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Biodiversity in Kanazawa: Autumn’s lesson

As the cool of autumn starts to descend over the city, the tops of Mount Haku and of the other mountains in the Kaetsu range lining the horizon are luminous with the first scattering of snow. The crimson and rust tints of autumn have crept over the wooded hills hemming the city. Everywhere there are sights and sounds of rippling water from the autumn rains that have returned to Kanazawa.

Spreading over two major rivers, Kanazawa is a city blessed with abundant water resources. Precipitation is stored in the roots, fallen leaves, moss and decaying wood of the headwater forests in the mountains, sinking through the soil to the underground sources of springs. Water reappears as streams and rivers, flowing through downstream fruit orchards, vegetable fields and rice paddies, and then through the city to the wetlands of the Kahoku lagoon and into the sea.

There is no wonder that Mount Haku, one of Japan’s three sacred mountains and the source of four large rivers — the Tedori, Kuzuryu, Nagara and Sho — has long been worshipped as a deity of water.

Various traditional industries rely on the water resources of the region, from paper, gold leaf manufacturing and silk dyeing, to sake and soy sauce production. The arrival of autumn marks the start of many of the processes associated with these industries, as it is during the cold months of the year that water is clear. Biodiversity has supported Kanazawa’s traditional industries at all levels: through the water-regulating function of the forests, through the direct provision of plant materials, and through the workings of the microscopic diversity of organisms involved in the processes of fermentation central to much of the local food culture.

At the same time, water has been a mainstay feature of the cityscape, with an intricate network of waterways providing habitats for plants, fish, birds and insects, while adding to the aesthetic value of the city.


Photo by Ryo Murakami.

Futamata paper-making: Water and traditional industries

The pure, cold running water of the late autumn and winter months has been essential to Japanese paper manufacturers in the Futamata area at the foot of Mount Iozen, who were once the direct purveyors of paper to the Kaga clan. A linear village surrounded on three sides by mountains, Futamata was built at the juncture of two watercourses that merge to form the Morimoto river.

Japanese paper requires large amounts of water in all the stages of the manufacturing process. The branches of the plants used to produce the paper are first steamed to strip the bark, which is then steeped in water to remove the outer layer of black skin. The inner white bark is washed, soaked in running water and boiled. Once the fibres are softened and easily separated, they are mixed with water and a viscous substance made from the roots of the tororo-aoi plant, and beaten together with a wooden frame lined with a fine bamboo mat, so as to spread them evenly on the mat. The frame is then raised and the liquid drained, leaving a sheet of paper resting on top.

After the Meiji restoration of 1868, traditional paper-making in Futamata lost its former protectors and suffered from a decline in demand as machine-made Western paper took over.

Listening to one of Futamata’s remaining three paper artisans, Hiroshi Saito, as he shakes the wooden frame back and forth inside the water with a rhythmical movement brings to mind the mesmerizing symphony of water sounds that must have filled the village in the past.

Japanese paper-making is tied with the natural rhythms of the seasons. It starts at the end of the year, when the rice harvest has ended, and relies on resources available in the colder months. Not only does paper production require cold flowing water, but much of the management of the plant resources also takes place during the autumn and winter seasons. The main materials used in Japanese paper-making are kozo (paper mulberry); mitsumata, a cultivated shrub with nodding clusters of scented yellow flowers; and ganpi, which is a rarer species that only grows in the wild.

The twigs are harvested in late autumn after the leaves have fallen, when papermakers also divide the old roots of their paper mulberries, replanting them to start a regeneration process that will take five years of repeated cutting of the stalks before a dense shrub ready for use is obtained. It is also in autumn that the tororo-aoi plant from the nearby forests is at its prime, resulting in superior, more durable paper.

The tree species used in paper manufacturing are said to be strongly influenced by the local specificity of their environment. The unique character of the paper created in each area is therefore the product of a mysterious combination of water, soil and climate with the choices made by the artisan in pursuit of the highest quality. During the Edo period, Futamata supplied the Kaga rulers with a variety of paper types, from smooth, thick paper for formal public documents, to softer paper for ceremonial letter writing, brush calligraphy and woodblock prints, furrowed paper for wrapping gifts and covering sliding doors and screens, and paper cores for gold and silver threads used to weave kimono fabrics.

