Totsukawa Village is the biggest of Japan’s 189 villages, and its surface area is greater than even Tokyo’s 23 wards. 96 percent of that area is forest, and the trees of the village have played a major role in the town’s history.
In August 1889, Totsukawa Village was struck by a major flood during a typhoon that caused catastrophic damage. Because of that, 2,667 of the approximately 10,000 residents moved to what is now known as Shin-Totsukawa Village in Hokkaido. It was a major change for the town. According to Totsukawa Village’s mayor, Yoshiki Saratani, this moment in history was also related to the mountains and the trees.
“This is a logging village that has been producing lumber since the Edo period. When the Totsukawa Village swordsmen were dispatched to work at the Kyoto Imperial Palace, 300 people moved to the city with them, and they paid for the move by selling the lumber harvested from their mountain lands. Because of that this area has been steadily deforested, and the soil has become loose. I think that’s why they had so many bad floods during the typhoon seasons.”
Later, the demand for lumber increased nationwide, so the Totsukawa Village lumber industry flourished. Since there weren’t any roads, the logs had to be floated down the river to a middle point where they were tied together into a raft, then driven down to Shingu in Wakayama, where they would be collected and processed. There are photos of loggers riding down the river while balancing on the logs like surfers.
“Sometimes the logs would get washed away by the river during a typhoon, but we carved our marks into them, so if we were lucky they’d make it to Shingu and they’d let us know. Some loggers made a lot of money that way because they saved on transportation costs, though I’ve heard that sometimes they would celebrate at the bars in Shingu and end up spending it all anyway.”
After World War II, when Japan was recovering from the war and working towards restoring the economy, the logging industry in Totsukawa Village entered its golden age. There were as many as 150 logging companies in the area, and they were producing 250,000 cubic meters of wood every year.
However, in 1975, it became much more common to import cheaper wood from overseas, and that had a terrible impact on Totsukawa Village’s logging industry, causing it to rapidly fall into a slump.
That continued until September 2011, when Tropical Storm Talas brought strong winds and heavy rain to the area, and Totsukawa Village was once again stuck with heavy flood damage. Large-scale landslides destroyed roads, crushed houses, and isolated many parts of the village. The damage was serious. “We slept in the town hall for two months,” said Mayor Saratani, who at that time began to think long and hard about the village’s future.
“By that time the logging industry was all but dead, and the mountains had been left alone. Because the trees were allowed to grow, their shade was keeping the undergrowth from sprouting, and that made the ground loose. That resulted in 260 hectares of land crashing down in a landslide, and raising the bottom of the river by five or six meters. I think that maybe if we had taken better care of the mountains, we wouldn’t have experienced so much damage. I felt like we had to start protecting the mountains, so I got the village together to enact a six step industrialization process.”
At that time the production of wood was only about 1/90th of what it was in the golden age, and had dropped to only 2,800 cubic meters of wood per year. One good thing that came of the slump was that many trees over a wide area that had been planted in the past were steadily growing. But instead of selling their wood, Mayor Saratani created a sawmill in the village and decided to use it to make furniture. That way, the resources could be stretched a little farther, and by producing the wood for local consumption at a fair price, they could protect the mountain and, by extension, the village itself.
In order to achieve that goal, the village teamed up with long-time furniture designer Eiri Iwakura for a project called “Totsukawa Furniture Project,” and released a line of wood furniture and interior design items called Totsukawa Living. They also designed two model homes and 13 public housing units as part of the restoration efforts in the village, which attracted a lot of attention.
Mayor Saratani also put his efforts toward rebuilding the lumber industry. Because of depopulation and the declining birth rate, schools were being reorganized and rebuilt, so he managed to get two of the village’s schools built using Totsukawa’s cedar and cypress logs.
In an effort to share the great things about Totsukawa with city people, the village participated in the “Machi Decor” design event in Osaka in 2016, and were able to install wooden playground equipment and slides in Tennoji Park for a limited time. It ended up being so popular that they participated every year after that. In 2019, more than 10,000 people visited the playground while it was open.
Thanks to these efforts, the Totsukawa Village lumber industry has managed to revive over the last ten years, growing to producing 20,000 cubic meters of wood every year. The number of companies producing wood also increased from just two in 2011 to seven today. Not only that, but thanks to the Totsukawa Living series, all three of the members of the Totsukawa Woodworking Furniture Council are in their 30s and moved here from the city, which is helping slow down the problem of the aging population of the town.
In order to speed up the improvement even more, a cafe and gallery named Kiridasu opened in 2017. Under the direction of Eiri Iwakura, the old Village Forest Association’s sawing and manufacturing facility was made into a modern, city-like cafe using Totsukawa wood. It’s furnished with Totsukawa Living and the recently released “Kiridasu Original” chairs and tables, so visiting customers can test them out for themselves.
Naoki Nakayama, a Saitama native who manages Kiridasu, came to Totsukawa in 2016 to become a furniture maker. Currently a member of the Totsukawa Woodworking Furniture Council, he produces furniture for the two brands, and on the weekends manages the cafe along with another member.
“Wooden furniture made in Japan is generally made with imported wood,” he said. “It’s pretty rare for something to be made from wood from rural Japanese communities, and that’s what drew me in. The customers at the cafe are mostly people who come from other prefectures. It’s nice that we have a place where the customers can see the products for themselves.”
This is the only trendy cafe in Totsukawa Village. It’s a warm space surrounded by Totsukawa trees, and the inside is decorated with photos of the logging industry of the past, like the one of loggers surfing on the logs down the river. You can also chat with the managers, who are themselves woodworkers, and of course have a cup of their specialty coffee.
Mayor Saratani’s dream of reviving Totsukawa Village’s logging industry is still only halfway there, but in the village you can feel that times are changing, and the villagers’ hard work is paying off.
“Lately more and more people have been falling in love with nature, and it’s becoming trendy to live in a place surrounded by it. That’s the everyday life of the villagers, so they might not realize how lucky they are. Precisely because so many people are seeing the advantages of living together with nature, we have a chance to start over once again.”