Biodiversity in Kanazawa: Spring’s Lesson

The ecosystems around Kanazawa’s urban area have played an important role in giving shape to the physical form of the city in terms of its functionality and aesthetics, and in sustaining its lifestyles. The city’s rise as a flourishing cultural centre was made possible by the diversity of the surrounding ecosystems — from forests to freshwater, to plains and marine environments — which provided it with an abundance of resources and services.

As the city’s space was being molded in response to climatic factors, and based on local socio-cultural categories, specific resource uses and practices for managing the biodiversity of these surrounding ecosystems emerged.

The bamboo poles used to brace tree branches against winter snows in Kenrokuen, the plant materials necessary for paper umbrella manufacturing and the wood for the city’s buildings have all traditionally come from the forests covering the mountains around Kanazawa.

Management systems were developed to ensure the continuous provision of goods, services, food and livelihoods from these forests, resulting in human-influenced landscapes that maintained and adapted the region’s local biodiversity.

In spring, as the warm winds slowly bring Kanazawa’s forests out of their winter slumber, the vitality and diversity of forest life, nurtured by centuries of human management, is powerfully manifest. Although originally managed for their productive functions, these forests are also sites of aesthetic enjoyment, and the exuberant renewal of life in spring attracts visitors eager to experience the scenic beauty of nature.

The delicate colours of nature in spring have been a major source of inspiration for local Kaga yuzen silk-dyeing artists, who pay particular attention to the transitions marking the passage of the seasons.


Photo by Ryo Murakami.

Satoyama: A mosaic of ecosystems on the urban fringe

Spring arrives later in Kanazawa’s surrounding hills than in the city. By the time the cherry blossoms are starting to bloom in Kenrokuen, patches of snow still linger in the konara oak forests and rice paddies, overhung with sprays of plum blossoms. Brimming with the melted snows of winter, the chilly surfaces of the irrigation ponds are smooth and clear.

The forests around Kanazawa are part of what is known in Japan as a satoyama landscape, a mosaic of different ecosystem types — secondary forests, farm lands, irrigation ponds and grasslands — along with human settlements, which has been managed to produce various ecosystem services for human wellbeing.

These landscapes emerged and developed through prolonged interaction between humans and ecosystems and are most often found in rural and peri-urban areas of Japan. Satoyama forests around the cities have traditionally supported urban communities with a variety of raw resources, including wood, fuel, fibre and food. For centuries, the demand for wood construction materials in Kanazawa was met by timber harvested from the peri-urban forests, which was used for the building and rebuilding of castle structures, temples, shrines, houses and bridges.

Traditional local architecture made diversified use of the various types of wood available, from the strong, durable wood of the ate tree used for the foundations of the houses, to cedar for pillars, pine wood for the roof beams, and beautifully grained keyaki wood for the massive central pillar of the house, which supported the roof while being an important decorative element of the architectural structure.

In addition to construction timber, the satoyama forests around Kanazawa also played a vital role in supplying city dwellers with charcoal and wood fuel prior to the shift to fossil fuels in the 1950s. Periodical thinning and cutting of the trees resulted in well-maintained, sunlit secondary forests with diverse tree varieties that have provided a variety of other plant resources. These include plants used as food, such as bamboo shoots, wild mushrooms and log-cultivated shiitake mushrooms.

Edible wild forest plants are still popular among Kanazawa’s residents, who walk the forests in spring to gather light green-tinted butterbur stalks (fuki no to), flowering fern sprouts (zenmai), brackenroot (warabi), fatsia buds (tara no me) and celery-like Japanese spikenard stalks (udo). Before the advent of modern medicine, the forest also provided medicinal plants, with dewdrop crane’s bill (gen no shoko) being used as a remedy for intestinal problems, mugwort (yomogi) as a coagulant, and fish mint (dokudami) to eliminate toxins from the body.

Over the last half century, the socio-economic production landscapes of satoyama have seen a rapid decline, brought about by the cumulative impacts of urbanization, modernization and industrialization. Two opposing trends have affected Kanazawa’s satoyama.

On the one hand, a physical loss of woodland area has occurred as forests were converted into residential districts and industrial parks. On the other hand, today’s satoyama forests are also faced with problems arising from under-use and under-management, as a result of changes in the fuel and construction needs of urban residents, combined with an increasingly displaced ecological footprint of cities and with the depopulation and ageing of rural communities. In some areas, the broad-leaf forests of satoyama have been converted to fast-growing coniferous monocultures.

The degradation of satoyama has a negative impact on the species inhabiting the brighter and more open environment characteristic of managed forests, as well as on the ecosystem services they provide. Endangered butterflies such as the gifucho swallowtail, which rely on the existence of managed mixed woodlands for their survival, are symbolic of the decline of satoyama.

When formerly managed forests are abandoned, they soon become overgrown with an impenetrable tangle. Unpicked bamboo sprouts shoot upward fast during the rainy season, and bamboo establishes itself in the forest, blocking most of the light. A closed canopy that does not permit sunlight to reach the forest floor will not allow the same level of plant and animal biodiversity as a satoyama forest. An overgrown forest may also be less capable of providing essential services such as soil formation, erosion control, water retention, watershed protection or carbon sequestration.

In Kanazawa, various initiatives by the city government, local universities and civil society groups are now underway in an effort to reverse the trend of forest under-use and preserve the rich ecosystems of satoyama landscapes. These initiatives share an endeavour to reconnect people with the landscape and teach them how to take care of it. Satoyama’s fields and forests are being promoted as sites of learning and play, where urban residents can immerse themselves in nature while acquiring an appreciation of the wild flora and fauna it shelters. local volunteers monitor species, learn how to cut bamboo, reconstruct rice paddies and clear irrigation canals. Some of the activities focus on the experience of the social and cultural values of satoyama, encouraging participants to create traditional artifacts using satoyama materials or to take part in satoyama-related annual celebrations. The local government is also exploring policy measures for linking the cultivation and harvesting of specific tree species with Kanazawa’s craft industries.

As the snow finally vanishes in April, visitors join tours to the satoyama area of Hiraguri, one of Kanazawa’s designated Natural Environment Protection Areas. The tours highlight the richness of life that has flourished in the satoyama landscapes transformed and maintained through traditional rural lifestyles.


Kagayuzen art “Utsuroi” by Kenji Maida. Photo by Ryo Murakami.

Kaga yuzen silk-dyeing: Biodiversity and artistic inspiration

A newly finished kimono is draped on a stand in the Kaga yuzen silk dyeing artist’s studio. The silk shape has been diagonally divided into two areas, one sand-coloured and the other a soft, demure gray. Against this background are painted cascades of plum twigs with red and white blossoms, hanging from above. right under the tips of the twigs, at the bottom of the kimono, stylized, gently curving ripples suggest that we are looking at a river or pond from amidst the blossoming branches of plum trees.

A closer look at the blossoms reveals buds tinged with red, others that have just started to spread out their petals, dark stems connecting the buds to the twigs, finely dotted stamina and subtle colour shadings within the blossoms, and even small patches of pink lichen on the branches.

In Japanese literature and painting, the image of plum blossoms is a symbol of the beginning of spring shoshun, which corresponds to the period between the first two of the twenty-four seasonal turning points of the lunar calendar used until the adoption of the Western solar calendar in 1872. As the divisions of the lunar calendar show, seasons are not homogeneous stretches of time, but dynamic periods of diversity and transformation. Spring itself has many faces.


Kagayuzen art “Utsuroi” by Kenji Maida. Photo by Ryo Murakami.

It starts at the coldest time of the year in February with the ‘rise of spring’ (risshun), soon after which the plum blossoms begin blooming, and then progresses through ‘rain water’ (usui), when the snow gives way to rain, the ‘awakening of insects’ (keichitsu), when the insects come out of hibernation and the first herbs begin to sprout, the ‘spring equinox’ (shunbun), ‘clear and bright weather’ (seimei), which is the time of the cherry blossoms, and ‘grains rain’ (kokuu), a fifteen-day season when planting begins.

Kaga yuzen designs capture the diversity of nature in spring through a multitude of vegetal motifs: plum, peach or cherry blossoms, magnolias, furry willow catkins, rape blossoms, red and white flowering dogwood, purple China asters, white deutzia flowers, and noble orchids, to name but a few. Familiarity with the symbolism of the seasons deepens the appreciation of the patterns.

Photo by Ryo Murakami.

Photo by Ryo Murakami.

Yuzen dyeing, which was first developed in Kyoto around the end of the seventeenth century by craftsman Yuzensai Miyazaki, involves hand-dyeing fabrics to create patterns, as opposed to the woven fabrics using previously dyed silk thread, which had been traditionally used for the garments of the aristocratic class. later in life, Miyazaki moved to Kaga, where he played an important role in integrating the new technique with the local dyeing method known as Kaga okunizome. Thus, two closely related traditions of yuzen silk-dyeing came into being: Kyo yuzen in Kyoto, which uses more stylized, bolder motifs in vivid colours, as well as metal leaf and embroidery, and Kaga yuzen in the Kaga Province, distinguished by its deeper, more subtle tones, exclusive reliance on dyeing, and nature-inspired themes such as plants and birds.

Kaga yuzen artists devote a great deal of attention to the study of the forms, lines and colours of nature that they record in their sketchbooks. Some of the frequently employed techniques have the effect of adding realistic touches to the designs. These include gradating colours to suggest volume and an interplay of light and shade in leaves and flower petals (bokashi), using glue to cover the outline of the design and prevent dyes from spreading, which leaves white lines between the elements and enhances details such as leaf veins (itomenori), and depicting insect bites on the leaves (mushikui).

But the inspirational influence of nature on Kaga yuzen is not limited to the designs. The natural pigments that were originally used to create its polychromatic visual universe have also left their distinctive imprint on the craft. The silk-dyeing tradition of Kaga, which was later fused with yuzen techniques to create Kaga yuzen, used plum bark and persimmon tannin to produce hues ranging from pale peach to various shades of red and brown. One of the innovations of Kaga yuzen was the introduction of five additional natural pigments: dark crimson, indigo, yellow ocher, grass green and ancient purple. Although chemical dyes have today replaced natural ones, these colours continue to represent the basis of Kaga yuzen silk-dyeing, which retains something of the soft, intricate shades of natural pigments.


Kagayuzen art by Kenji Maida. Photo by Ryo Murakami.

The diversity of the city’s nature has been a storehouse of knowledge and inspiration for Kaga yuzen artists, who have been moved by the beauty of individual organisms, landscapes and natural processes, and have perfected ways of reproducing them on silk as designs that turn kimonos into family heirlooms. In Kaga yuzen the boundary between art and craft is ambiguous, with considerable creativity being deployed to create an object that combines aesthetic and utilitarian functions.

Kimonos are still a relatively common sight in the daily cityscape of Kanazawa. Now and then, you can spot a woman pass by with a sweeping flourish of kimono sleeves, or a man in a somber-coloured kimono walking under the budding trees of spring.

The video featured here is an extract from the “Book of Seasons” documentary and the text is from the “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 (UNU-IAS OUIK) under the coordination of the unit’s Director at the time, 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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Biodiversity in Kanazawa: Spring’s Lesson by Raquel Moreno-Peñaranda is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Dr. Raquel Moreno-Peñaranda is a Research Fellow at the UNU Institute of Advanced Studies, Operating Unit Ishikawa/Kanazawa and instructor of the Sustainable Agriculture course and other disciplines of the UNU-IAS Master in Science in Environmental Governance. Her work focuses on sustainable natural resources management, especially in agricultural systems, looking at the linkages between sustainability and well-being in urban and rural settings. She has carried out extensive consultancy and advisory roles and research coordination for several local and sub-national governments, international environmental NGOs, civil society organizations and multilateral development institutions. A native of Spain, where she graduated in Biology and obtained an MSc in Environmental Analysis, Raquel earned a PhD in Energy and Resources from the University of California, Berkeley.

Anne McDonald

ProfessorSophia University

Anne McDonald is a Professor in the Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies at Sophia University in Tokyo. She was formerly the Director of the UNU Institute of Advanced Studies, Operating Unit Ishikawa/Kanazawa and has been involved in agricultural and fishing community-related field research in Japan since the late 1980s. She has been a member of the Japanese national government’s committee for promoting environmentally sound agricultural practices since 1994, worked with the Japanese Ministry of Environment (MoEJ) government review team for the IPCC 3rd and 4th Assessment Reports, and is a member of the first national strategy committee for biodiversity for the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF). She is also a member of both national and regional government committees established in 2008 to explore satoyama policy initiatives.

A Programme Associate with the UNU Institute of Advanced Studies, Operating Unit Ishikawa/Kanazawa, Laura Cocora has been based in Japan since 1998 and holds a masters degree in Global Studies from Sophia University. She is interested in the interactions between the cultural and environmental dimensions of societies and the role they play in sustainable social and economic development.