Restoring a Little Bit of Balance

A few months back, we shared a little about Higashiru, our Locality Series release created to help create some awareness, and to support the Ohigashisan Monzen Mirai Project. The project focused on the redevelopment of the area in front of Higashihonganji, turning an excess tarmac road into a community park area, which has now been completed and is being put to use.

What we didn’t talk about was where the money from Higashiru’s sales went.When we were first asked to be a part of this project, we were simply asked to make a batch of beer that would be ready in time for the opening of the new park area. As with other beers within the Locality Series, we weren’t in it for profit, and so all proceeds have gone to the project. While the area’s redevelopment is now complete, there is still much to be done, not just in terms of maintenance, but in making sure that people are aware of the place, and there are enough things going on to make it the community hub that it was designed to be. We will, in fact, be taking part in one summer festival taking part at the beginning of September, so keep an eye out for that!That wasn’t all of it, though.Knowing that we needed to make enough beer for release events, as well as our customer base, we decided quite early on that we wouldn’t make a single batch, but rather double that volume and fill one of our double batch tanks with it instead. We also weren’t doing that for profit, either, so we found ourselves with some time to think about what to do with our profit from the second batch.Being involved in collaborations, and particularly in local projects, has a lot of benefits and value. None more so, perhaps, than the connections you make through it, and the opportunity to learn things you didn’t know about your own home area and surroundings. As a part of the project, we were introduced to the gardeners of Shoseien, who would work on planting and redeveloping the grassy area in front of the temple. Shoseien, owned by Higashi Honganji since its inception in 1641, is a beautiful stroll garden located a just over 10 minute walk from Kyoto station. What fascinated us, when being toured around, was learning about the different phases that the garden went through in its history. Biodiversity, and the greater scientific understanding of this, has played a big part in its current incarnation. We were told that, as with many traditional gardens, pesticides were previously used to protect the trees and plants from insects that may damage them. What they decided to do, however, was to bring in a broader variety of plants, that would help to bring more balance to the garden. From there, they would stop using pesticides, meaning of course more insects. For the first year or two, there was some damage done, but as time went on, a greater influx of birds came to feed on the insects, restoring a greater balance, but also meaning there was more life in the garden.

As we walked further on, we noticed lots of “Tsutsuji” (azaleas) and “Asebi” (pieris japonica, also called andromeda), that grow in thickets all over the mountains around Kyoto. When commenting on this, and asking if it took its inspiration from the surrounding mountains, the face of Ota-san, one of the gardeners, went from being highly enthusiastic to looking slightly frustrated. “Actually”, he said, “the mountain is covered in those because other plants cannot grow”. He then explained that the Japanese government’s bubble era initiative to cover much of the country in cedar trees for lumber production (which is incidentally also the reason why the country has such a huge problem with hay fever in the spring) meant that less plants have the light to grow. There used to be much biodiversity around the mountainside, but its disappearance means that plant varieties that can grow are more scarce. Those that do manage to grow are usually eaten by deer, desperate to find food among the limited options up there. Two plants that are poisonous to them are azaleas and the pieris, thus we see them everywhere.At this point, however, he brightened up, as he mentioned a project he is involved in. We had actually noticed in hiking on the east side of Kyoto’s surrounding mountains, that lots of cedar had been cut down, and new plants and trees were being introduced. It turned out that this project to restore biodiversity was being funded by an organisation that he was volunteering to help out. Whilst only one small area has so far been helped, this struck us as a wonderful initiative.

Aside from the homogenous nature of much of the countryside, there are plenty of other demerits to the dominance of one species. It has resulted in land erosion, making the mountains more susceptible to landslides, whilst also blocking most of the light that reaches the ground; thus the inability of other life to grow. The domino effect of this is that, while carbon absorbing cedars are prevalent, other plants and mosses great at capturing and storing massive amounts of CO2 are unable to grow effectively. This, in turn, also means there is also less of a liveable environment for insects and small animals.Japan’s countryside never used to be so uniform, and it’s sad to us that it has become this way over time. While so far only a relatively small area, seeing such a positive example is inspiring, and we hope that it leads to more and more similar initiatives around Kyoto’s countryside and further beyond in the country.

The challenge is that most of the land is owned by temples and private owners, who have little to gain from spending large amounts of money to safely cut down and replant forests. In most cases, it is simply something they also cannot afford. Aside from impacting the air and the views around the city, many of the trails around Kyoto run through these plots of land, so improving them really is a benefit for citizens and keen hikers coming in from all over the place. Above that, of course, is the potential habitats for wildlife, constantly being cut back over the decades.The end point of it is that making these changes requires money to come from somewhere, and with the government struggling to pay for many basic municipal functions at the moment, it comes down to generous individual donors and companies within the city. When thinking what to do with the remaining proceeds, this seemed like a great cause to support, and that’s where the profits of Higashiru’s second batch have gone. We look forward to seeing greater diversity, more life, and the benefits of more CO2 pickup from the broader range of carbon absorbing plants, trees and mosses. We also think it helps the mountains offer a lot more to enjoy as well.

For those interested in reading more about the forest restoration project, see the Kyoto Dentoubunkanomori website (Japanese only):
For those interested in exploring Kyoto’s surrounding mountains, here are a couple of resources:
Kyoto Trail Website:
Kyoto City Official Travel Guide: