakes, which is closed in the winter months. I was anxious about driving in the snow, but that concern proved unfounded. There is a youth hostel beyond the Nature Center, and roads to get there were completely cleared off.
The center is a base for providing information of sightseeing in Shiretoro. It has such a fancy video facility called dynavision where natural environments of Shiretoko can be shown on the large screen.
The building of the center belongs to Shari town, and its administrative operation is delegated to the Shiretoko Nature Foundation. The foundation was established by the local town, Shari, in 1988 to conserve natural environment of Shiretoko and to make use of it in harmony. One of the projects that the foundation is currently working on is to have research studies on the nature of Shiretoko, including “Survey of Brown Bears Behaviors”, for example.
The foundation is often commissioned by public organizations such as Ministry of the Environment, Hokkaido Government, and Shari town to do surveys on natural environments and conservation works.
The foundation runs four main projects: research studies, conservation and management; dissemination and public education; natural reproduction; and facilities administration and operation. The organization has an administrative director, a secretary-general, a deputy secretary-general, and below them are general affairs and management section, dissemination section, research on conservation and management section, and natural reproduction project section.
According to the project planning for the fiscal 2003, twenty four staff members are working for the foundation. Of these members, twelve nature conservation tour guides, five researchers and three natural reproduction members work in the field.
Asano’s title is a nature conservation tour guide of dissemination section for information.
Profiles of each member are described in the project planning papers, including a powerful lineup such as a person who lived in a village in Indonesia where people earn livelihoods by catching whales, and a person who learned hunting of caribou with the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic.

Tour to Furepe Waterfall

When I arrived at the Shiretoko Nature Center, Asano welcomed me in a grass green uniform.
All of the nature conservation tour guides looked well and smart in the uniforms. I asked her to show me around. There are three different tours at that time of the year, and I decided to go to see Furepe Waterfall. It is a waterfall flowing from piers facing the Okhotsk Sea. I thought I would have to keep walking if I chose other tours to go into forests. Therefore, I wanted to go to the waterfall and interview Asano while watching the Okhotsk Sea of winter.
I wore snow shoes that she prepared for me and started walking. They are sometimes called western kanjiki. Rings are equipped on their bottom to create more surface areas and to support your weight, and they enable you to walk on snow. The snow shoes and equipment for cross-skiing are rented at the center.
Many of those who work for the Nature Center use Ainu kanjiki. While Kanjiki used in Japan’s main island have saw-edged parts on their bottom to grasp snow, the Ainu kanjiki do not. Therefore, you can walk more lightly with them. One of the reasons why the members of the center prefer them to snow shoes is because the former are in themselves lighter than the latter.

Attracted by Natural Environment of Doto, Eastern Hokkaido

Asano had been working as a nature conservation tour guide going on three years at that point. She said there were still a lot more to learn. She is from Hachioji, Tokyo. Farming community was still there, and she liked playing in the fields of Hachioji when she was little.
She started thinking about what she should do in the future when she entered high school. She wanted to find a job that is related to natural environment. At that time, she could only think of a veterinarian who would be able to make his/her living after he/she learns about wild animals and nature at college. She decided to major in Agricultural and Environmental Ecology, Department of Agro-Environmental Science at Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine.
She spent her college days in Obihiro and totally fell in love with natural environment of Hokkaido, which is completely different from that of the mainland in terms of scale. Especially Doto, the eastern Hokkaido where Kushiro and Shiretoko are located at, was so inviting for her.
In spring, flowers bloom in moors as if they wake up after their long slumber. After short summer come fall with golden leaves. Then harsh winter comes. While Asano experienced turning of the seasons, her interest in nature itself gradually changed. As time went by, she became sure that she wanted to live there making a lifelong commitment to its natural environment.

Turning to Be Insects Girl from Kaiju Girl

Asano and I saw some tourists on our way to the Furepe waterfall. She seemed to know them and explained them snow condition of the season. “A lot of repeat visitors come at this time of year,” she said after they passed us. Some events for tourists sponsored by Utoro are held by the beginning of March in time for drift ice season. When they are all finished, large parties leave. Instead, a number of people who just like natural environment of Shiretoko and visit there several times a year increases instead.
After a while, students of Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine carrying large scopes and tripods walked past us.
Asano and I talked about many things along the way. I told her about Tomio Nonoyama, who went so far as to Africa just to look for monsters and now lives on the Island of Yakushima (Yakushima, located to the south of Kyushu, is on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites). I thought that nature conservation guides differ greatly depending on where they work. Many of the guides on Yakushima are freelance, while many of those in Shiretoko belong to some organizations.
“I used to be a kaiju girl, too,” said Asano. “It is one letter away, though,” she added. She belonged to a research group to study harbor seals in university and graduate school and was absorbed in doing a research on seals. Kaiju means both marine animals and monsters in Japanese, but here she meant the former.
In Hokkaido, seals get into fishing nets and damage fish that are caught in them. There is a strong link between living environment of seals and that of human beings.
Asano did a research on the ecology of seals, and she also did a hearing investigation at fishing villages about the coexistence with seals and human beings.
Through these activities, she realized that she was not just interested in animals or insects as a single individual in natural environment but in a whole ecosystem. She found a big theme there, which is how human beings can co-exist with other living things.

When I’m in university, I researched on the ecology of seals, and I also engaged in activities to tell people that there are seals living in Hokkaido. We had exhibitions in towns where their habitat are found and at aquariums. We studied and tried hands-on exhibits, where people can directly touch items on display, and interpretation, which is to explain people about nature, culture, history, and messages behind them.
In my research, I compiled old search records from the perspective of what makes seals disturb (Disturb: to get off reefs .and dive into the sea. If seals often disturb in the breeding period, it can affect their nurturing).
At that time, some organizations came to think about relying on seals to promote tourism. Then I started looking for ways to gather a large number of tourists and show them the seals without giving a negative impact on them, which means without making them disturb. I draw upon whale-watching tours and the like.
In Akkeshi, people use fishing boats of local fishermen to tell tourists about their fishery industry. And at the same time, they were trying to show them seals living around Daikoku Island (Daikoku Island is one of the nation’s most popular breeding areas for harbor seals, and up to 300 of them get on shore of the island). I sought with the people in Akkeshi how we could bring about eco-tourism, and I sometimes got into a boat and guided the tourists. Through these activities, I realized it is important that doing research and conveying knowledge of nature produce a synergistic effect on tourism.
While I studied ecologic science at university, I was thinking about becoming a teacher. I worked part-time at some high school for the handicapped for three years to get experience. I felt that I wanted to work as a bridge between nature and people including the handicapped through conveying and teaching my knowledge. I was beginning to know where I wanted to go in the future
I then tried to find out if I wanted to be a high school teacher to teach students how interesting nature is, to be a tour guide to convey its interests extensively though I would have had less time to contact with nature, or to go on to a doctor’s course, get a career in research and to live a life as a researcher.

Anxiety about Getting a Job

The Furepe Waterfall was frozen and looked as if bluish white ice pillars were climbing up the black piers. We saw the students of Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine who walked past us a while ago. They set the tripods and were watching something through the scopes. They said there were Steller's sea eagles. The Steller’s sea eagles are one of the most valuable animals that represent Shiretoko. The students let me watch them through their scope. I saw one of them standing still in a small space of bold cliffs. It looked like a well-made craftwork with a beautiful beak.

Asano visited the Shiretoko Nature Center when she was still not sure what she really wanted to do in the future. There are only a few organizations in Japan where staff members do research studies and also give explanations of natural environment to tourists at the same place. She became interested in the center and attended volunteering seminars that were hosted by the center. It was her turning point in her life.

(Comments of Asano)

I attended the volunteering seminars and learned “interpretation” there. They were good opportunities for me to enhance my skills, because I wanted to make my living as an interpreter in Hokkaido. I also thought that maybe I could hear about getting a job not from people of the center but from other attendants.
As I said, only a few organizations in Japan do research studies and give explanations of natural environments to tourists at the same place. I knew only two of them, the Shiretoko Nature Foundation and Picchio Wildlife Research Center, and I was trying to get a job at either of these two. So, when I attended the seminars, I wanted to look over the Shiretoko Nature Foundation beforehand and see if it is a good place to work for.
I started giving lectures as my field work since the fiscal 2003.


Tomio Nonoyama, Nature Conservation Tour Guide on the Island of Yakushima

Meeting with an Explorer of Monsters

Toward the end of the year 2003, I heard about this tour guide on the Island of Yakushima. (Yakushima, located to the south of Kyushu, is on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites, and is famous for its yaku-sugi cedar trees.) They say he once went to Africa to look for monsters. Looking for monsters, and what’s more, as far away as to Africa! And Yakushima! I’ve met many people with quite unique backgrounds, but I felt this man definitely stood out from the rest. “He surely is something!” I thought.

As soon as I got his e-mail address, I sent him a message. I received in no time a reply written in quite common language. It said he had his own website. I said to myself, “Looks like the explorers of monsters are rather IT-oriented. Well, it may not be surprising. They might even be making the full use of the state-of-the-art information technology.” With these thoughts, I opened the designated website. It was that of Tomio Nonoyama, a nature conservation tour guide working on the Island of Yaskushima.

This is the man who went all the way to Africa just to find out monsters. I carefully perused the website. I came across a picture of a roasted monkey and a picture-story showing monsters. As I had expected, it surely had strong impact.

That definitely induced me to go to Yakushima and see him at any cost. I left for the island after consulting him several times to adjust our schedules.

Nature Conservation Tour Guide on the Island of Yakushima

That was how I ended up spending the New Year’s Eve of 2003 with Tomio Nonoyama, the nature conservation tour guide on the Island of Yakushima.

Yakushima is one of the most valuable places in the world in terms of the natural environment in a good state of preservation. Gigantic cedar trees such as jomon-sugi and yayoi-sugi, which are estimated to be several thousand years old, are still growing there. Nonoyama’s job is to show to tourists and mountain climbers from across the world the island’s natural environment living in symbiosis with these trees.

There are many kinds of guides, but Nonoyama is more of a mountaineering guide.

Nature on this island is not necessarily friendly to tourists. Mountain-climbing equipment is indispensable. They also need to bring rainwear with them, not to mention mountain-climbing boots, even for a one-day trip. Preparing for rainy weather is a must, because the island is one of the regions of the highest rainfall in Japan.

