Okutama forest history

The Wise Man

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See below for Japanese translation

The wise man loves karaoke. He shows off the sets installed in the makeshift karaoke annex that he built next to his home. The history of karaoke is all there, with cassette tapes, 12” laser disks and a range of players. It’s a love, and his neighborhood friends join him regularly for evenings of singing, jollity, drinking and gossip.
He’s in his heaven. Today, however, the conversation turns to the history of our part of Okutama. We have noticed, in the Japanese cedar forests that blanket the slopes above our home, ancient wires hanging from trees 20m in height. These are single wires, rusted and brittle, that seem to descend from the crowns of these trees?
The wise man, who spent his early years as a timber-getter, explains that in the old days, when this timber had value, the owners attached such wires so that they could pull the young trees straight after heavy snows. Bent trees have no value. Every spring, workers would trudge through the snow levering those wires, which were bound at the lower end to adjacent trees, in order to shake off burdensome snow and allow the trees to straighten.
Timber was big business before WWII, but then cheaper imports dominated the market and in the early 1960s the man had to leave in search of other employment.
With the market for sugi and hinoki timber went the market for the bark of these straight and true trees, which was a fine roofing material with a life of 15 years or so.
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Now he is back, long-retired, and with a home that is a monument to the traditional lifestyle. The house is surrounded by neat, impressive woodpiles.

He says he prefers the wood-fired bath to the gas-fired contraption in the main building. He likes to make soba noodles from dough that he prepares himself.



Near the karaoke den is an open storage shed for various gardening tools and materials, with an open faucet overflowing a sink with clear water. Is that not a waste? Yes, it is not. The homeowner explains that he maintains a spring some 300m up the mountain, linked by pipelineto a tank near the house that supplies all household water with plenty to spare. Such arrangements are increasingly scarce, but not unknown in our extended village.


Our next question regards abandoned antennae found here and there on the slopes. I found one recently on a ridge a couple of hundred meters above Ome-kaido. Our friend explains that in the early days of TV (after 1953) the reception in this area was somewhat fickle. Some people went to great trouble and expense to elevate the receivers.
The wise man has family roots going back several centuries in this area, and he provides a keen insight into why so many people in the Okutama area share surnames. There are so many Harashimas, Hamanos and Shimizus that it seems everyone in the district must be related, and is especially odd in a nation of over 100,000 surnames. The elegant explanation here (I have no historical verification as yet) is that when the Meiji government decreed in 1875 that even commoners must register a surname, many people simply imitated their neighbors. Later, some adopted trade names to avoid confusion. Today, then, many locals who share the same family name have no traceable family links at all.
In the Meiji, Taisho and early Showa areas the local economy was robust, with timber, agriculture and limestone quarrying. The postwar period, however, was particularly harsh on the lumber industry. Overwhelmed by imports, the value of a 30-year-old sugi tree now is less than 500 yen, nowhere near commercial viability.
This becomes a serious problem, the wise one explains, not only here but nationwide, as sugi trees begin flowering around 30 years of age. The pollen they produce causes debilitating hay fever for weeks at a time every spring. In the old days, harvesting kept up with a 30-year cycle, and hay fever was almost unknown. It began increasing sharply in the mid-1960s. These days about 90% of the trees are mature. Pollen from sugi and hinoki affects about 20% of the population of Japan.
The wise man did not offer a solution.

And here is the expert translation