Manabi Japan Magazine Vol. 1: Nikkō National Park
Nikkō National Park is blessed with a remarkable variety of natural features – from marshlands and highlands to lakes and valleys – nestled between the peaks of the Nikkō mountain ranges. Famous world heritage sites and numerous hot springs attract a steady flow of visitors throughout the year.
This issue of Manabi Japan magazine features stories about the wonderful attractions of Nikkō National Park, and also about the people who work behind the scenes. Manabi Japan magazine is brought to you by the editorial team at Manabi Japan in cooperation with the Ministry of the Environment. The magazine is adapted here for our English-speaking online readers.
Print copies of Manabi Japan magazine (in Japanese) are available free of charge at facilities operated by Shidax Corporation, such as restaurants, staff cafeterias and highway rest stations.
Nikkō National Park [Pages 2-3]
Photos: Takashi Yamaguchi ／ Original Japanese text : Yūji Fujinuma
Nikkō National Park is blessed with a remarkable variety of natural features, from its marshlands and highlands to its lakes and valleys, nestled between the peaks of the Nikkō mountain ranges. Famous world heritage sites and numerous hot springs attract a steady flow of visitors throughout the year.
Japan’s national parks are natural areas of extraordinary scenic value, protected and managed by the government in order to safeguard them for future generations. Environmental conservation efforts are essential to protect these precious landscapes (ranging from coastal regions to mountainous areas) and wildlife from harm. Not all national parkland is state-owned. Some areas of national park are privately-owned and are managed through public-private partnerships.
Japan currently has 34 designated national parks (as of 2017).
Traces of volcanic activity etched into majestic scenery
An active volcanic zone, the remarkably varied and picturesque scenery of Nikkō National Park resulted from the eruptions of three different volcanoes. A stream of heated rocks and ash produced by the eruption of Mt Nantai (2,486 m) in the Nikkō volcanic group dammed the Yukawa River and led to the formation of the Senjōgahara Marshlands and the Ryūzu no Taki Falls (Ryūzu Falls). The same pyroclastic flow blocked the Daiyagawa River, forming Lake Chūzenji and the Kegon no Taki Falls (Kegon Falls). Interestingly, with a circumference of around 22 kilometres and a depth of up to 163 metres, Lake Chūzenji’s depths far exceed the height of the Kegon no Taki Falls that flow from the lake to the Daiyagawa River below. The Senjōgahara Marshlands were originally a lake that became silted up with deposits of sediment and peat and evolved into the wetland area that we see today.
Also in the Nikkō volcanic group, the eruptions of Mt Sannōbōshi (2,077 m) and Mt Tarō (2,368 m), formed the twin lakes Karikomi and Kirikomi, as well as Lake Yunoko, while lava flows from Mt Nikkō-Shirane (2,578 m), the highest peak in north-eastern Japan, led to the formation of Lakes Marunuma and Suganuma in Gunma Prefecture. Far from extinct, Mt Nikkō-Shirane produced rumbles and plumes of smoke as recently as 1952.
Roughly 20 kilometres north-east of the Nikkō volcanic group is the Takahara volcanic group whose most prominent peak is Mt Shakagatake (1,795 m). Exploration of the lava covered northern slopes reveals four eruption fissure vents of up to 300 metres in width and six kilometres in length. Sedimentary layers of volcanic ash in the nearby Shiobara Hot Springs area, believed to have once been part of the sea, have yielded large quantities of plant fossils.
Journeying another thirty or so kilometres to the north of Takahara, we find the still-active Mt Nasu volcanic cluster, a massif aligned from north to south. Smoke still billows from the western side of Chausu Peak (1,915 m), one of the cluster’s five peaks, and small-scale eruptions were observed there in 1953 and in 1960.
As to be expected in a geothermal area forged by volcanic activity, plumes of steam rising up from the park’s many valleys indicate the location of some of Japan’s best hot springs. In this rustic ambience it is not hard to imagine oneself back in the early Heian period more than 1,200 years ago, when this area first became renowned for its hot springs.
