Intergenerational dialogue toward the Sustainable Development Goals in Hakusan Biosphere Reserve, Japan

February 5, 2024

The rain lets up, and I scrabble over blackened stones to view the volcanic landscape. The humid air clears, and for the first time, I observe the reserve we have traveled half-way around the world to study. Beech trees line the steep slopes of Mount Hakusan. Patches of empty sepia intersperse lone stands of forest — the aftermath of recent landslides. Below, the secondary forest gives way to a valley of nestled villages. Mountains, forests, and villages comprise the Satoyama (里山) landscape, meaning “villages in the highlands”: officially the UNESCOdesignated Hakusan Biosphere Reserve. Our group of seven international students embark on this educational adventure to discuss a primary sustainability issue: how to rebuild the relationship between nature and people.

On the road to Hakusan Biosphere Reserve

Part I: Hakusan Biosphere Reserve & Shiramine village

The van rounds a final twisting mountain road into Shiramine village. We park in front of the Sustainable Development Goals building — a repurposed traditional village house. Stretching after the long journey, I find myself supplanted into a maze of dirt paths darting between wooden buildings. Everything appears to be hand-made, quaint, picturesque. Some things stand out to me, such as the disproportionately large ladder that leans against each building.

The other international students from Finland, Norway, Indonesia, and Vietnam join me outside, gazing about the village. As I ponder the Japanese translation of “Sustainable Development Goals” on the doorway, two professors emerge. Fifteen Japanese students join us as well. Greetings are made in the form of polite bows, uncertain English, and smiling faces. We consist of Biology and Ecology students interested in Sustainability: specifically in social-ecological systems research.

The Sustainable Development Goal sign in Shiramine village, Hakusan BR

Without warning, the professors turn and stride down the village path. Glancing at one another, we follow. Our first tour! Yoshida-sensei, a professor of Ecology with bright eyes and an easy-going attitude, listens then translates as Iida-sensei, a professor who studies Sustainability in the Biosphere Reserve, informs us of the history, architecture, and Sustainability initiatives of Shiramine. A few local elders watch us from their open tool-filled garages, though they appear quite accustomed to foreigners touring their town. The streets are empty except for one tiny car that rumbles past. I nearly wait for the tumbleweed to cross my path, forgetting for a moment that I’m not back in the western U.S.

The cheerful wrinkles at the corners of Yoshida-sensei’s eyes vanish as he points upwards. He explains that during winter, the tall houses require hefty ladders and young arms to clear snow off the roofs to prevent collapses. Students crowd sensei, standing on the riverstone path. He segues into one of the primary sustainability issues of the village; most youth have long since departed for better economic opportunities in the cities. The 1960s saw a massive boom in housing development and the rise of monoculture practices. People began to realize the value of wildlife and traditional agriculture more once it was gone. Efforts were made to stop the degradation and in 1980, the area was designated as the Hakusan Biosphere Reserve under UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme.

Mount Hakusan lies in Ishikawa Prefecture; two hours west of Tokyo by bus.

Map of Hakusan Biosphere Reserve Mount Hakusan is a dormant volcano; its highest point is 2,701 meters. An area of 48,000 hectares was designated a UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Reserve in 1980.

We walk and talk for another ten minutes, weaving past little Buddhist statues, tiny torii gates with fox statues beside them. Turning towards brown houses with carefully-manicured gardens out front, Yoshida-sensei continues. The local wildlife had adapted over thousands of years to depend on human-nature interaction. The forest, which surrounds the village, requires intermediate disturbance in the form of coppicing and harvesting trees for timber and charcoal, cutting shrubs for firewood, and collecting leaf litter for compost. For example, the endangered butterfly, Niphanda fusca, depends on being able to inhabit early stages of succession, which is maintained by human interaction on the land. However, this species has seen a 39% decrease due to the progression of these ecosystems into later successional stages, caused by loss of habitat and decreased anthropogenic disturbance.

As we reach the brink of the forest, we begin to hike up a trail. However, Yoshida-sensei halts his lecture mid-way, taking a closer look at our tired international group. He decides to shorten the tour and announces that we’ll be heading to a local elder’s house. The elder earns a living by serving home-cooked meals to researchers, students, locals, and visitors alike.

As we enter the tidy home, we remove our shoes and arrange them neatly in rows. We then sit cross-legged on tatami mats in the cozy interior. The savory aroma of miso soup stimulates my appetite as I take in my surroundings. We feast on soba noodles, sashimi, wasabi, whole-cooked freshwater fish from the nearby stream, and more rice than we could eat. I am also treated to an amazing soy sauce with perfectly spicy wasabi just harvested from Mount Hakusan — most of it handmade and grown by the local community. It’s a unique opportunity to get an inside glimpse of traditional Japanese living, and a memory I will savor into the future.