There are two guided nature conservation tours on the island. One is to go and see the jomon-sugi, which is said to be 7,200 years old, and the other to visit the Shiratani Unsuikyo Valley, where you can appreciate the bracing atmosphere preserved in and around a primeval forest.

It would take more than ten hours even for good walkers to complete a round-trip to and from the jomon-sugi. The Shiratani Unsuikyo Valley tour, on the other hand, can be reached and looked around in a couple of hours depending on the route your group will follow. This does not mean that shorter tours are of less value than longer ones. In fact, if you have to choose either the jomon-sugi or the valley, the latter is rather strongly recommended because its guide will have enough time to explain the natural environment and history of the island.

“GOLGO13?” That was my first impression from him

We arranged to meet in front of a condominium in Miyanoura. It was a rainy day, and Nonoyama’s orange jacket stood out brightly against the cloudy sky. I heard later that the jacket was a uniform provided by Native Vision that he belongs to. The Native Vision is one of local travel agencies of Yakushima which organize eco-tours on the island.

What impressed me most about him was that he kept himself straighten up. He looked as if he was a blue-collar worker, a mountain climber or a self-defense personnel. As I knew his profile, it may not be surprising that I received the impression of the first two, but that of a self-defense personnel might have come from his half-frozen expression. I thought he was slightly nervous about doing an interview.

Or he just did not open himself up to a stranger, because he in fact is the man who went all the way to the U.S. to participate in such hard military discipline-like survival training. He reminded me of a leading character in the Japanese famous cartoon “GOLGO13,” who is a world class hit man,

Leader of Children

We left the parking lot of the condominium, and Nonoyama drove me to a starting point of a trail up a mountain.

“Yakusugi is supposed to be over a thousand years old. In Yakushima, trees between ages of one hundred and less than a thousand are called kosugi and are distinguished from the Yakusugi. Less than hundred-year-old cedars planted near foot of a mountain are called chisugi in specific”.

Nonoyama explained me about Yakushima for half an hour along the way. He looked quiet but talked quite fluently in fact. “Guides can’t be quite,” he said. He actually likes talking and teaching.

In his undergraduate days, Nonoyama acted actively as a leader who took children for camping. I thought his experience at that time is of use in working as a guide now. The children must have had much fun camping with a leader like him.

While climbing, we stopped at every point, and Nonoyama explained me about nidaisugi and Toboku Koshin. The nidaisugi is a second-generation cedar grown on an original tree, and the Toboku Koshin is the way cedars change their generations. He also explained me how people of the Edo Period fell the yakusugi, mountain trails that they used to move out the fallen trees and so on. Information of this kind may be found in a guide book, but it was still impressive to hear on site. Although it was not easy at all to walk along mountain paths with steep ups and downs in rainy weather, I very much enjoyed the climbing.

Helping Others Commune with Nature

I remembered my elementary school days. As I was not active at that time, an annual field trip to mountains was a pain in the neck and always made me gloomy. Mountain climbing was incorporated into school activities in the name of development of children’s physical strength, but I did not understand what in the world is the fun of just following mountain paths with mass of rubble. Those mountains that elementary school kids could climb were limited, and not many could be overlooked even from the top of the mountains. Along the way, teachers always used set phrases such as “Keep up with others!” or “Hang in there!” Mountain climbing was nothing but a pain for me.

I still doubt how effective it was to climb a mountain once a year to develop physical strength. I did not like mountains and nature anyway. If I had met a tour guide like Nonoyama then, I would have thought differently. Tour guides can help people get acquainted with nature.

Understanding Nature is Protecting Nature

Rat-a-tat! Tap-tap! “Now listen carefully. They are different. This tree has a hollow inside,” said Nonoyama angrily by the yayoisugi, which is a kind of symbolic cedar trees called the yakushigi on the island.

About four years ago, someone has entirely cut out a part of the yayoisugi near its root. The part is square-shaped, and is as high as one can reach with his/her hand. Its lower part is now rotten and hollow already. Things seemed to have carried out at night, and no one has witnessed the act.

“This tree may fall in less than ten years,” said Nonoyama. “The person who has done this might not have thought that it would cause much trouble, because the cut part is not so big. He also might not have never imagined that it would cause this much damage to it. But, it does actually. The tree is inclined and its weight is supposed to be supported by the rotten part. It can’t bear full weight that long, and it’s just a matter of time before it falls.”

He is upset that natural environment of Yakushima was injured. He just does not blame the mindless person but thinks further. “He would not have thought of giving a fatal wound to the yakusugi. This would not have happened if there is someone to teach him about the tree and raise his awareness for nature.”

Nonoyama keenly feels the importance of the tour guides’ roll to understand the nature of the island and to convey their knowledge and experience to the others.

Road to Africa

It was eight years ago when Nonoyama came to Yakushima. After graduating from department of political science of Komazawa University in 1986, he left for Congo, which is located in the inland of the African continent. He went there with his friend to look for monsters with some amount of money earned by doing a part-time job.

As countries of this area are not yet settled, their regimes change often and even their names change sometimes. Let me call the country of that time that Nonoyama and his friend went “Congo.” Very few Japanese were found there.