The varied terrain and differences in altitude from one part of Nikkō National Park to another support a wide variety of plant life. The beech trees, Mongolian oaks and maples in the mixed deciduous broadleaf forests of the foothills give way to fir trees and other conifers once we reach altitudes of 1,600 metres. At over 2,300 metres, we encounter dwarf shrubs and alpine plant varieties. On Mt Nasu in particular, clusters of dwarf stone pine can be seen even below 2,000 metres, giving the area a distinctly alpine feel. Meanwhile, a rich abundance of alpine plants can be found near the summits of Mt Nikkō-Shirane and Mt Nasu, where species such as iwa-kagami (Shortia soldanelloides) and Rhododendron metternichii varieties form plant colonies.
Seasonal changes attract sightseers to Nikkō all year round. In spring, cherry blossoms, deciduous azaleas and Lysichiton lilies are in full bloom. Famed for its wetland areas, one characteristic of this park is the striking plant growth and seasonal variation in its marshlands. From early summer, the marshlands of Odashirohara and Senjōgahara and the western foothills of Mt Nasu are festooned with the fluffy white flowers of cotton grass, as well as the blooms of a remarkable variety of other flowering wetland species.
Nikkō National Park is renowned for its autumn colours, when the mountains and hillsides are ablaze with the crimson foliage of maples and sumac, the yellows and golds of Japanese larch and the burnished tints of wetland grasses. Autumn spans a long period in Nikkō, beginning mid-September in far-flung Yumoto and, as autumn deepens, descending on Senjōgahara by mid-October, before finishing up on the stunning Iroha-zaka Slope, where the scenery can be appreciated from the incredible winding roads. Regardless of when in autumn visitors come to Nikkō, it is a safe bet that the autumn colours will be at their peak somewhere in the national park.
Blessed with abundant forest habitat, the park is also home to a variety of wildlife, including Asian black bears, the ‘goat-antelope’ or Japanese Serow, deer and monkeys, and in recent years even wild boar are making a comeback. A bird-watcher’s paradise, the region’s forests, marshlands and ravines are home to around 180 bird species, including many species of waterfowl. In the mountain lakes and waterways the enormous Japanese giant salamander flourishes, and even the distinctive croak of the male kajika frog can sometimes be heard.
Historic buildings and sites such as Tōshōgū Shrine and Futārasan Shrine, designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites as part of the ‘Temples and Shrines of Nikkō’, are situated not far from the city of Nikkō and serve as a connection to Japan’s spiritual origins, while the Italian Embassy Villa Memorial Park and Nishi-Rokuban Park on the shores of Lake Chūzenji are reminders of Japan’s early years of modernization in the Meiji period, when foreign diplomats and business people spent their summers here. These sites are now considered the historic cornerstones of the Takahara resort area.
What is Nikkō National Park? [Pages 8-9]
Text: Hiroaki Nakazawa. Illustrations: Yuriko Asō
Nikkō National Park.
Location: Fukushima Prefecture, Tochigi Prefecture, Gunma Prefecture.
Established: December 4, 1934. Area: 1,148 km².
Nikkō National Park comprises a mountainous scenic region north of Tokyo, straddling the three prefectures of Tochigi, Gunma and Fukushima. The national park is characterised by the beautiful scenery of the Nasu Volcanic Zone and a rich aquatic environment that includes numerous rivers, lakes, waterfalls and onsen (hot springs). In addition, a significant number of designated World Heritage buildings are integrated into the park’s natural landscape.
Nikkō National Park was one of Japan’s first national parks, established in 1934. Until recently, nearby Oze was part of Nikkō National Park, but in 2007 the new Oze National Park was established as a separate entity which now includes Mt Aizu-Komagatake, Mt Tashiro, Mt Taishaku and the surrounding areas.