Locally-sourced foods were prepared for the students by local inn-keepers

Perhaps tasting is believing; the next day, we venture into the fields where our meal was harvested. We cross the Tedori river to trek from the transition area where the village lies toward the buffer zone of the Biosphere Reserve, which includes more agriculture and wildlife. Today we will begin to explore more of the Satoyama landscape such as a wasabi farm before returning to the village for a tour of a local craft — silk-making.

After following the staccato sounds of Japanese during our early hike, we reach a small clearing with a tiny house at the edge. An elderly couple emerge to greet us with polite bows and smiling faces. They wear split-toe socks with sandals and comfortable garb. We follow their stooped yet nimble forms towards a hidden tiered farm. I would have never found this area had I been hiking here alone. Whereas leftover Japanese cedars — remnants of a collapsed forest industry — smother many of the old wasabi patches, the farmer couple have managed to maintain a farm. Several rows of hand-dug, one-kilometer tall waterfalls run past the wasabi plants in a tiered farm. We learn that wasabi is a difficult plant to grow, as it requires snowmelt of a specific temperature to run through its roots year-round. The only place that can provide these requirements in the area is Mount Hakusan.

The farmers are knowledgeable and proud of their active participation in the continuous cultivation of their heritage. Yet they worry how their techniques will be maintained. The youth — including their children — have left what they see to be a demanding task with little pay. However, the farmers explain that these agricultural techniques were developed through generations of farmers and their intimate knowledge of the local land’s characteristics.

After the translated talk, the lovely couple brews our group a pot of green tea. We break out into smaller groups to sit on the tiered steps of the meticulous garden. I listen in on more of what the farmers have to say about the area. They go on to describe how they know which part of the mountain can sustain fresh snowmelt year-round, how to maintain the tiered waterfalls, and when and how to plant new wasabi so that harvests can be steady. It takes three years to get one harvest out of a wasabi plant, so meticulous care must go into planning a wasabi farm.

The other students scribble notes on their papers and snap tens of photos of the tiered farm. I crouch at the base of wasabi to run my hands through the cold stream of water. Then I wander towards the farmhouse to sit beside the koi fishpond at the base of the cultivated tier to listen to the splashing water and breathe in the sharp air. The other students exclaim that they would not mind staying here for the rest of the trip.

Eventually we must say goodbye and continue our journey. Just down the path, the Ecology professor finds something interesting to show us: the pretty violet-colored torikabuto, or 鳥兜, meaning “bird samurai helmet” — the roots of which are highly lethal. Its scientific name is Aconitum japonicum; other subspecies are often called wolfsbane or monk’s hood in English. Its infamy resides in tales of vengeful ex-lovers using the roots to poison the other.

After discussing the poisonous attributes of the plant for some time, Iida-sensei points at the ground beneath our feet. A tiny plant I’d hardly noticed before is the notorious Oubako or “white man’s footprint” (Plantago major), nicknamed so because it seemingly springs up from wherever Europeans step — they’d brought the seeds here on the soles of their boots. It is an invasive and quite destructive to the vulnerable island species. The other students decide it’s a good idea to spend an hour plucking and discarding the Oubako. Yet we make a mere dent in one corner of the meadow. Yoshida-sensei tells us he hopes we have better ideas for how to manage invasive species in the Biosphere Reserve. We head back to the village for the silk tour.

On the hike back to the village, I reflect on the tours we’ve engaged in thus far. After speaking with the Sustainability senseis, listening to the locals’ translated descriptions of their work and issues related to maintaining their livelihoods, I gained a deeper understanding of the multifaceted sustainability challenges we face. Many stakeholders and researchers realize that there is a need for humanity to be a part of the landscape, yet they struggle to see how our current way of living makes that possible. We know humans need to be a part of it, yet efforts can only remain on a topical level until there are different incentives, structures, or solutions. So far, a big issue seems to be that there are not enough locals to drive the necessary changes at Mount Hakusan. The youth and those working directly with the land must be included in these solutions, yet many depart for better-paying jobs and other reasons.