Although Nonoyama graduated from the university, he had no intention of working for a stable company and still worked as a daily worker instead. As he was brought up in an industrial region near Tokyo, he never had a problem in finding manual labor. He had worked as such since he was in high school.

I have no idea why he went on to university though he was not interested in finding employment. Attending university, however, does not mean that you have to take a position at a company. University is a place to gain knowledge, to build relationships, and to take chances. Experiences at university will never get in the way no matter how you work.

While in university, Nonoyama spent most of his time taking part in exploring club activities and volunteering to take children for outdoors. He, of course, paid his university and earned his living by doing day-labor jobs. One of his current dreams is to build a school for kids to have them enjoy outdoor activities.

Although Nonoyama and his friend went so far as to Africa to look for monsters, they ran out of money before they obtained permission to enter the area and ended up going back home so easily. A year later, an explosion club of Waseda University heard about them and planned an expedition to Africa. Nonoyama joined their expeditionary team. For more information, I recommend you to read “MBEMBE, the Phantom Monster” written by one of the team members.

In this book, Nonoyama is described more of a superman than anything. He took care of other members who became sick in an unfamiliar surrounding, made portable toilets outside all by himself, and rarely had upset stomachs.

Outdoor life is just a kind of life styles for him.

Going back to Africa for NGO Activities

Nonoyama’s attending the expedition led him to become a member of a Japanese NGO “Action for greening Sahel” operating in Africa. He spent the end of the year 1988 (?) in Republic of Chad and Burkina Faso trying to spread improved furnaces (Republic of Chad and Burkina Faso are both in Africa. Let’s check them out on a world map).

For countries in Africa where desertification is a serious problem, it is a matter of life or death to effectively use wood for fuel. The advanced furnaces that Nonoyama tried to prevail were twice more efficient than conventional ones. It, however, was not easy to convey their good points to people in Africa. He then came up with the idea to use picture-cards to show them how convenient the new furnaces were compared to the old ones.

Those cards of his own making are still available to see. Every character is charming and well-drawn. They are not bad at all for an amateur, and I made a compliment to him on his drawings. “I like cartoons and monsters since I was a kid. I do a painting, too,” said Nonoyama proudly.

He is the man who likes monsters since he was little and went as far as to Africa just to look for the real ones.

Student members of the explosion club of the Waseda University seemed to have age-appropriate ambitions. Nonoyama, on the other hand, embarked on an adventure a year before with sheer curiosity like a boy. Such a pure-hearted person may not be suited to work in a Japanese corporate community, so it might have been quite natural for him to live as a casual worker.

Unpopular Picture-Cards

Nonoyama’s picture-cards were not so popular among people of Africa at the beginning, because they were not familiar at all with the cards. Even in Japan, young generation may not have seen them, neither. There is not a concept of picture-cards in African culture in the first place. Many Africans might have thought of him as a Japanese who was trying to tell them something using some drawings with the help of an interpreter.

His performance might have looked clownish just as his exploration of monsters in Africa with a little bit of money he made from his day-labor jobs was.

Sometimes, people think of those who are pure and do their utmost at everything as ridiculous. That is because they fear them at the bottom of their hearts. They fear that something may happen to defy their common sense.

I am not sure if picture-cards later came to be recognized in the African society. There are a number of NGOs in underdeveloped regions using drawings and voice transferring in order to communicate their opinions to residents, who have different languages and cultures and are illiterate in most cases. I should say that Nonoyama took a good approach.

Learning from Teaching

Nonoyama learned much from his experiences of spending a few years in spreading the improved furnaces. He found out that even the conventional ones with low combustion efficiency can be used as light at night, and thick smoke rising from them keep harmful insects away.

Civilized countries do not necessarily have the best culture among the others. Each culture is one and only. His experience of having had a hard time in Africa communicating with people by use of picture-cards gave him well-balanced ways of thinking that it is important to improve conventional culture, develop new one’s good points and get the best of the two; and to promote better culture than the old respecting its advantages.

“I went to Chad two years ago and saw people using my furnaces. I was impressed,” said Nonoyama. He seemed to be proud that his furnaces were still used even now.

He did not quit making picture-cards. He is now working on new ones to bring them to Africa next time. He looks really happy.

Yakushima, a Terminal of Journey,

Nonoyama first came to Yakushima eight years ago. He arrived there to complete advertising campaign of the NGO “Action for greening Sahel,”and then remained on the island. Beauty of its natural environment made him decide to live there. He felt that its virgin forests have atmospheres that are similar to those of Africa.

Fortunately, there were offers of work in construction at that time, and Nonoyama, who had trained himself through casual labor, was highly appreciated there. He lived in his friend’s barn at that time. He found out later that his friend offered him there as a sleeping place only half seriously, but Nonoyama was deeply impressed and lived there for two years or so.

After a while, he happened to find about 5950 square meters of land on sale at a bargain price. He bought the huge land for children to have them enjoy outdoor activities there in the future. He built a house at its corner almost all by himself.

He used to work temporarily as a guide or carried luggage when TV crew came to the island until he officially became a nature conservation tour guide six years ago. He gained knowledge he needed to be a guide from this experience and older guides. He now gives guidance to the younger generation as a director of Association of Guides of Yakushima.

