A Transforming River Basin
The Ama-Tsushima Region

A living handicraft
Surmounting floods to become a rich granary
A new face

The Ama-Tsushima region just west of Nagoya abounds with scenic beauty, historical assets, and cultural riches. It is also a low-lying river basin that rests virtually at sea level, and consequently it has had to wage countless battles against floods. Today, it is a rich and fertile region that is building itself into a pleasant residential district with excellent cultural amenities.

The Owari Tsushima Tenno Matsuri began more than five centuries ago and is one of Japan's biggest river festivals today. (Photos by Tomohiro Muda)

Administratively speaking, the Ama-Tsushima region in the southern part of the Nobi Plain consists of the city of Tsushima, eight townships (Shippo, Miwa, Jimokuji, Oharu, Kanie, Yatomi, Saya, and Saori), and four villages (Jushiyama, Tobishima, Tatsuta, and Hakkai).

Tsushima--the only city--has been and continues to be the focus of the region. In the past it was a maritime transport hub and the center of the local economy, and it thrived as the home of the nationally famous Tsushima Shrine. It escaped the air raids of World War II, and thus much of its historical and cultural assets are still intact. Many of them, including intangible folk traditions that have been passed down through the generations, have been certified by the government to be worthy of preservation.

One prominent folk heritage is the Owari Tsushima Tenno Matsuri, among the three biggest river festivals in Japan. With a history going back some 500 years, it is a Shinto ritual to keep away epidemics, natural disasters, and personal misfortune. The festival is a dazzling historical pageant, a spectacle of light and water. Its breathtaking beauty is said to have captivated the hearts of sixteenth-century warlords Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. On the deck of pleasure boats are 365 lanterns (for each day of the year) arranged in a semicircle as well as 12 lanterns (for the 12 months) hung around the central pillar. The brilliance of the festival today is unchanged from years gone by. Held each year in late July, it was named an important intangible folk cultural property by the national government in 1980.

A living handicraft

Another exceptional cultural tradition of the Ama-Tsushima region is cloisonn・making in the neighboring town of Shippo. The art attained such prominence there that it even lent the municipality its name--shippo being the word for cloisonn・in Japanese. Cloisonn・techniques were transmitted to this district toward the end of the Edo Period (1603ュ1868) and evolved into a distinctive style called Owari shippo, earning Japan a place in the world of modern cloisonn・making and producing many beautiful cloisonné objects. A number of them were submitted to the 1900 Exposition Universelle de Paris and the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis and were very favorably received. In 1995 Owari shippo was certified by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry as an important traditional handicraft, and Shippo remains one of the leading centers of cloisonn・production in Japan.

"In the past, cloisonn・usually adorned large objects like jars and vases, but today it's frequently used on accessories like broaches and pendants, making it a lot more accessible than before", notes Hisashi Ishizuka, assistant manager of the Shippo City Industrial Center. "There are thirteen operating kilns in Shippo right now employing around 100 artisans to keep the tradition alive. It's getting harder to find young people to carry on the work, though, and we're hoping to attract more of them in the future by building what's tentatively called the Cloisonn・Art Village".

The art village idea was conceived as a way of giving the local economy a boost. Expected to open in 2001, it will house a studio where visitors can try their hand at cloisonn・ making and a gallery to display the works of local artists. It will also have research and training facilities to nurture young talent.

Surmounting floods to become a rich granary

Besides its wealth of historical and cultural assets, the Ama-Tsushima region has another big characteristic: much of the area is low-lying land that is essentially at sea level. The three major rivers that flow through the Nobi Plain--the Kiso, Nagara, and Ibi--are some of the biggest in the country, and they have not only brought blessings to the Chubu (central Japan) district but also wrought havoc during typhoons and heavy rainfall.

The 1959 Ise Bay Typhoon, for example, flooded much of the Ama-Tsushima region and southern Nagoya and claimed the lives of 4,624 people in Aichi and Mie Prefectures--the biggest death toll from a typhoon in modern history.

Despite being subjected to countless floods and other calamities, the residents of the Nobi Plain stood tall, developing a unique style of agriculture and a culture designed to protect them against water hazards. They erected dikes around clusters of farmhouses and built warehouses on high ground to store emergency food supplies and to flee to in case of flooding. The remains of these structures can still be found in many parts of the river basin today.

The village of Tatsuta turned its swampy terrain into an advantage, moreover, by becoming a top producer of lotus roots. Autumn is harvest time in the village, not only for lotus roots but also for rice, and visitors to Tatsuta in the fall are sure to see many large threshers busily separating rice from husk and stem.

A new face

The pastoral landscape of the Ama-Tsushima region changes abruptly as one nears Ise Bay. The southern areas of the village of Tobishima are part of the western Nagoya industrial belt--with factories for some of Japan's biggest manufacturers, including those for aircraft and rocket makers. It can look forward to a bright future, moreover, as it is the site of new expressway links to Tokyo and Kobe.

The Ama-Tsushima region has many faces. It is a repository of historical and cultural riches, and it is also where agriculture coexists alongside heavy industry. Its proximity to Nagoya, moreover, has recently given it yet another look, that of a bedroom community. Efforts have begun to enhance transportation infrastructure, promote environmental preservation, and construct sports and recreational facilities with the aim of creating urban communities that are rich in natural and cultural amenities and that retain the unique features of each municipality.