At the north-end of Shiramine, surrounded by forest, lies the silk factory. I am excited to learn about the traditional art of silk-making. Our tour guide, wearing a baseball cap and jeans, walks us through the various stages of the process, starting with some facts and figures about the amount of time and craftsmanship required to make one kimono. For example, it takes 4,000 silkworm balls to make one kimono, and two months of work by 30 employees using traditional methods. Each kimono, he says, is sold for about 1 million yen or about $7,000 U.S. dollars. We watch as two women detangle the silkworms, then move through the drying, dying, weaving, and sewing rooms, where the workers operate wooden machines using their legs and hands. The quality of the kimonos is such that they can last 20 to 30 years with proper care. After the tour, I was left feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of effort that goes into producing these treasures of traditional Japanese culture.

Next, we visit a cultural center that blends history and modern-day life. The center houses health facilities, daycare centers, and administrative offices. It simultaneously features displays showcasing the history of the region along its walls. According to the book “Lost Japan” by Alex Kerr, these cultural centers are common in every village and corner of each city. They capture historic elements of an area and attempt to incorporate them into everyday life in an effort to transform the past into a living history. Similarly, Biosphere Reserves seem to take a step in the right direction in that they emphasize working with and being a part of the environment instead of sectioning off nature and culture by not allowing human presence and interaction or viewing this relationship as a static relic of the past.

After the cultural center, I finally catch a moment to explore on my own for a spell. I leave the group to trot about Shiramine without a plan. I wind through mazes of houses with small squash gardens out back and hand-tied netting crawling with morning glories out front. The morning glories — something I’m more accustomed to as a weed than as something one would try to grow — frame plaques that announce family names in hiragana characters — one of the three alphabets used in Japan. Eventually, I find myself plodding under the bright red torii gate; these mark the entrance to the village’s Shinto shrine.

Regarded as Japan’s indigenous religion, Shintoism is an animistic nature religion; practitioners believe the natural world embodies sacredness. Shinto is polytheistic and revolves around the kami: supernatural entities believed to inhabit all things.

Kami statue near a Shinto shrine

In Shiramine village, the Buddhist temple stands fifty meters to the left of the Shinto shrine. Heading up the stone path, I study the intricate carvings of two dragons on the temple’s façade — in Japan, the dragon is a creature of water, not fire, as it is in the west. Carved dragons adorn temples’ entrances to protect against the threat of burning down.

I step under one of the dragon’s gaping jaws. Sandalwood incense crowds my senses. Inside, scrolls hang from walls, detailed paintings of nature scenes decorate the ceiling, and a rope thicker than my waist sways in the center of the room. My thoughts wander to the work of Japanologist Alex Kerr, who spent his lifetime studying and immersing himself in Japanese culture and art. He even learned to thatch the kaya roof for his own refurbished traditional Japanese home. In his book “Lost Japan”, he briefly compares China to Japan. He writes, “Rather than being expressed in words, it [Japanese philosophy] flows within the traditional arts — although Japan had no Confucius, Mencius, or Shu Ki, it did have the poet Teika, Zeami, the creator of Noh drama, and the founder of tea, Sen no Rikyu. These were Japan’s philosophers” (Kerr, 1996). Perhaps Japanese traditional philosophy and culture are more unspoken and intuitive than gregarious and logical. I glance at the scrolls, sounding out some of the hiragana before getting stuck on the kanji, or logographic characters taken from Chinese script, until I realize with a start that I’ve been standing there for quite some time. I hurry outside towards dinner.

Heavy flooding has increased by 40% in Japan over the past decades. A stark reminder of climate change and why we are here to learn about Sustainability; Shiramine flooded on our third day there, so we learned indoors instead.


On the day of departure from Hakusan Biosphere Reserve, we take a final photo with our Japanese peers. Our peers and the locals had kindly educated us on this Japanese Biosphere Reserve, fed us, and went above and beyond to be polite and accommodating. I remain truly grateful for their hospitality. As our van leaves the village, the Japanese students line up on the shoulder to wave as we depart.

As the van pulls away, I watch the emerald trees on Hakusan fade to indigo, then pale blue as the landscape recedes. I ponder the challenges we learned about during our stay. The community is critical for driving positive change, but it’s unclear whether it’s the local residents or a mix of professionals, volunteers, and students that lead the way. Is it the community themselves driving and benefitting from change, or has the area become a sort of voluntourism? I worry that the projects may be geared more towards the non-working class, despite the fact that the working class were the ones who managed the land until 60 years ago. Meanwhile, the few remaining residents primarily subsist by offering tours of the conserved areas. Is this dynamic becoming an aesthetic rather than a true connection with the landscape? People need to return to the landscape to form a genuine connection, but how can this be achieved? This complex issue requires analysis from multiple perspectives in addition to a historical lens.