Favorite Things are not Always Easy

Nonoyama seems to have had such an eventful life. He also had luck meeting people at perfect timing and got help from them to overcome ups and downs and to take the next step. “People often say that I’m lucky,” he said.

Yet I was not envious of him. His life with careers as a day worker, a NGO volunteer and a guide, his calling, is certainly extraordinary. Not many people can live like that except him. He was already philosophical about life when he was in high school and decided to work as a daily-rated worker. Besides, he had enough techniques and physical strength to survive even in jungles of Africa. I thought he was gifted with power.

His words, however, helped me understand him a little better.

“I’ve been just doing what I want to do. I’ve never tried anything that I didn’t feel like doing. I’ve made it somehow, because I was lucky to have met people who are kind enough to help me out. I only did things that I was interested in, but they were not always easy to do. Doing fun things doesn’t mean that you can do it without any trouble.”

Those who have never frustrated in their lives would not say that they got help from the others. Those who think that they only did what they wanted to do are ready to take responsibilities for everything that would happen to themselves.

Three days after my interview, Nonoyama left for Burkina Faso. He was going to spend two weeks there to investigate a project with the purpose of spreading charcoal. Nature conservation tour guides on Yakushima suspend operations from December to the end of February. During the off season, Nonoyama set out on a trip to do whatever he wanted to do.

How to Become a Nature Conservation Tour Guide on the Island of Yakushima

Every year, more than twenty thousand tourists and mountain climbers visit Yakushima to see its valuable natural environment, which is designated a World Natural Heritage site. It is guides’ job to show visitors the appeal of the island that is quite different from other places in the world.

I heard that there are about a hundred guides living on the island, and around seventy percent of them are from outside. I asked Nonoyama, who came from Yokohama City and has worked as a guide for eight years now, how they became the guides and what should be done to become them.

A Job without the Need of a License

Currently, no license is required to be a nature conservation tour guide on Yakushima, which means anyone can work as a guide. There, of course, needs to be tourists who want to be guided. Nonoyama belongs to an organization called Native Vision and is offered a commission from travel agencies and hotels through it to guide their clients. As he has a long career, he is personally asked to be a guide sometimes.

Two other organizations of tour guides like the Native Vision are there on Yakushima. There are also many independent guides, and they would make more than one hundred guides in total. More than seventy percent of them came from outside the island. They somehow came to Yakushima after all. It may be the easiest way so far just to come to the island and look for opportunities to be a guide.

Qualities of a Guide

There must be some qualities to be a tour guide on Yakushima. Physical strength is required at least. Nonoyama goes directly to his working place, which exactly is a trail up a mountain, and goes home directly from there. In season, he spends his time in mountains almost everyday whether or not it is rainy or hot and dry. The guides need to adapt themselves to a life style like Nonoyama’s.

Another job of the guides is to protect security of tourists and mountaineers while climbing. Every year, a couple of alpine accidents usually happen on Yakushima, and the guides sometimes need to go down mountains carrying injured people. In fact, there was a woman who could not walk in the other group of tourists while I was climbing, and the guide who was leading the group went down the mountain with her on his back. Women may not be too heavy to carry, but there are more men than women actually who tend to give up on the way. Nonoyama carried five people down from mountains during the last season.

The guides cooperate with each other to continue guiding when they have to climb down mountains with injured people. Most of them carry compact two-way radios with them to contact each other in mountains. Guides need to be certified to use wireless transmission.

Being Studious, Talkative, and Good with People

I thought, while interviewing Nonoyama, that the guides have to be fond of studying. They definitely need to know where to go and what to see to show tourists the great natural environment of Yakushima, and they should be able to explain about vegetation of trees, not to mention that of yaku-sugi. Knowledge of history and culture of the island is required to introduce them appeals of the island where people live since the dawn of time.

The guides should be always aware of the nature of the Yakushima and are eager to study more and more about it, so that they can be better guides on the island, where human activities and its nature should be protected and co-existed in peace.

Income, Outgo, and a Lifestyle of a Guide

Currently, it costs between ten thousand and fifteen thousand yen per person to hire a guide on Yakushima. As at least five people are usually included in a group, a guide can earn a good income per day. However, it is still not a secure job, because there are less working opportunities in winter. Besides, it includes physical labor so that the guides need to get rest and protect themselves. Sometimes tourists come to the island with guides from outside the island, and it can be very competitive.

About nine hundred people emigrate to Yakushima every year for the last twenty-three years. A lot of people are attracted by its charms.

Waves of change are coming gradually to the traditional course of the island with increases in numbers of tourists and emigrants. Those who want to live there should be aware that it has now entered a phase of change.


Shin-ichi Izutsu, a Master Violinmaker

Windows Facing North

Patches of blue sky are visible through the workshop windows facing north. Through the windows facing west, the sun shines gently on the potted plants with beautiful leaves. The workshop is probably as large as an elementary school classroom, and spacious enough for one person to work in it though there are worktables and office desks.

The north windows are there to alleviate the effects of the sunshine, and the fluorescent lights are brightly on even during the day in the workshop. Those are the conditions created for the benefit of its master whose work is to cut and plane wood.

