Upon our afternoon arrival at Hello Woods, an experience-based nature learning centre in Chiba province to the east of Tokyo, a feeling of excitement ran through us, reflected in our faces painted with smiles. But a shiver also ran down my spine. It was so cold even though the sakura blossom that signal the arrival of spring had bloomed a few weeks ago.
ABOVE AND BELOW Woodwork figures are placed throughout the site to grow moss, a component of the forest ecosystem as moss serves as food and habitat for numerous organisms.
Hello Woods, a 42-hectare site near Honda's Twin Ring Motegi race track, is a showcase of healthy green environments, natural ecosystems and wildlife that allowed us to interact with paddies where farmers grow pesticide-free rice near the site's entrance and a highland forest boasting an abundance of flora and fauna and microorganisms as well as water features. Children with their families were at the heart of the woodlands enjoying the fun activities the site has to offer.
Our guide, Kenichi Ishimatsu, ushered us into the attractions of these woodlands that gently cover rolling foothills. During the wonderful rambling excursion, he shared with us quiet wilderness activities including identifying trees and creatures that exercised our powers of observation, as we enjoyed the natural ecosystem and organisms getting along in the forest.
According to Ishimatsu, this rich forest is home to thousands of species such northern goshawks, owls and other birds of prey, wild boar and large Japanese field mice as well as giant water bugs, dragonflies, water beetles and crickets. Oak makes up a large portion of the forest along with other types of flora.
Children explore microorganisms and living things in ‘The Tower of Life’.
He said the secret to seeing exotic breeds is to be quiet and patiently wait for them. In order to see a wild boar, we have to come to the place after dawn.
"Perhaps a boar is now shaded in the branches, waiting for the sun to go down to then search for food," Ishimatsu said. "In the morning we often find diggings where boars have rooted among the leaves and damp soil with their toughened snouts looking for food. They usually eat plants but will happily gobble up earthworms too.
"The trees here need occasional cutting and trimming in order to let the sunlight through, otherwise the branches shield the ground from the sun, preventing acorns and seeds carried by the wind and birds from growing."
Visitors can take advantage of this as they are allowed to enjoy mountain work like cutting down and transporting trees for recreational activities within the site. Scraps of wood are used for children's creative activities at the site's craft centre.
"This is my first trip to Japan and it's well worth coming," said Warit Wijitworasart, a 12-year-old Thai boy who joined the excursion. "It's been a fantastic day for me. I've learned about trees that are different to the ones in Thailand.
"We used our senses to explore the wilderness. We saw and felt the textures of trees we touched. We observed and learned, whispered and giggled. It was fun."
The most incredible feature of the woods is perhaps "The Tower of Life", where healthy soil is created and scraps of wood and dried leaves are piled up in order to create a habitat for creatures including microorganisms, snakes and bugs.
At Hello Woods, visitors can get their adrenaline going and test their agility, swinging through challenges in the sky from tree to tree to enjoy the canopy.
Hello Woods is the brainchild of Ryuichiro Sakino, who was born in the southwestern province of Kyushu and who worked at a nature park in the northern island of Hokkaido for more than 20 years. He joined Honda's project in 1998 when he and his team surveyed the area and worked on the plan and then established the woodland. The site opened to the public in 2000.
"Our goal creating this woodland is to foster the coexistence of people and nature. Visitors can use their hands to feel the textures of nature while their ears are always tuned to the sounds of the wild and their lungs are filled with fresh air," said Sakino. "We also hope that the activities we offer will help visitors keep energetic and maintain their physical and mental health, particularly the younger ones.
"In fact, we could hire professional gardeners to create beautiful woodlands. But we want to encourage the participation of our staff and visitors who can work hand in hand to create a natural world close to where we live that fits our lifestyle through fun and creative recreational activities. Visitors, for example, help put wood sticks and leaves on 'The Tower of Life' to help boost the habitat for the organisms living inside."
Walking through this oak forest, we had a totally different experience _ a striking contrast between civilisation in which state-of-the-art motorcycles and cars race and a healthy green environment. While being mesmerised by the sounds of singing birds and a gently rolling stream, we periodically heard the piercing sounds of engines racing in the middle of the forest along with the wind passing through the trees.
Opportunities for activities are endless at the woodland as it features a craft studio and offers facilities for outdoor eco-recreation and educational activities for all seasons in addition to observing plants, insects and other wildlife. Adults and children alike can benefit from them.
"We want children to learn through fun and enjoyable activities rather than telling them what to do. They can walk through the woodland and find scraps of wood, decaying leaves or other materials and then combine with them with their creative ideas and come up with something unusual. Here their creativity can run wild _ the sky is the limit," said Sakino.
"We want them to learn to love nature when they are still young so that they will have an awareness of the natural world and pass the message on when they grow older.
"We also want to help spark a lifelong appreciation of outdoor activities and sports among them.
"Outdoor activities give children a chance to do tasks that help them develop a wide range of life skills as well as exposing them to healthy sunlight," Sakino said, adding that light pollution from television screens, video games and computers can affect their health in general.
Camping is definitely the highlight of the site's activities. He said they teach children to start a camp fire by rapidly rubbing two pieces of wood against each other generating friction.
Children can even go a day or two without any food until they eventually learn to start a fire.
"Some of them go hungry for a couple of days because they didn't learn how to start a fire. We can't help it.
"It's a life skill that they need to learn in order to survive," Sakino said.
"You know, raising a child is like planting and caring for a tree. They need consistent nurturing in order to grow, otherwise the tree won't survive and the child won't develop healthy behaviour and become a good child."
Kids having fun woodworking and carving.
About the author
- Writer: Sukhumaporn Laiyok