Learn the extent of Japanese style sustainability by taking a cue from the traditional iron-making methods of Unnan City, Shimane Prefecture
In November 2022, a three days and two nights tour was held in Unnan City within the Shimane Prefecture, home of deeply ingrained environmental history and the Tatara iron manufacturing. The focus of the trip was to learn about practiced circular economies from the ancient local ways of living in harmony with the natural environment. Participants enjoyed a visit to Izumo Grand Shrine, a Kagura body workshop, and a visit to a Tatara iron operation. Lodging and meals included sustainable elements, and multiple knowledge exchanges were scheduled with local people.
This article will share the insights gained from the tour as well as lessons learned in how to regain a body and place that can “feel the Fudo” (Fudo; a Japanese word that describes the harmony of life, traditions and climate that exist in the land and community), which is essential to sustainably live in shared iconic spaces with forests.
Mr. Omata; Representative Director of NPO Occhi Labo, has been involved in fostering extensive
local social entrepreneur networks. He is hard at work to solve several systemic social issues in Unnan City.
Representative Director Omata, who is one of the organizers of this tour, said "In our current efforts, we have only focused on people and community welfare systems. Although we have now begun to look at nature as a living environment for local people, we need to seriously reconsider [our] own approach to nature.”
In modern times, when we think about the conservation and utilization of forests, we tend to make business calculations in our heads such as, "If we thin out the forest, it will absorb ‘X’ tons of CO2, which is equivalent to ‘Y’ yen in ‘Z’ carbon credits". Even in the best-case scenario, companies usually operate around concepts like "If our organization intentionally plants trees as part of our corporate commitment to sustainability, it will lead to local water table recharge and overall habitat restoration". Trying to focus on restoring the body's ability to intuitively sense what is sustainable, rather than trying to figure out things only based on logic models, is the essence of the Kagura workshop we held.
Kagura is a sacred dance and music that has been performed at shrines since ancient times as an offering to the Shinto gods. The subjects of these tales are often characters who deified gods of nature, and one of the most famous performances is the story of "Yamata-no-orochi (”Yamata-no-Orochi”; The mythology of “The Eight-headed Serpent”). Orochi devoured young girls every year in Izumo Province (located in present-day Shimane Prefecture). One year, Kushi-nada-hime was to be sacrificed, however, deity Susa-no-O killed Orochi in exchange for Kushi-nada-hime’s hand in marriage.
The story is deeply connected to Unnan City, and the meaning behind it is that the giant serpent depicted in the story is a metaphor for the Hii River, which has frequently overflowed from time immemorial, and has been a natural challenge to the lives of local people. In our workshop, participants were given a lecture of the basic dance, "Yin-Yang", and then actually performed the related Kagura. Since some of the movements in Kagura embody the movements of nature, participants experienced the flow of being in harmony with nature by projecting themselves into the Kagura.
Mr. Inoue, who gave a lecture on the body workshop, said, "When people watch Kagura nowadays, the movements of the performers are very different from the way they carry themselves in everyday life, so they cannot enjoy it in a way that melts the boundary between the performers and the audience. It only happens when you try those movements, the story flows into your body, not your head. This is the same as when you feel nature, such as plants, trees, and rivers. If you really want to encounter a tree, you should try to imitate its movement, then you can understand where its center of gravity is, how it receives the wind and sunlight.”
After the body workshop, the participants watched a traditional Kagura performance of the story and felt as if their own bodies were innately responding to the movements of Orochi and the other characters. To sharpen your senses and be at one with both nature and the gods, the bodywork of Kagura prepared the audience's minds and bodies.
Instead of trying to understand everything in your head, you would first ideally go to a forest and spend some time there to learn about its unique nature. Then, you would be able to feel your body become in tune with the local trees and the many other living things that create the weave of life of this specific ecosystem. Recovering the body's ability to feel the Fudo in real life may be the quickest way to find a sustainable relationship between you, larger communities, and the forest's future. Participants gained such a transformative perspective from the Kagura body workshop in just a short time, but the lessons they learned will serve their ability to be sustainability ambassadors for the rest of their lives.
Tatara iron manufacturing is an ancient Japanese iron manufacturing method, the forging of which enabled the unique refining of Japanese swords. Unnan City and Okuizumo Town in Shimane Prefecture are the only areas in Japan where Tatara iron manufacturing is currently practiced, a topic which for non-locals may be most familiar from the setting for Hayao Miyazaki's film “Princess Mononoke”.
One hectare of the local forest was required for one Tatara manufacturing operation, and when Tatara iron manufacturing was at its peak, there was a Tatara operation somewhere in these locations every day. However, the landscape of Unnan and Okuizumo is covered in greenery, with terraced rice paddies stretching as far as the eyes can see, so this relationship with the manufactured world and the natural world was in sustainable harmony. Participants of the workshop were interested in the fact that even with such continuous iron production, there are no bald hills, and the rice paddies have continued to be utilized to this day, exemplifying this solid balance in utilization and preservation.