Shoo, shoo, shoo, shoo

The workshop master is sharpening a piece of wood at astonishing speed with a plane, which is as small as a miniature toy car. Seven or eight of them are scattered on the table, and he occasionally stops using one of them and changes it with another. Only for that fleeting moment, the sound of the plane stops and a dead silence falls over the workshop. The master quite intensively concentrates on his work as if he breathes only when he changes tools.

As he almost vertically looks down at the wood while he is planing and sharpening it, it is next to impossible to read expressions on his face.

Despite his concentration on a piece of wood, there is no tense atmosphere felt in the workshop, strange as it may sound. The master industriously turns around the piece and subtly changes the precise spot to sharpen. This part of his work seems to require great tact and sensitivity. However, he hardly feels this part difficult, and that’s the reason why there is no tense atmosphere there. Well, it’s not the question of whether or not the work is difficult for him, but because he gives the impression that he moves swiftly but with naturalness just like leaves swaying and trembling to a strong wind.

He seems to be simply pouring his energy into wood gently and quietly. “It certainly is an artisan’s work,” I said to myself. The master is Shin-ichi Izutsu, a violinmaker who was born in 1936.

Becoming a Wood Turner, after Working as Apprentice for and besides His Father

After a three-hour-ride from Shinjuku Station by Limited Express Azusa, I arrived at Matsumoto before noon where Izutsu’s workshop was located. It was a sunny winter day. The sky was clear and shiny and the air crisp and cool.

Izutsu’s wife, Hideko, was waiting for me at the station gate. Izutsu parked his car outside of the station and was waiting for me there. He looked cool in his red checkered shirt, leather jumper with boa, and leather pants. He looked as if he was a sophisticated rock musician. I saw some scratches and sawdust on his pants. I realized they were Izutsu’s work clothes.

It’s about lunch time. Let’s eat soba or something before we go to my workshop,” Izutsu said. Soba is a kind of noodles made of buckwheat. He drove a silver-colored minivan and took us to one of the most famous soba restaurants in Matsumoto.

We passed through a neat and clean shopping street. Then, there we found the soba restaurant. It was in a quiet neighborhood very close to Matsumoto Castle. We ordered soba noodles topped with tempura.

While I ate some of the noodles thinking that they tasted rather nice, Izutsu already ate up two trays of them.

Craftsmen eat quick,” he said.

My father often scolded me when I was eating slow. ‘How long is it gonna take you to finish the dish?’ he would say.”

Izutsu’s father was also a woodcrafter.

Izutsu is the first son. He has five brothers and sisters. When he graduated from junior high school, he started helping his father with his job.

At the beginning, my father wouldn’t let me work. All he said was to watch how he worked. He would get so mad at me if I dared to touch his tools,” said Izutsu.

He took his first step to become a violinmaker when he helped his father with a weak constitution and went into the world of craftsmen.

Church as an Entrée to the World

When we went outside the soba noodle restaurant, we saw Matsumoto Castle. There was a beautiful church, Catholic Matsumoto Church, right beside the castle. Izutsu is a Christian succeeding from his grandfather and father, but he doesn’t know why his grandfather was converted to Christianity.

The church was always a part of his life since he was born. Although it was not as fancy as it now is, the church, together with the castle, was a playground for Izutsu and his friends.

It was also the door to the world for him. Priests came to the Catholic Matsumoto Church by turns from around the world: Germany, Hungary, Italy and Spain. They often talked about their hometowns to local people. A boy who was born in a small town came to hold a dream to go abroad someday.

A priest from France was different from any other adult Izutsu had ever known. He was proud and filled with confidence, and talked to anyone without any sign of hesitation. Naturally he, as a Catholic priest, lived in a modest way, but Izutsu felt some dignity in his manner and outfits.

That priest surely was a Parisian,” Izutsu said in reminiscence.

He taught me French, but he left for another church right after I started learning from him. I might have been able to speak French a little if he had taught me three more months.”

Shin-ichi Izutsu has been called “Shin-chan” since he was a child, just like Thomas is called “Tom.” The Catholic priests called him “Shin-chan” too, and treated him with affection. He went to church every Sunday with his family. As time went by, he came to help read mass as an altar boy. He learned Latin for prayer and came to understand it.

There were three kids of Shin-chan’s age among those who went to church. They were all good friends.

One day, the priest of the church called him over but not other kids.

How about going to Germany, Shin-chan? Why don’t you go there and study to become a Catholic priest?

He was so thrilled as if he was about to dash off to Germany at any time. Nobody but he, Shin-chan, was selected!

Now, I can go to the country that I have been dreaming of!”

His mind was already looking forward to being in his dream land.

Becoming a Violinmaker

The more Shin-chan acquired skill in woodwork, the more he earned money. But his family was still needy. He couldn’t go on to high school but wanted his sister to go on in his stead.

Every day, he worked as a newsboy before he started working with his father. Early in the morning, he put on a pair of kanjiki, or Japanese snowshoes, and walked from door to door delivering newspapers. Winter in Matsumoto is frigid, but he didn’t think it too hard or too cold. As soon as he came back home from the morning round, he sat in front of the wheel in the workshop.

With the money he made from the jobs, he bought a pair of dark blue shoes for his sister so that she wouldn’t look shabby at high school. She was delighted to wear them at her entrance ceremony and said, “Thank you, Shin-chan.” He felt glad that he had not left his family.