The name ‘Nikkō National Park’ tends to make people think of the area around Nikkō itself, but the national park is in fact made up of four distinct areas. In addition to Nikkō at its southern tip, the park includes the Kinugawa, Nasu and Shiobara areas and encompasses 1,148 km² of natural landscape. The park offers an incredible variety of stunning natural scenery – mountains like Mt Nantai (2,486 m), a sacred site since ancient times; the volcanically active Nasu-dake Peaks (1,917 m) or Mt Shirane, the highest mountain in north-eastern Japan (2,578 m). Nestled in amongst the mountains are lakes, waterfalls and marshlands formed by volcanic eruptions, and numerous deep valleys and ravines. The park’s world-renowned scenic landscape and its World Heritage Site ‘Shrines and Temples of Nikkō’ make Nikkō National Park a popular attraction with both overseas and domestic visitors.
Nikkō National Park: Special Features of Each Area [Pages 10-11]
The Nikkō Area
The area is a popular tourist destination that includes buildings and amenities of significant historical value such as the World Heritage Site ‘Shrines and Temples of Nikkō’ (Futarasan-jinja Shrine, Tōshōgū Shrine and Rinnōji Temple), as well as Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa Memorial Park and Yumoto Onsen Town in Oku-Nikkō (officially designated a ‘people’s recreational spa’).
The Nasu-dake Peaks are a group of active volcanoes on the border between Tochigi and Fukushima Prefectures. The area surrounding these mountains is rich with forests, highlands and wetlands. There are also many amenities provided for nature walks, such as the Nasu Nature Study Paths and the grounds of the Nasu Imperial Villa, part of which are open to the public as the Nasu Heisei no Mori Park. Other features of the area are the alpine plants of the Nasu-dake Peaks, and the wetland plants of Numappara Marshland. Countless onsen are located here, including the Nasu Onsen-Kyō Village, which dates back almost 1,400 years. The Nasu area is a popular highland resort where visitors can make the most of the natural environment.
The Shiobara Area
Rivers have carved numerous valleys through this mountain and highland terrain. The scenic beauty of the valleys and plateaus attracts many visitors, who can enjoy the scenic beauty of the Shiobara Valley from paths and boardwalks, such as those along the Hōkigawa River, that give access to waterfalls, swing bridges and wetlands. Hundreds of thousands of renge-tsutsuji azalea plants bloom at Happogahara plateau on the eastern base of Mt. Takahara. The entire area is ablaze with the coral-red flowers in early summer. Having tired themselves out appreciating the natural environment, visitors can relax and rejuvenate in the numerous mineral hot springs of Shiobara Onsen-kyō Village.
The Plants of Each Region
Shirane-aoi (Glaucidium palmatum – Japanese wood poppy):
Blooms from May to July. A genus endemic to Japan which contains only one species. Shirane-aoi used to bloom in great numbers on Mt Shirane. However, overgrazing by deer and illegal plant-gathering have led to a sharp drop in plant numbers. Preservation efforts are ongoing.
Yashio-tsutuji (Rhododendron albrechtii):
The emblem of Tochigi Prefecture, widely distributed across the prefecture. The sight of the pink flowers on the bare mountain sides in April and May is captivating. Ryūōkyō Gorge and Kawaji Onsen-Mt Hirakata are popular places to see these rhododendrons blooming en masse
Goyō-tsutsuji(Rhododendron quinquefolium – cork azalea):
The species name, quinquefolium, means ‘five leaves’ and comes from the whorl of leaves at the tip of each branch. One of the largest-growing azaleas, it blooms from May to June. The flower is the crest of Princess Aiko, daughter of Crown Prince Naruhito.
Renge-tsutsuji (Rhododendron molle subsp. Japonicum – Japanese azalea):
The emblem of Gunma Prefecture. People flock to Happōgahara in early summer to see the magnificent coral-red flowers blooming en masse. The Japanese name, ‘renge-tsutsuji’ or ‘lotus-flower azalea’ comes from the shape of the flowers and leaves, which are arranged in whorls. (The plant is toxic.)
