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How it began:
The Community Project
What is the community project?
The Community Project is helping the communities of two small neighbouring, rural valleys on the picturesque Kunisaki Peninsula in Oita Prefecture in Kyushu maintain their society and environment with the long-term vision of providing the area with a sustainable and viable future.
Unused and overgrown paddies and arable fields are found throughout Japan. Forests are often uncared for and farmhouses in various states of ruin are prominent almost everywhere. Throughout this landscape bamboo growing rampant seems to be on a destructive march through everything standing in its path.
Richard Irving, one of the two founders of Walk Japan and also Emeritus Professor of Policy Studies at Kwansei Gakuin University in Kobe, is an expert on the issues facing rural Japan. For more than 30 years Richard has been researching and documenting rural Japan in his study area of Ayabe in Kyoto Prefecture. His research paper Environmental caretaker – Who wants the job? eloquently describes the problems of a declining and ageing population and their growing impact on rural communities.
In 2002, our CEO, Paul Christie, moved to Kunisaki, a picturesque and verdant peninsula rich in Shinto-Buddhist history, to, as he says, fulfill future as the local population continues to age and decline in numbers. Paul set about living his dream and initially started by reviving a barren hillside, which had been clear cut for timber. He then began refurbishing unused and decaying buildings; removing bamboo groves that were destroying forests and invading arable fields; establishing vegetable plots and planting fruit trees. He also helped local farmers with the planting and harvesting of rice, cutting grass on communal land, and occasionally chasing after cows that had escaped from their sheds.
What Paul started in 2002 subsequently became the core of the Walk Japan Community Project, which we formally established in 2007. Since then, the Project has grown significantly in size and scope and now also includes the provision of employment both directly and indirectly, accommodation for staff and visitors, and the dissemination of our activities and achievements to other communities and groups around Japan and overseas.
What we do
Besides just wanting to grow our own food produce our activities are allowing farmers to retire in the knowledge that their land will continue to be cared for and remain productive. Our principle agricultural activities are the growing of rice and shiitake mushrooms. We also grow a variety of fruit which include blueberries, ume plums, and yuzu and kabosu citrus. We have an organic vegetable patch to supply our staff with fresh produce and hope to expand this to become more profitable in the future through Ota Estates.
The first of our two offices in Japan is an old farmhouse in Kunisaki, which we have converted for business use. The building had been empty for over 17 years before we took it over and has since become the symbolic core of the Community Project. The office has been reconstructed with the aid of local craftsmen using timber sourced from the area.
Our work is centred on the care of cedar plantation forests; the re-establishment of mixed forests and natural environments; and the creation of an experimental forest garden, which is a self-sustaining, multi-storey vegetable and fruit copse composed of fruit trees, bushes and vines. The woodlands we are caring for or re-establishing include a variety of native trees to provide habitats for the greatest range of wildlife as possible. A major element of this are kunugi sawtooth oak forests; essential in the production of shiitake mushrooms.
We have taken over the maintenance of a number of park and public areas that had received little care over many years. These once overgrown areas are now a resource for everyone to enjoy again and the wild boar, which sheltered here, have since moved on to the relief of the local farmers.
We currently employ over 30 members of staff in our two offices in Kunisaki and on our Community Project. Our staff hail from around Japan, overseas as well the local region. Some are also raising families bringing much needed children to the school population. Our renovation program employs on a regular basis a team of builders and our Guest House and Share House employ a housekeeper. Besides helping to reverse the drift from the countryside to the big cities the people who work with us help sustain the local community at large.
We also search out long-disused and lost paths, which we then reopen as nature trails for locals and visitors to explore. We provide funding for and also hold events for the community; and work with local groups who supply our tours to Kunisaki with delicious home-made meals.