Izutsu was twenty years old when he found himself at the turning point in his life.

At that time, Shin-ichi Suzuki, a prominent figure in the field of musical education and pedagogic theory, ran a violin factory in Matsumoto. His brother, the factory’s operation manager, asked Izutsu if he was interested in working at the factory.

Izutsu was eager to further cultivate his artisanal ability in the new environment, the youthful curiosity getting the better of him. He was confident that he was skilled enough to satisfy the hopes entertained of him. “But, what would my father say?” Izutsu worried.

Just like he abandoned his plan to go abroad, he was determined to give up the idea of working at the Suzuki factory if he could not win his father’s approval.

You may go and work there if that’s what you want to do. But, once you decided to do it, you just have to devote your whole life to the work,” said his father unexpectedly.

Since then, Shin-chan has kept his promise with his father. He loved his father very much.

The Third Chance to a New Life

After making a round of his factory where work was on, Izutsu took me upstairs. There are a concert hall that can seat eighty people and three rooms in which to practice playing instruments. Although he does not give lessons, teachers and students adore him and come all the way to his factory. Many of them commute from Tokyo.

The teachers hold concerts in a trio several times a year, and all the seats are taken in the hall. Izutsu is very happy when he is among the full audience.

Attracted by his personality, musicians have come to visit the Izutsu Hall from all over the world. They gather there when a music festival takes place in Matsumoto. Among them was Seiji Ozawa, the world-famous conductor.

Among the visiting musicians was a black-haired young man with a remarkably shining aura. It was Alan Gilbert, chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. As he visited Izutsu several times, he has become a close family friend. In spring 2006, he invited Izutsu to Stockholm. He said he wanted to try Izutsu’s violins.

My violins might be played overseas,” said Izutsu leaning forward enthusiastically. Apparently he could hardly wait for the day to come to go to Stockholm again. It doesn’t matter who made the violins or where they were made. There was a chance that the quality of his violins would be judged on the spot by their quality.

In his boyhood, he gave up going to study abroad because of his family to support. In the prime of his life, he gave up leaving Matsumoto because of his friends. Now that he is over seventy years of age, he has got a chance to attempt to embark on a new career for the third time. Izutsu’s eyes are still as shiny as they were when he was called “Shin-chan” in his childhood. This term of endearment is still now used by some of his family members and childhood friends.


Forests and Spirituality in Sedona

Last March, I visited a small town called "Sedona" in Arizona, which is in the southern part of the U.S. It is about two hours drive up north from the state capital of Phoenix. Another two hours’ drive farther to north will take you to the Grand Canyon.

Phoenix is a city built on a dry plain, while the Grand Canyon is a canyon which has been eroded by rivers for hundreds of millions of years to look as it now stands. Sedona is somewhere in-between in terms of topographic characteristics.

The boundless sky spreads like the universe beyond the horizon which is dried up in the scorching sun in the South. In the azure sky stand out red craggy mountains surviving and witnessing the ages since the Earth came into being.

Sedona has gradually become known also in Japan as a place you can experience spirituality. The Japanese media, however, are playing with the word “spirituality” confusing it with some kind of fortune-telling by bringing up former lives, auras and the like.

There are spots scattered in Sedona, where you can feel energy quite different from any of those “spiritual things.” The spots are called “vortexes” and are used to be sacred places for the Native Americans.

I wonder if the special energy welling out from the land is the same as the one I feel when I am in a forest.

I have spent a couple years in a mountain village in Toyama Prefecture. During those years, I visited quite a few forests across the country and experienced various kinds of jobs as a staff member of a forestry cooperative. Every forest has an atmosphere of its own, or individuality, should I say. Forests on the island of Yakushima, for example, are massive and powerful, yet at the same time delicate in some ways. Deep mountains in Toga, where I walked through everyday, seemed aloof from others with proud.

Every forest has its individuality just like every person has. It may be natural to think that a forest, which is made up of a great number of living things, is itself a living creature as well. That’s probably the source of the energy from the land.

I walked in this sacred place, Sedona, thinking of these and other things.

Meanwhile, I came up to the most famous place in Sedona, “Red Rock Crossing.” It is a bewitchingly beautiful place where dry riverbeds of Oak Creek stretch out and where you can enjoy the scenery with one of the vortexes called “Cathedral Rock” in the distance. A range of large sycamore trees make a white forest, and the river flows between the red dry riverbeds with its surface glittering. I felt really peaceful in my mind in the dazzling sunlight.

I then climbed up the huge Cathedral Rock. As its name suggests, the rock seemed even bigger than the Duomo in Florence. It took about forty minutes to reach its top. Although there are some parts where I had to scramble on all fours, it did not seem to take long at all. I felt as if I was wrapped in warm and comfortable blankets. There must be some special power that springs from the land.

Sedona is also called a “Red Rock County”. Strata there are said to have been formed hundreds of millions of years ago. I saw rugged mountains have red, pink and gray layers. Walking on a dry reddish soil, it shimmers with crystal particles it contains.

However, Sedona is not a place that parches up like a dessert. Plants belonging to the opuntia and yucca families grow all over the plain, and trees of the cypress family such as Utah junipers grow on the slope from the foot halfway up the rugged mountains. All of them are gifts from the Oak Creek which runs through the land from north to south. There must be bountiful forests up the stream of the river where the water flows off. I had longed to see those forests.

