Living off the land
Forests of beech and other broadleaf evergreens played a central role in the origins of Japanese culture, and they have historically been an integral part of life in Aichi Prefecture, situated around the middle of the Japanese archipelago. In the Mikawa region of eastern Aichi lies a mountain community known as Asuke, where clusters of houses nestle in gorges between 1,000-meter mountains. Forests cover 88% of the land in this area. Here, as in many other rural mountainous regions all over Japan, the ways of life introduced by early settlers took root and flourished into a full-blown culture. Beneath all aspects of traditional everyday life in mountain villages flows a single undercurrent: an effort to live in harmony with nature.
Historically, one of the major products of Japan's mountainous regions was charcoal--widely used as an energy source for heating, cooking, and forging. Charcoal is a natural fuel produced by heating wood until it carbonizes. The Mikawa region has a long history of charcoal production; ruins in Asuke contain large quantities of charcoal estimated to date back to the end of the twelfth century. Charcoal production documents from this period, discovered at the end of the nineteenth century, even mention Asuke as one of Japan's major charcoal centers.
Another traditional specialty of Japan's mountainous regions is handcrafted wooden articles. Long ago, woodworkers organized themselves into guilds and migrated to the mountains in search of the high-quality material they needed for their craft. The forests in the Mikawa region contained an abundant supply of oak and several varieties of chestnut, all ideal for the woodworkers to use in making their lathe-turned bowls, pots, dishes, and other curved objects, which were then often lacquered. A woodworkers' guild was already active in this region by the eleventh century.
Mountain villagers used the abundant wood to make not only lathe-turned pieces but virtually all of their everyday objects as well: farming implements, wagons, sandals, tubs and buckets, chopsticks, and more. They made wooden containers for a variety of uses: bathtubs, vessels for sake and soy sauce, washtubs (and washboards, too), rice tubs, and hand-carried pails. It is no exaggeration to say that mountain communities could not have survived without wooden articles. Every community had artisans who made wooden containers. Some artisans specialized in making baskets and crates from another widely available material, bamboo. Bamboo and paper were also used to make umbrellas and lanterns.
The early settlers in the Mikawa region depended on the mountains for everything from food to tools and implements. Life revolved around working the tiny fields and rice paddies, raising silkworms in the summer, and making charcoal in the winter. Some communities extracted lacquer in the summer and made paper in the winter. During the agricultural off season, blacksmiths were kept busy repairing metal farm implements, such as scythes and hoes. At one time, Asuke had four or five blacksmith shops; now only one remains. To power essential operations, such as threshing and lathing, mountain villages relied on the water wheel--a distinguishing feature in the landscape of Japan's old farming communities.
Old wisdom we can use today
Mountain farmers lived in thatch-roofed wooden houses. They cooked over indoor ovens and hearths, and wood or charcoal fueled their kitchen fires. River fish, grilled on sticks, provided them with a key source of protein. The soot produced by burning wood created a black glaze over the structural timbers and the roof thatching. This sooty coating made the walls and roof more durable. Furthermore, the smoke killed or drove away harmful insects living inside the house and thatching. Thatch-roofed houses made of wood, bamboo, grasses, and paper last 200 to 300 years without rotting. The secret to their longevity is the smoke produced by cooking on indoor hearths.
Patterns are formed by weaving yarns dyed different colors.
In order to provide for all their own needs, farming families routinely engaged in a variety of handicrafts. A prime example was weaving, an important task for women. The women cultivated cotton, spun cotton thread, and wove the clothing for their families. Loom weaving also provided a source of income. The clatter of the loom was one of the sounds that made up the daily rhythm of a farm household--along with the clucking of chickens, the thud of mallets pounding straw, and the cracking sound of axes splitting wood.
During the agricultural off season, straw artisans worked at night in the foyer of the main house, making a variety of everyday essentials, such as sandals, raincoats and rain hats, sacks for carrying rice and charcoal, and string for tying parcels. Straw also served as livestock feed and as horse bedding. And it was used in the drying of foodstuffs: Fish, persimmons, rice cakes, and other staples were bound together with straw and suspended from the eaves.
Although most of these traditional practices have fallen by the wayside, there are many aspects of the old Mikawa lifestyle that can be applied to our own lives today.
During Japan's rapid-growth phase in the 1960s, electricity, gas, and petroleum came into widespread use, sharply reducing the demand for charcoal. Nowadays, though, people have become aware that the mass consumption of fossil fuels has ushered in a host of ills--from emissions of endocrine-disrupting substances like dioxins to global warming--and charcoal has become a focus of renewed attention. Unlike fossil fuels, charcoal is a clean energy source, infinitely renewable as long as forests exist. Furthermore, charcoal has other uses as well. It can purify polluted streams, cleanse drinking water, and condition soil. Its moisture-absorbing properties make it a valuable material in building mold-free homes.
One would never guess, just by looking, how many uses there are for the plant fibers in wood, bamboo, and straw. Unlike nylon or plastic, these fibers naturally degrade over time and return to the soil. While this biodegradability may seem like a drawback, the process by which nature creates durable materials, breaks them down, and creates them once again in a self-completing cycle is actually a superior feature. The wide range of applications the people of Mikawa devised for the natural materials around them shows us that these people knew how to live comfortably with minimal waste.
A living record of traditional ways of life
Products will not sell unless demand exists. Over the years, in the name of "progress," traditional shops have closed their doors and artisans have gone out of business. This is a sad fact of the modern world. These days people turn to shiny, low-priced plastic goods--the progeny of a throwaway society. Cultures once predicated themselves on coexisting harmoniously with the world around them, working in tune with the cycles of nature and creating products meant to last; now these ideals are nothing but a nostalgic memory.
However, a folkways museum in Asuke, known as Sanshu Asuke Yashiki, re-creates traditional ways of life erased by the waves of modernization. Having served as a hub of mountain village culture in the Mikawa region and a stopover on an Edo-period salt trade route between Mikawa and Shinshu (the old name for what is now Nagano Prefecture), Asuke is the ideal venue for this living record of traditional wisdom.
At Sanshu Asuke Yashiki, visitors can watch artisans engage in crafts such as umbrella making, blacksmithing, wooden tub making, bamboo handiwork, woodworking, charcoal making, paper making, weaving, and straw handiwork. The museum receives about 150,000 visitors each year. The visitors are of all ages--from elderly people nostalgic for the old ways of life to young people who mistake the handmade charcoal for food--but everyone comes away with a deep admiration for the practical wisdom of our mountain ancestors. The museum even attracts traditional Japanese culture enthusiasts from overseas.
Sanshu Asuke Yashiki
36 Iimori, Asuke, Asuke-cho, Higashikamo-gun
Aichi Prefecture, 444-2424, JAPAN
Tel. (0565) 62-1188
Sanshu Asuke Yashiki opened in 1980 as a folkways museum dedicated to re-creating and demonstrating traditional crafts. In addition to serving as a venue for demonstrations of mountain village crafts, the museum also contains reproductions of old houses within its 3,000-square-meter grounds. This fall, the museum will add a new facility, the Asia Studio, where guest artisans from China, Nepal, Vietnam, and other Asian countries will be invited to demonstrate their traditional crafts.
All over the world today, pollution and environmental destruction are taking place at an alarming rate. Our ancestors' ways of life have a lot to teach us about living amid nature without destroying it. By providing a living record of history through traditional crafts, the Sanshu Asuke Yashiki museum literally allows us to learn from the past.