Today, hand-made paper produced from natural fibres in Kanazawa continues to delight with its versatility and warm feel, and with its depth of texture that almost invites being illuminated from within to reveal the intertwining fibres. The continuing existence of Japanese paper is proof of its intimate connection with certain aspects of Japanese culture. When used as wrapping, the texture of the paper, its colours and the way it is folded in the wrapping process add to the attractiveness of a gift. In a country where the culture of letter writing is still alive, handmade paper is also the essential medium for important correspondence, which is beautifully written in ink calligraphy, uses prescribed courtesy formulas, and would almost always start with a reference to the season.

The versatile paper, which can be molded into almost any shape and functionality, is also indispensable to other traditional crafts of Kanazawa: from extremely fine paper sheets which serve as support for gold leaf sheets a mere one thousandth of a millimetre thick, to strong, durable paper sewn in as linings to bags and purses accessorizing fancy kimonos.

Sake: Water, microorganism diversity and culture

At the start of the sake-making season in October, brewers in Kanazawa visit the Matsuo Shrine in the Utatsuyama Hills, a branch of a Kyoto shrine with the same name worshipping a deity of sake and water. A small wooden altar inside each brewery, decorated with sacred ropes and offertory strips of paper, is also dedicated to the sake god. Later in the season, when the pressing of new sake begins, large balls made of cedar leaves are hung under the eaves of breweries. As days pass, the green balls slowly turn brown, announcing that brewing is in progress. These cedar balls, known as ‘sake forests’ (sakabayashi), are traditionally provided by the Miwa Shrine in the Nara Prefecture, home to another sake deity associated with mountains, harvests, water and thunder. The character of the guardian gods of sake-making suggests the strong dependence of the beverage on water and on the presence of healthy, biodiverse forests.

Water is essential to each step in the manufacturing process of sake and makes up 80 per cent of the final product. Japan’s historically important sake-brewing centres grew in rice-cultivating regions with an abundant supply of quality water. The distinct identity of local water also contributes to differences in sake flavour. In Kanazawa, sake is brewed with the clear water filtered through the layers of ancient rock from Mount Haku, which is a relatively hard water, allowing for more vigorous fermentation.

The region around Mount Haku has a long-established tradition as a sake-making locale. As early as the sixteenth century, when regional sake varieties became popular, the Kaga Province was known for its ‘chrysanthemum sake’.

In Kanazawa, sake breweries lined the banks of the Sai river, which carried the crystal clear waters of melted snow from Mount Haku into the city. Brewery workers scooping water from the river were an integral part of the city’s landscape in the cold months up until the first decades of the twentieth century.

Sake-brewing is a late autumn and winter activity, because at this time of the year water is at its purest and stable temperatures allow for the control of its influence on the other ingredients: rice, koji mould and yeast. In addition to the crucial importance of water to sake production, the first most significant factor is considered to be the koji mould, the second is the mixture in which the yeast develops, and the third is the technique used.

Photo by Ryo Murakami.

The character of Kanazawa’s sake arises from the interplay between features of the natural environment, including water rich in minerals and a climate particularly suitable for fermentation, microorganism diversity, and the skillful management of their interactions by the head brewer, the toji. The way in which the life cycle of the koji mould is managed and the choice of yeasts used in the fermentation process have a massive impact on the sake’s characteristics. Sake cannot exist without the mould, which converts the rice starches into sugars producing koji rice, a sweet-flavoured rice with a white frosting on the grain. Koji is further mixed with steamed rice and water to create an environment for yeasts to work, feeding on sugars and producing alcohol and other substances.

The different combinations of chemical compounds that different yeasts produce from the same ingredients determine the fragrance of the beverage. While in the past distinct yeasts were closely associated with the identity of each brewery, in whose barrels they lived for centuries, in the Meiji era a national system was established for identifying, promoting and distributing superior yeasts to brewers.

Sake-brewing is a late autumn and winter activity, because at this time of the year water is at its purest and stable temperatures allow for the control of its influence on the other ingredients: rice, koji mould and yeast.

The diversity of sake flavours reflects not only the diversity of environments, but also that of the interactions between brewers and their resources, which are informed by local preferences, production traditions and human intuition. The complex variety of taste found among Kanazawa’s sakes is inscribed within the larger profile of sake in the region: a compact, dense flavour that has evolved towards a drier style over the last few decades. From fruity fragrances and smooth textures to full-body sake with a rich rice aroma and sharp finish, in the flavour palette of Kanazawa’s sake you can taste the goodness of local water, the silent workings of microscopic life, human ingenuity and the diversity of their interactions.