I asked my travel agent to find a forest guide in Sedona before I left Japan. A Ms. Sado of the Sedona Tourist Information Center was kind enough to accept my request and acted as a guide. She is a young Japanese living in the U.S. since her early childhood because of her parents’ jobs, and for some reason or other she came to work in Sedona. Ms. Sado was apparently enjoying a happy life there.

My local guide in and around Sedona was a Richard T. Lynch, who was a talkative, cheerful and nice guy. Richard drove a jeep upstream along the Oak Creek. Some 20 minutes later, we were amid rich woodland scenery. It was the “Coconino National Forest,” a splendid forest with gigantic trees growing luxuriantly.

We went on trekking on a bank of the West Fork River which flows into the Oak Creek. It is one of the most popular trekking courses in the U.S. On both sides of the well-maintained trail towered sheer cliffs with red, pink and gray layers just like what I saw in Sedona. The trail looked like a time tunnel leading us to the ancient Earth.

The sunlight reflects on the surface of the flowing river, making the surrounding rocks of countless ages glitter as if they were rippling. Mingled with the gentle stream sound of early spring I listened to, I also caught between whiles the tweeting and chirping of wild birds. As it was March, I saw only very few leaves put forth from the trees. I imagined the valley would glisten golden, come summer and then fall. The sight of the maples, oaks, and sycamores all of them coloring the trail has been firmly imprinted in my memory.

Thinking of the beautifulness of the lives inherited throughout the ages from the very dawn of time on the Earth, I certainly felt the spirituality welling up from the land.

On the final stage of our trip, we visited Mr. Vernon Foster, a Native American who was a quiet man and seemed to have sadness in the innermost fold of his heart. He inherited what is called a “sweat lodge,” which is a kind of steam bath where one of the Lakota’s traditional rituals takes place. His tent-covered sweat lodge was located in the midst of a forest. People say that, true to its name, it helps to purify their spirits by sweating and shedding tears.

It took us almost one hour by car from Sedona to reach Vernon’s place in a small village. Pastures spread out before us with the grass bending in the wind. I also saw luxuriant oak forests. I was surprised to find Native Americans and forests living side-by side there, because I had thought until then that the Native Americans – known as American Indians before – lived by and large in arid regions. I found out later that they had been driven out of their ancestral homeland.

The sweat lodge ritual takes place in the forest. Vernon guided us there, where teenage girls were collecting firewood and scooping up water. Two of them, Samantha and Ashley, were Vernon’s daughters. There were three other girls of the same generation. I heard they lived away from home, as their parents had alcohol or drug problems.

The Fosters not only were taking care of these “drug children,” but at the same time volunteered to help their parents devise and carry out rehabilitation programs. I saw so intense a fear and anger in the children’s eyes that I really felt pity stirring in my heart.

The framework of a small dome-shaped tent had been assembled in an open space in the forest. It was then covered with cloth, and then tightly shut. There was a hollow in the center of the ground. Around the hollow sat in a circle all the participants, including Vernon, his wife Rita, who is a shaman, and me.

Vernon put heated stones in the hollow one after another and poured water on them. When it became as sweltering hot in the tent as in a sauna, we all sang traditional Lakota songs together. Vernon told us to wash our sadness away by singing the songs. Soaked with sweat and tears in the rising dense steam, I sang the songs loudly, imitating and following Vernon. I felt as if I became totally prostrate and empty. Rita started crying. She was sad because a boy she and Vernon were supposed to adopt was taken back by his parents’ relatives. We felt released at last from the deep sadness until then locked in our heart.

After the ritual, I had dinner with the Fosters. We enjoyed tacos which were quite substantial. Vernon said he devoted his life to uphold the traditions and spirituality of the Native Americans and hand them down to future generations. Actually, it is only very recently that the Native Americans took back and resuscitated their long-deserted traditions, because they had been relegated and confined to “reservations” for long. The sweat lodge ritual is one of their traditions banned by the government, and it did not take place until 1984. When the first space shuttle lifted off to the space in the early 1980s, the Native Americans were still put in chains, so to speak, on the ground. Years have passed since the government “withdrew” the ban. But the scars have yet to disappear from their hearts.

I think I found the true spirituality in the Fosters, who were trying to maintain the old traditions and protect their heart-wounded children.

You don’t need to explain the logic when you help children recover from sickness of the spirits. You don’t need to explain the reason why you feel sad and shed tears when you are pulled away from your children. It is no different from being grateful for the mother earth and the sun or finding beauty in trees and flowers. It is people’s innate and natural feeling. I am confident that that is exactly what the spirituality truly means.

It would have little meaning to argue about your previous life or the color of the aura you emanate. It is understandable that people seek for salvation, even transient, in the chaotic times. It might help you feel better if a psychic told you about the life you lived during your previous existence or if a fortune-teller said you wouldn’t go to hell if you changed your way of life. However, your heart will soon be rusted if you think only of yourself.

I believe it important to appreciate the mighty power of the Earth and to feel moved by miracles of nature in order to enhance our spirituality. I am now convinced that the spirituality can be glorified by widening the circle of happiness from people close to us to those rather distant from us.