The People Who Take Care of the National Park
Much effort goes into caring for the environment of Nikkō National Park. Read about the people who protect the delicate wetland ecosystem around Senjōgahara, and the people who preserve the cultural heritage at the World Heritage Site ‘Shrines and Temples of Nikkō’.
Text: Yasuko Murata Photos: Akira Taniguchi
The number of wild deer throughout Japan is increasing, causing damage to the natural ecosystem and to agriculture and forestry, and having a negative impact on biodiversity. Nikkō National Park is no exception and steps are being taken here to control deer the burgeoning deer population. We spoke to Tsutomu Takeda, one of the deer control specialists responsible for the Senjōgahara Wetlands and surrounding forest land in Oku-Nikkō.
Sixteen Years On: The Visible Effects of the Deer-Proof Fence.
Mitigating harm to the ecosystem brought about by the increase in deer numbers.
One of Japan’s most important marshland areas is the vast Senjōgahara Wetlands in Oku-Nikkō. This popular spot, with its hiking trails and views of Mt Nantai, allows visitors to fully appreciate the natural environment. Deer numbers began to increase in Oku-Nikkō from the late 1980s, leading to extensive damage from deer grazing on the undergrowth and eating tree bark. In order to protect precious plant species, the Senjōgahara Wetlands and surrounding forest areas were enclosed in a 17 km long deer-proof fence in 2001.
Tsutomu Takeda, who is responsible for managing the deer in Senjōgahara and its surrounding natural broadleaf forest areas, tells us that the decision to construct a man-made fence in this natural ecosystem was quite a drastic measure. Currently based at the Nikkō Yumoto Visitor Centre, Takeda san works as a deer control specialist together with his colleagues, Miwa Tajima and Masumi Iwasaki. In order to reduce its impact on the ecosystem, the fence was constructed to allow small native animals such as martens, foxes and badgers to pass underneath it, while Asian black bears and monkeys can climb over it. However, as these animals can sometimes become entangled in the fence, so regular inspection tours are necessary. Fallen trees and branches sometimes damage the fence and have to be removed using a chainsaw, and the fence repaired.
“This fence has now been in place for sixteen years,” says Takeda san. “The landscape is completely different on either side of the fence. It looks as if we’ve managed to protect the destruction of this precious ecosystem just in time.” Bamboo grass grows luxuriantly on the inside of the fence that Takeda san points to, while on the outside of the fence there is hardly any growing at all. “Undergrowth plants such as bamboo grass help to retain moisture. When it rains, they hold that water, helping prevent landslides. Without this plant growth to protect the ground, landslides are more likely to occur. Ruminants such as deer eat huge amounts of plant matter and can very quickly consume the entire undergrowth. In the end, only plants that are unpalatable to deer would remain, completely upsetting the balance of the ecosystem.”
Efforts are being made to develop technology for capturing deer in order to reduce their numbers across Nikkō National Park. The team are exploring methods of safe control such as hunting deer from vehicles, as well as enticing them into areas where they can be safely culled. Information is shared with neighbouring areas such as Nasu and Oze. Deer control is being addressed as a region-wide issue that extends beyond the boundaries of Nikkō National Park.
Educating the public about the ongoing conservation effort is an important aspect of the work at Nikkō Yumoto Visitor Centre. Exhibitions of photos taken of deer inside the fence have also been held to inform visitors and leather craft workshops have been held, to utilise the hides of culled deer. Takeda san says, “It would be great if people can learn more about the deer issue from these workshops and exhibitions. A national park is also a place to enjoy learning about nature. We want to keep trying to find ways to help as many people as possible to appreciate the value of the natural environment.”
The People Who Protect the Cultural Environment: The Association for the Preservation of the Nikkō World Heritage Site Shrines and Temples [Pages 16-17]
Included within the Nikkō National Park area is the ‘Nikkō Shrines and Temples’ World Heritage Site. The site consists of two Shintō shrines (Nikkō Tōshōgū Shine and Futarasan-jinja Shrine) and one Buddhist temple (Rinnō-ji Temple), and the outstanding natural setting in which these buildings are located. The organisation charged with repairing and maintaining these treasured cultural properties is the ‘Association for the Preservation of the Nikko World Heritage Site Shrines and Temples’.