Japan’s Satoyama landscape has evolved and points to the fact that it’s a continuous evolution of our relationship with the landscape, which will guide us to a better efficiency with the landscape. What might have once been a healthy sustainable human-centered ecology may not be in the modern era. While it is important to know that those landscapes were probably better than what we’re now trying to recreate, the environment is now different with climate change and other factors, so that we can’t simply flip a switch and go back to how it used to be either. That’s not a solution we can imagine. Through this process we need to learn, and we will fail, but the point is to meaningfully try to do it instead of trying to find the most cost-effective way to manage Satoyama landscapes.

Cultures evolve and the Satoyama landscape is a great example of that. We see it evolve, fail, evolve to be more efficient, fail less, evolve again. However, the dynamic between Satoyama and people was cut off when industrial farming took over. When it is cut off, it can no longer evolve; the is no longer an old system to evolve from.

For example, many cultures that come to the United States ‘die’ when they arrive. The culture taken by the Austrians — my grandparents, for example — who moved to the ski areas of Idaho, have little relationship to current Austrian people; our culture is now a mix of Americanism and 1950s Austria. The culture doesn’t get passed on to my generation because we aren’t evolving with the culture.

That’s one of the biggest challenges in post-colonialism. You can’t go back to what it used to be, but you can’t stay where you are either. Similarly, you can’t mesh our agricultural system with an ancient agricultural system.

The challenges in restoring this Satoyama landscape point to the fact that the solutions can’t come from making them what they were by recreating it with modern tools and technology. The point of Hakusan seems to be to appreciate it, but not to be a part of it and making it a part of peoples’ lifestyles.

Our sleeping quarters

Part II: Kokiriko and adjacent Gokayama villages

After hours’ windy drive past lush meadows and pine-encrusted ravines, we finally pull up to Kokiriko village. Curious triangular houses dot the yawning valley before us. The humidity envelops me as I walk towards the buildings. To my left, I notice the deep red Shinto shrines which I’ve come to learn demarcate forest edge where village meets wilderness. Cresting the hill, we greet an older man with crows-feet at the corners of shining eyes. Despite the language barrier, his open body-language makes us feel immediately welcome as he guides us inside his towering gasshō-zukuri house.

He waves us towards tatami mats laid out in a circle around the wood-fired irori (囲炉裏) in the center of a typically-Japanese, large open-plan room. Despite my lack of acclimation to the Japanese language, I can tell the man speaks with a strong dialect. We huddle over our cups of aromatic ojicha, or rose tea, ready for our next story-time. The man finishes his tea in a couple of gulps and then hops up, quite agile for someone his age, to launch into his story. As our translator describes, the man, called Shin-san, had departed his home in Gokayama — the house we now sit in — at 18 to pursue economic opportunities in Tokyo city. Later he found out that with the designation of his village as a UNESCO world heritage site, he had the opportunity to return and restore his childhood home, transforming it into an inn and, in this process, make a living here. Now, he spends his days giving tours of the attic where they once raised silkworms, the Buddhist shrine in the adjacent room, and other hidden treasures in his beautiful home, all the while discussing his village’s hundreds of years of history. He also pursues his passion for photography; he does photo-shoots with the village elders to preserve their presence for generations to come along the walls of his beautiful home.

The photographs hanging at the inn in Kokiriko village

Amongst earnest arigato gozaimasu’smy group pours out in the humid air. I immediately yearn to return to Shin-san’s naturally cool, air-conditioned house. The open floor plan and surrounding windows and doors allow the breeze to cool the home — no A/C required. In winter, the irori reliably heats the insulated house. Japanese architecture and agriculture together illustrate an essential story of working with nature. It represents Japan’s story of resilience, as well, as our next guide explains.

Aika-san, a friendly woman, gestures us to follow her next. She knows all about the architecture and religion that comprise the area. When planning and building their villages, the Japanese are primarily concerned with disasters of varying types: heavy rains, typhoons, tsunamis, and earthquakes. They learned through thousands of years of trial and error. Eventually, they came to create the traditional buildings called gasshō-zukuri (合掌造り), literally meaning “Buddhist’s praying hands,” named so because the dramatic triangular shape resembles the upward-pointing hands of a Buddhist in prayer.

We walk up the hill so that we can see all five gasshō-zukuri houses from afar. Aika-san gestures towards the landscape with a sweeping motion. These houses are resilient and sustainable in several ways. For example, the thatched roofs are traditionally made with hemp and kaya grass grown in the surrounding fields. Hemp makes up the sturdy and insulated base, with the smaller kaya grasses placed on top, effectively waterproofing the roof. After a couple of decades, the thatched roof is taken down and placed in fields as fertilizer, completing the cycle.