Terraced rice paddies
During the Edo period (1603-1868), when Tatara iron manufacturing was particularly active, there were three families in the Matsue domain that played a central role in the iron manufacturing industry, known as the "Gosanke (Iron Masters)". The three families supported the clan's finances and also functioned as the leaders of the cultural communities. One of the three families was the Tabe family, which operated a Tatara iron manufacturing business in Yoshida, Unnan City. This tour took participants to a modern Tatara operation that is still in operation to this day with the cooperation of the Tabe family and were shown the "Takadono" where Tatara iron manufacturing was actually carried out in the past.
Yoshida, Unnnan City, Shimane
"Modern Tatara operation" that reconstructed the Tatara iron manufacturing process of the past in a modern style
Tatara iron making is said to have been a sustainable ancient Japanese method of utilizing mountain forests, made harmonious with nature thanks to the way the main raw materials for iron, such as iron sand and charcoal, were obtained. Iron sand was extracted from mountain iron sand, which was found in minute quantities in mountain soil, by a method called "Kanna Nagashi". The mountain was cut down, and earth and sand were poured into a waterway. Initially, a large amount of earth and sand would be discharged downstream, which had a negative impact on irrigation water for agricultural purposes, leading to disputes with farmers in the downstream areas. The operation was even banned for some time, however, the Tatara material harvesting methods were quickly adapted to work in harmony with other land uses. Because Tatara iron making could be done in the off months for the local farmers, it was appreciated to have a good source of income in the wintertime. Farming fields were also created on the land that had been cleared from the mountains after the iron pit mining, providing valuable food for the communities surrounding the area while also regenerating and reinvigorating the land now utilized for Tatara materials, leading to a circular economy approach to supporting both local businesses and the land itself.
Kanna Nagashi(Wakou Museum HP)
The related method of obtaining the charcoal needed for firing the Tatara metal smithing forges was based on a precise plan from the iron makers to cut down the local broadleaf trees in the area. This effective cycle of nature allowed the time needed to restore the mountains to their original abundance in a scheduled rotation of several decades, securing the needed materials without irreversibly hurting the local forests, ensuring there would still be ample future wood for charcoal for continual operations. Although both iron sand extraction and charcoal production seemed to be tremendously destructive to the environment, thanks to the cooperation between farmers and iron makers, it made it a sustainable industry.
Ms. Iwaki, a researcher at the Historical Museum of Iron Yoshida said, "People from outside may think that Tatara iron production was destructive to the environment. However, Kanna Nagashi was used only on the mountains that were prone to collapse, and the whole production was well thought out. The fact that beautiful mountain scenery remains around this area and people can continue to live in these deep mountains is proof of sustainable practices’ success. It is important not to get too caught up in what is happening on the surface and instead imagine the deeper impact”.
As a generation that lives in an era that is critically aware of the threat of climate change and the need to adapt society's relationship with the environment, we should be careful not to get caught up in the word "sustainability" and stop looking only at superficial phenomena, data and a rigid understanding of how things work. Instead, we should imagine what kind of life existed historically in times when the planet had a greater capacity to sustain itself outside of extreme human intervention and impact. By experiencing the scenery that remains here firsthand and staying close to the essence of what is truly happening we not only gain a more intimate understanding of the current state of nature, but root ourselves with a deeper empathy for the natural world and allow our understanding to truly escape the whiteboard and instead reflect the actual state of affairs.
On the last night of the tour, the participants were able to have a discussion about what they learned. Some of the most powerful takeaways they agreed on were that:
“In the end, no one can measure or understand whether something is sustainable or not. When human beings confront nature, it is important to have an attitude of wanting to understand and be involved, based on the premise that no matter what stage we are at, we still won’t fully understand [the impact of our actions].”
“In the final scene of Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke, the area where the Tatara operation was located had returned to a lush mountainous environment. Indeed, Yoshida was also filled with an extremely gentle and peaceful atmosphere [which gives us hope for the future]."
“I am questioning myself, what kind of landscape I want to show to the next generation after I die. To find the answer for that, I am more interested in being involved in a specific place, even if it is small, rather than a big [global] scale of forests now."
In Unnan City, Shimane Prefecture, people have been balancing their economy, their lifestyle and the environment in a way that does not destroy the planet since ancient times. This tour gave the participants an opportunity to reawaken and reconsider their own lives and circular economies they can help to create, learning the importance of taking time to think about the region's needs and come close to their Fudo that can still exist when one takes the time and intentionality to ensure a greater harmony.
As you adventure to new spaces, think about the predecessors who created and cared for the natural landscape of that place. Imagine together how we can model historic understandings of stewarding the environment and instill that in the thinking around the kind of landscape you want to leave for your children and grandchildren. This level of circular economy, both in a strict business sense, as well as a broader generational sense, presents a strong model for making our relation with the grown environment more sustainable and resilient without impacting current use. Be more open to possibilities for the future, as to some extent we all "don't know" what to do, and find the joy in learning to do better. That's the truly sustainable way to be involved in the reshaping and protecting of our planet, take inspiration from our past, take time to be present, and think both with true connection and optimism for our shared future.
■Videos in Japanese only.