Traditional urushi, a natural and extremely durable lacquer obtained from the sap of the Japanese sumac tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum), is used to safeguard the heritage timber structures from the elements; protecting the wood from wind, rain and damaging ultraviolet rays, as well as preventing decay and strengthening the timber against splitting.
Using the same lacquer work techniques as Edo Period craftsmen, and preserving this valuable knowledge for generations to follow.
The work of Edo Period craftsmen revealed in the layers [Pages 18-19]
Traditional urushi, a natural and extremely durable lacquer obtained from the sap of the Japanese sumac tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum), is used to safeguard the heritage timber structures of the Nikkō Shrines an Temples from the elements; protecting the wood from wind, rain and damaging ultraviolet rays, as well as preventing decay and strengthening the timber against splitting.
Noritake Satō heads the team of urushi lacquer craftsmen working on the project, under the banner of the Association for the Preservation of the Nikko World Heritage Site Shrines and Temples. He explains that external sections of the building and its decorative work receive 17 coatings of lacquer. This is a forty-step process, once each of the 17 coats has been applied, allowed to dry and then sanded before the finishing coat is applied. The large-scale Heisei Restoration project began with Nikkō Tōshōgū Shrine in 2007, and is now well underway.
All the lacquer used in the current major restoration is domestically produced, in contrast to the previous restoration project, which was carried out from 1951. Satō san tells us that there was not enough domestically-produced lacquer in Japan to complete the work at that time, so lacquer had to be imported from China.
Satō san is determined to preserve his accumulated knowledge and skills. “I’ve been working with Japanese urushi ever since I started out in this profession and it’s taken me years to master it, building up my experience on the basis of trial and error. Now that I’m approaching retirement age, I feel that I really have to pass on my knowledge of Japanese urushi to the next generation, while I still have time.”
Wherever possible, the lacquer is applied using the same methods as those used by craftsmen almost 400 years ago in the Edo Period, when the buildings were first decorated. Edo Period methods are analysed by sanding through the layers and examining them under magnification. In the same way that the growth rings of a tree offer a window into the past, the work of Edo Period craftsmen is visible in the layers that are revealed. Information is also gleaned from old documents such as bills and accounts.
Satō san explains why the work is done so painstakingly. “These cultural assets will be preserved for future generations and my own work will still be seen by people in a hundred years’ time. I’d like to think that I’m leaving behind something that has been done with care.”
At one time, the urushi lacquer industry, which is mainly concentrated around the town of Jōbōji in Iwate Prefecture, faced serious issues. Low demand coupled with a shortage of young people willing to enter the industry threatened its viability. Now, however, Japanese urushi has really begun to attract interest. The number of urushi-kaki (sap collectors) in Iwate has increased. While Jōbōji is still the main production area, other prefectures have recently begun producing urushi of excellent quality, and more people are planting Japanese sumac trees whose sap yields the precious lacquer.
Japanese urushi lacquer is a sustainable, natural product with many uses. “Urushi is also used as an adhesive for gold leaf”, Satō san tells us. “It is one of the few natural lacquers that does not need to be mixed with a solvent. If the urushi tree is left to rest for a few years after a period of sap harvesting, it will recover enough to be harvested again. Even if it is cut down, it sends up new shoots from the base to replace the fallen trunk. It’s an environmentally friendly and sustainable material. I’d like to make sure these techniques are preserved for future generations. We’re using the same methods that have been used since the Edo Period for the Nikkō Shrines and Temples restoration work. We hope that our work will also support the continued production of urushi in Japan.”
Nikkō City, Tochigi Prefecture
Judy Evans is a high school teacher of English and Japanese, and a Japanese-English translator. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Japanese and Art History and has studied production horticulture and landscape design. Judy has a keen interest in the internet environment and has administered websites for a number of organisations. She lives on a small farm in rural New Zealand and is a frequent visitor to Japan.