Sake is also part of the city’s larger web of social and cultural relations. The sake culture of Kanazawa lies in the extension of the culture of consumption and refined play that characterized the city during the prosperous rule of the Kaga clan. The samurai elites held drinking parties in the tea houses of Kenrokuen and under the cherry blossoms of the Utatsuyama Hills in spring. Wealthy merchants purchased fancy order-made sake cups from lacquer-ware craftsmen in Kanazawa, but also lacquer-ware with ‘sunken gold’ decorations from Wajima, a port town at the tip of the Noto Peninsula. The city had its share of drinking establishments for shop workers and farmers from the surrounding villages, which were distinguished by the short curtains made of braided rope at the entrance.

Following the Meiji restoration, a profusion of traditional and modern entertainment facilities emerged in Kanazawa, resulting in today’s motley mix of sites for social drinking, from old-fashioned shops selling oden fishcake stew to modern bars, and from affordable chain pubs to high-end Japanese restaurants where clients are entertained by geisha.

Sake is diverse and the contexts in which it is consumed have also been diverse, changing with the trends of time, the physical setting or the relationships between the people partaking of it. The experience of sake drinking also has a seasonal dimension. Autumn is the season of hiyaoroshi, sake which were pressed the previous winter, pasteurized and then left to age in sealed tanks over the spring and summer to be finally shipped without the usual second pasteurization when the outside temperature starts to lower.

Autumn is also the time to enjoy seasonal seafood delicacies reputed to go well with sake and enhance its flavours: globefish and globefish roe pickled in rice bran or sake lees, cod milt, sea cucumber roe, or, for a different taste, dried and salted gonads of sea cucumber, female crab innards, and a fermented sushi made with turnip and yellowtail. At the time when the new sake-brewing season starts, the Sea of Japan turns rough, lead-coloured and immensely fertile.

Canals: Infrastructure junctions of blue and green

If we take a seventeenth century map of Kanazawa and compare it to a current one, we realize how many characteristics of the historical structure of the old castle town have been passed on to present-day Kanazawa. Many of the yellow roads stretching around the vast castle grounds at the centre of the map can be superimposed over the asphalt roads of today. Where modern offices and shops stand now, the map shows residences of samurai and merchants. Temples and shrines that still dot the cityscape are located in the green hills on the east and south.

The map also captures the city’s network of waterways, some of its elements easily identifiable, others long lost in the mists of time: the almost parallel rivers of the Asano and the Sai flowing on the two sides of the plateau where the castle is located, the geometrically shaped moats around the castle, two further concentric defensive lines consisting of an embankment and an outer moat, and an extensive web of canals, spreading like blue veins from the rivers throughout the city.

Kanazawa’s canals have played a vital role in the development of the physical shape of the city, but also in its economic, social and cultural life. The Oonosho Canal, which flows today along the tile-roofed ochre walls of the former samurai district, was built at the end of the sixteenth century to transport timber for the construction of Kanazawa Castle and the town that developed around it.

Photo by  Kanazawa Kurashi Museum.

A few decades later, construction work started for the Tatsumi Canal, which was designed to bring water into the castle, fill its moats and serve for fire prevention. A remarkable feat of civil engineering given the castle’s elevated position, the canal featured a five kilometre tunnel piercing the terrace cliffs of the Sai river — now a designated National Historical Site — and an inverted siphon supplying the castle with water.

These and numerous other canals also provided water for irrigating downstream fields, served domestic uses and powered the rapeseed oil manufacturers of the Edo-period Kanazawa, as well as the silk mills that restored vitality to the city’s economy after the Meiji restoration. At the turn of the twentieth century, Kanazawa’s first power generating station and public water supply system used water from the Terazu Canal.

As the city modernized, Kanazawa’s canals seemed to have been left behind. During the post-war period, pollution problems became increasingly severe as the canals acted as sewers for the direct discharge of wastewater and dumping places of garbage. The conduits were covered to provide parking spaces for cars, and the water that had once flown along the city’s streets vanished from the landscape.