The thatched roof on a gassho-zukuri house

Next, the building is flexible enough to allow it to collapse in the event of an earthquake; the pieces are to be gathered and rebuilt after the event. The intricate knots in the thick rope used to bind massive logs together allows for this flexibility in a building four stories high with tens of rooms. Aika-san motions to the mostly empty valley before us, advising us that earthquakes are rarely dangerous if you’re not in a man-made area — it is often buildings and built-up areas that transform an earthquake into a hazard.

Finally, the time and craftsmanship that goes into building these houses is further demonstrated by the curved beams supporting the lower portion of the house. These must be found naturally growing in that shape. Trees growing out of the sides of the five mountains here were especially important. Clearly, the people of Gokayama possess an intimate relationship with their surroundings built from thousands of years of traditional knowledge: trial and error, failure and successes throughout generations.

However, problems abound if one wishes to begin rebuilding such a relationship. One kaya/hemp thatch roof on a single gasshō-zukuri house costs upwards of $30,000. But how could rural villages have afforded this in the past? They didn’t need to; the issue today stems from the fact that only a handful of craftsmen capable of thatching these intricate rooves remain. Similarly, growing kaya has fallen out of favor in pursuit of monocultures that make better money, and housing developments take up precious agricultural land, just like in Shiramine. To keep up with these UNESCO-designated traditional buildings, at least in the touristy areas, the government of Japan subsidizes 90% of the costs of the thatched rooves. Otherwise, the gasshō-zukuri would soon fall into disrepair.


I leave this trip with a new appreciation for the complex entanglement of Nature and culture, and the ways in which the UNESCO-Man and the Biosphere programme seeks to forward efforts to adapt to a changing world. I learned that there are nuances and differences in being in touch with the landscape. My experience at Hakusan Biosphere Reserve and surrounding areas will serve as a point of reference for me as I begin my thesis utilizing a Public Participations GIS in Nordhordland Biosphere Reserve in Norway. It has given me more of a drive to push for holistic, people-driven, ecology-focused solutions; and not with unrealistic end-goals such as eradicating invasive species, but with the end-goal of renewing our relationship with the landscape, and not just doing these things because it’s what our ancestors did, but doing them because it’s what we need to do in order to be human.


First, I’d like to thank the locals who took their time to educate students about their beautiful homes near Mount Hakusan, Shiramine, Kokiriko, and Gokayama. The amount of pride and passion in their local knowledge and culture was evident. They made for an enriching learning experience that I will cherish forever.

Thanks to the organizers of the trip, including Aida Mammadova-sensei, who put together this once-in-a-lifetime educational experience for us students.

Thanks to Emi Hisada for coordinating with international students over the course of many months during a difficult time to travel due to Covid restrictions, who kindly gave any information we needed and helped organize the logistics to make the trip happen.

I’d also like to thank the professors who took their time to give us tours and inform us of the local ecology, architecture, and sustainability issues. I’d like to thank Yoshihiko Iida-sensei and Masahito Yoshida-sensei in particular, for the wealth of information, and for kindly translating the tours for us.

Thanks to the students of University of Tsukuba for joining us in Shiramine and Mount Hakusan to learn about sustainability issues together.

Thanks to the friends I made here through Kanazawa University too, who took time out of their day to show us around Kanazawa.

I’d like to thank the organizers of the JASSO scholarship. This trip was funded by the Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO), without which this trip would not have been possible.

This work was also partially funded by the Research Council of Norway (grant no. 280299, TRADMOD: From traditional resource use to modern industrial production: holistic management in Western Norway, and supported by the UNESCO Chair Inger Elisabeth Måren at the University of Bergen, Norway. Without this grant, it would have been impossible to travel to Japan. Thank you.


Berglund, B. E. (2008). Satoyama, Traditional Farming Landscape in Japan, Compared to Scandinavia. Japan Review20, 53–68.

Kerr, A. (1996). Lost Japan. Lonely Planet Publications.

Takeuchi, K. (2010). Rebuilding the relationship between people and nature: The Satoyama Initiative. Ecological Research25(5), 891–897. 10.1007/s11284–010–0745–8

Erika Scheibe

Erika Scheibe is originally from Boise, Idaho. For the past eight years, she has lived in Austria, Japan, Sweden, Norway and Germany to learn about and work on ecology and sustainability issues. She recently received her MSc in Ecology & Biodiversity @UiB. In her free time, she is both a baking and biking enthusiast.