I finally arrive at Akaya Forest in pursuit of the golden eagle, said to symbolise the
rich forest, where a small number of golden eagles continue to raise their young.
Conservation of nature and regional development are carried out together in
Akaya Forest. "Maybe we'll meet a golden eagle," says Mr Nezu, who runs the
last specialist paulownia shop in Gunma Prefecture, looking hopefully at the trees when he arrives at Akaya Forest.
Around 1 hectare of planted cedar forest has been thinned to create an environment conducive for golden eagles to hunt.
The symbol of a rich forest is disappearing
Akaya Forest is a national forest which extends over around 10,000 hectares in northern Minakami, Gunma Prefecture, an area with some of the heaviest snowfall in Japan. Located at the source of the Tone River, which provides water for metropolitan Tokyo, this area of pristine nature remains untouched by human hands precisely because it extends across mountains so steep that the elevation increases by 1,500 metres in just 10km.
Almost all mammals living on Honshu Island exist in Akaya Forest, including the endangered golden eagle, mountain hawk-eagle, Japanese black bear, and Japanese serow (goat-antelope). However, the golden eagle stands atop the food chain in this forest ecosystem. In other words, the golden eagle is said to symbolise a rich forest as it indicates that the forest it inhabits is a balanced ecosystem. Golden eagles soar above Akaya Forest in search of food, such as Japanese hares, copper pheasants, and large snakes, utilising vision that is said to be eight times that of humans. Upon spotting prey from the sky, it swoops down at a speed of 200 km/h to catch it. In fact, there are concerns that the pair of golden eagles living in this forest will become the last pair raising their young in the Kanto region.
Plans to construct a dam and develop a ski resort in Akaya Forest were brought forward in the 1980s. Hearing of the plans, locals concerned about the impact on the hot springs and water sources, which are said to be fed by rainwater that fell nearby 60 years ago, started a movement in cooperation with nature conservation groups oppose the plans. Golden eagles - a symbol of a rich forest - became more visible during the opposition movement. The number of golden eagles in Japan has continued to decrease. When we began to study this in Gunma Prefecture, 10 golden eagle nesting sites had vanished one after another, leaving Akaya Forest as the last remaining location where they continue to raise their young stably. After over 10 years of opposition, the dam and ski resort development plans were scrapped in 2000. The natural hot springs and the presence of golden eagles were recognised as having public value, firmly entrenching reasons to protect the forest.
At present, an increasing number of planted forests in Japan do not have animals that can provide food for golden eagles. In Japan, 70% of the country is covered with forests. 40% of this is forest planted to meet the post-war demand for timber. Planted forests spread throughout Japan in the 1960s on the back of a policy to expand forests by planting cedar, cypress, and pine trees, which grow relatively quickly. However, demand shifted to cheaper imported materials before the planted forests matured.
Cedar and cypress trees that were ready for harvest still remain in the mountains without proper management, and there are more forests all over Japan that do not support other types of wildlife. Coniferous forests, which are dark with limited undergrowth, are planted with an emphasis on efficiency. Golden eagles with a wingspan of up to two metres cannot catch prey here as it is too dense and there is little space between trees. Man-made forests planted for human purposes account for the fall in prey and hunting grounds golden eagles need to raise their young.
Resilience of the natural environment in Akaya Forest
Ryuichi Yokoyama of the Nature Conservation Society of Japan (NCSJ) has been at the forefront of the movement to oppose development since the 1980s, and has protected Akaya Forest alongside local people. “Okutone, including Akaya Forest, is the last stronghold of nature in the Kanto region. Golden eagles have taught me that it is a special place.”
“Compared to the physical ability of a person, Akaya Forest does not have the agility or strength of an Olympic athlete. It has the resilience to avoid sickness and recover quickly. Biodiversity is the source of nature's strength. What has come from Akaya is simple and ordinary. I came across Akaya while looking for places that remain in
good health in a rapidly vanishing natural environment that had become commonplace in eastern Japan. What I would like to do in Akaya is restore nature once again with the basic strength to support and nurture the local natural environment. A symbol of a rich forest, golden eagles tell us that there are places where nature remains strong, even if fragmented."
In this way, NCSJ, together with the local regional council and the national forest
manager Kanto Regional Forest Office, began activities to restore the forest to its original state, reviving virgin forests while systematically thinning and clearing the
Akaya planted forest. The connection to golden eagles is that while the number of
golden eagle pairs in Japan has fallen to around 200, in 2016 golden eagles in
Akaya Forest succeeded in raising young for the first time in 7 years. The chicks left
the nest the following year, bringing hope to everyone involved.
“Okutone, including Akaya Forest, is the last stronghold of nature in the Kanto region. Golden eagles have taught me that it is a special place.”
Paulownia has been cherished for generations
Sustainable development is being pursued alongside initiatives to restore forgotten
planted forests to their natural state and return the forest to sufficiently full health. Local people had been searching for ways to connect the rich forest of Akaya to local life and industry, and one of the answers was paulownia trees. New initiatives to plant paulownia trees, one of the local traditional industries, at the foot of the mountain began at the end of 2018 as an attempt to increase forests where various species can co-exist while thinning and clearing coniferous planted forests, create a place inhabitable by prey for golden eagles, and build a new relationship between people and the forest. A paulownia seedling arrives from Mishima in Aizu, Fukushima Prefecture, an area famous for their production, just before snow falls on Akaya Forest. In the spring of 2019, the first 20 trees to regenerate this forest are planted in a place that was once a seedbed for a planted forest. The person managing this paulownia is Yasuomi Nezu, the fourth generation owner of the specialist paulownia shop “Kirisho Nezu”, which has been in the local area for more than 100 years. After his parents' home became the last specialist paulownia shop in Gunma, Mr Nezu has had a strong wish to build a tradition that will span generations in Minakami.
“Our shop is the last specialist paulownia shop, so I wonder if it will end here? Traditional arts and crafts are inherited and handed down, so these will end. We can't survive unless we change with the needs of the times.
Paulownia chests were made and repaired by our ancestors and have been used with great care for generations. Local people like Mr Nezu are excited about planting paulownias in this area and bequeathing Akaya Forest and its circling golden eagles to the future like they would bequeath a paulownia chest. Mr Nezu also talks about his new dream after planting paulownias. “Our grandparents told us about the merits of paulownias. But the younger generation didn't know much about them. Paulownia trees bloom purple flowers in spring after cherry blossoms have bloomed. The trees planted today will bloom in four to five years. When that happens, children and adults will be able to enjoy the beautiful flowers together."
When you set foot in Akaya Forest, look up to the sky in search of golden eagles. It isn't easy to find one since there is only a single pair in a 10,000-hectare forest, but when people look up at the paulownia blossoms in years to come, golden eagles will be watching over us from the sky. Whether this forest becomes such a place depends on us, who have been blessed with this forest and the Tone River.
By Chika Maruda
Illustrations: Lauren Marina