An important turn in the fate of Kanazawa’s canals was brought about by the city’s 1968 Ordinance on the Conservation of the Traditional Environment. At a time when Japan was confronted with problems of pollution, environmental degradation and the destruction of historical cityscapes, triggered by economic growth and urbanization, the Ordinance was an expression of Kanazawa’s commitment to preserve the quality and distinctiveness of its traditional natural and cultural environment, while reconciling them with urban development and modernization.

Kanazawa’s interconnected network of 55 man-made watercourses totalling 150 kilometres in length has the potential to contribute to biodiversity conservation in the city as a basis for developing corridors through which birds, insects, animals and seeds can move across the landscape.

The conservation and restoration of green areas and water surfaces as part of the city’s traditional environment has ever since been one of the constant themes of urban policy in Kanazawa. Kanazawa’s interconnected network of 55 man-made watercourses totaling 150 kilometres in length has the potential to contribute to biodiversity conservation in the city as a basis for developing corridors through which birds, insects, animals and seeds can move across the landscape. In combination with the city’s parks and gardens, they can serve as a green and blue infrastructure that is vital both for aquatic species and for species that need both land and water to survive.

In autumn, little life dramas are unfolding out of sight in the water of Kanazawa’s canals. It is here that firefly larvae spend most of their lives, feeding on small river snails known as kawanina. Growing through autumn and winter, the larvae emerge from the water on a rainy spring night to bury themselves in the soft soil on the bank of the canal. Then, in May and June, adult fireflies come out of the ground, resting under leaves during daytime and lighting up at night to attract mating partners. As the life-cycle of fireflies shows, a concrete-wrapped canal is not enough to foster life. Various other factors need to be taken into account to increase its ecological value, from the quality of native, layered vegetation, to control of light, noise and other disturbances.

Fireflies hold special connotations in Japanese culture, which has long celebrated their nocturnal irradiance. Along with blossom viewing in spring, moon and maple leaf viewing in autumn and snow viewing in winter, firefly viewing in summertime is an ancient custom that started as an aristocratic amusement. In the eighth-century poetry collection Manyoshu, the image of fireflies is used as a metaphor for longing and desire. Tenth-century essayist Sei Shonagon, a lady-in-waiting at the imperial court, wrote in her Pillow Book: “In summer it is the nights that are most beautiful. Not only when the moon shines, but on dark nights too, as the fireflies flit to and fro, and even when it rains, how beautiful it is”.

Time lapse photo of fireflies by Tsuneaki Hiramatsu via Rodd Lucier.

The names of the two most common species, the Genji and the Heike firefly, are based on a legend about two powerful feudal families of the twelfth century, which held that their spirits were still fighting out their battles in the form of fireflies. The larger Genji fireflies are named after the winning Genji clan, while the smaller Heike after their defeated opponents.

The affectionate care with which both the city government and the communities have engaged in the reintroduction of fireflies to Kanazawa’s canals shows how culturally-valued species can attract people to become involved in conservation activities.

After the firefly behaviour was meticulously studied, people in Kanazawa proceeded to place stones on the canal beds in order to modify the water flow and create suitable spaces for the growth of the insects. Every summer, they shade the streetlights and postpone the habitual summer weeding of the canals until the firefly season ends. Children set out on expeditions throughout the neighbourhood to make an inventory of the fire-flies as part of environmental education activities. Firefly watching groups approach the rails in silence, as hundreds of tiny jewels glow and pale, flying over the water. Centuries-old houses open the gates of their secluded gardens for visitors to enter reverently and witness in awe the love dance of the fireflies.

Once the firefly mating ceremonies are over, newly-spawn larvae slip back into the canal water. As they meander through the gardens, the canals create an intertwined landscape of green and blue networks that partake in the processes of life, from the microscopic to the enveloping. Autumn falls again on the small traditional gardens scattered throughout the city and on Kenrokuen where the Misty Pond, fed with the water of the Tatsumi Canal, reflects one more time the shifting colours of the maple leaves.

The video featured here is an extract from the “Book of Seasons” documentary and the text is from the new “Biodiversity in Kanazawa” booklet that are part of a multimedia project on biodiversity in Kanazawa initiated, designed and funded by UNU Institute of Advanced Studies Operating Unit Ishikawa/Kanazawa under the coordination of the unit’s former Director, Anne McDonald. The project creatively “packages” OUIK’s cutting-edge research and explores complex aspects of the urbanization-biodiversity nexus in a form accessible to researchers, students, policymakers and civil society, both in Japan and around the globe.

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