The Aso caldera, where volcanic activity continues today, is famous for its magnificent scenery.
It is natural to have a frightening image of volcanoes, but it is said that Aso’s volcano is very useful to the lives of the people of the area and also all of Japan.
The theme of this episode is,
“How is Aso the world’s most ‘useful’ volcano?”
Let’s explore the wonders of the Aso area.
Origins of the Aso Caldera
The Aso area is a huge caldera with a diameter of more than 20km and was created by a number of volcanic activities.
The large-scale eruptions have been named Aso-1 to 4, and they occured during the following period. Aso-1: 270,000 years ago Aso-2: 140,000 years ago Aso-3: 120,000 years ago Aso-4: 90,000 years ago
In particular, Aso-4 produced a massive pyroclastic flow (flow of magma and volcanic ash) that shaped most of the current terrain. The pyroclastic flow spread throughout the Kumamoto Prefecture of today, and traces of the magma flow has been found in the Yamaguchi Prefecture which is across the sea.
Today, the Aso Area, which is the crater of these volcanic activities, is inhabited by 50,000 people. The volcanic activity was very long ago, but even so, it is a very rare place where so many people are living inside what used to be a volcanic crater.
The volcanic activity of the area still continues today, and more than 10 million tourists visit Aso every year.
Aso, an exhibition fair of volcanoes
At the center of the great Aso caldera, there is a mountain called the “central cone”.
On this mountain, there is a bowl-shaped grass field called “Kusasenri” (wide area of grass in Japanese). There is an observatory to see the whole view of Kusasenri. This was actually the volcanic crater of an eruption that occured 30,000 years ago.
The eruption at this time was a catastrophic eruption called the Plinian eruption, which is a large-scale eruption where magma and ash can reach the stratosphere, above the clouds. The Vesuvius eruption that devastated the famous Italian city, Pompeii was also a Plinian eruption.
On the other hand, looking in the other direction from the observatory of Kusasenri, you can see the hill called “komezuka” (mound of rice in Japanese), which is often shown as a symbolic scenery of Aso. Komezuka is called by this name because its beautiful shape is said to have been formed when god poured rice on the ground.
Komezuka was formed by a type of eruption called Strombolian eruption. In a Strombolian eruption, small explosions blow the magma up in air and they form a pile of soil around the crater.
It is estimated that Komezuka was formed about 3,000 years ago. At this time, it is thought that human civilization had already formed in this area of Japan. The ancient Japanese people may have been watching the eruption.
Furthermore, from the same observatory, another mountain, Nakadake (middle mountain in Japanese) is also visible, where the eruption continues today. This volcano has live cameras attached to the crater and attracts attention from volcano researchers around the world. There are almost no volcanoes in the world where the crater is recorded with live cameras.
At the crater of Nakadake, ash rises from numerous cracks. This is the most typical type of eruption in the Aso area and it can be seen every day. When volcanic activity becomes active, stromboli eruptions can also be seen at Nakadake.
The collected video data of the crater camera is very useful for research on volcanic prediction.
With all of these types of volcanic eruptions in one place, some say that Aso is like an exhibition fair of volcanoes.
Why Aso is a “Useful Volcano”
In the northwestern part of the caldera, there is a naturally reddish brown river. This area contains a large amount of iron in the soil.
The soil taken from this area is called Aso yellow soil. The underground magma contains iron, and Aso yellow soil is formed by iron dissolving into the undergroud water due to gentle volcanic activity beneath this area.
This Aso yellow soil is the material for orange crayons produced throughout Japan.
Furthermore, the most important use of Aso yellow soil is sewage treatment. In a simple experiment, Aso yellow soil pellets are put into odorous water containing hydrogen sulfide and the container is shaken a few times. Then, the odor disappears immediately.
This is because Aso yellow soil absorbs the sulfur which causes the smell.
Chemically, hydrogen sulfide and iron hydroxide contained in Aso yellow soil chemically react to turn into iron sulfide and water.
Aso yellow soil harvested in Aso is shipped to nearly half of Japan’s sewage treatment plants. As for the Tokyo area, 100% of the sewage treatment plants in Tokyo use purification pellets made from Aso soil.
People in the great city of Tokyo always benefit from the products of the Aso volcano without noticing it.
Agriculture in Aso
Aso soil has advantages such as described above, but when it comes to agriculture, the soil is acidic, so it is not suitable for farming.
The people living in the Aso area have developed their method for improving the soil from long ago. On the mountains that surrounds the giant caldera of Aso, there is something that helped improve the soil.
That is grass of the field.
There is a vast grassland in the hilltop area called Daikanmine, also known as a sightseeing spot where you can view the terrain of Aso.
Just by cutting this grass and scattering it in the soil, the acid groud is neutralized, making it suitable for agriculture. The grassy field that stretches over the outer ring mountains of the Aso crater is 16,000 hectares. This is actually the largest grassland in Japan.
This activity is the source of delicious crops such as Takana, a well-known vegetable product of Aso.
The grassland of the outer ring mountains was so important to agriculture that there were many battles among clans to compete for grassland over the history of Aso.
This can be seen from the earthen walls stretched around the grassland. Clans that use grass from the grassland were once divided into 150 groups by these earthen walls, and the total length of the wall in the Aso area was 500 km, which is more than the distance from Tokyo to Osaka.
In addition, the grass of Aso’s grassland is not only used for agriculture, but also for thatched roofs throughout the country.
Now that there are fewer grasslands nationwide, Aso’s Susuki is used for thatched roofs on traditional Japanese houses, in areas of national cultural assets, temples, and villages.
If grassland is simply left alone, it will become a forest, so it is necessary to somehow keep the grass from growing too much. This is done by setting fire to the fields. It is an important activity that prevents forestation and promotes the growth of young grass. Today, it takes place in March every year, and it is also an Aso tradition that attracts tourists.
Investigation of the geologic stratum of Aso, the black soil indicates that grass was kept young. This layer of black soil goes down to the stratum of about 10,000 years ago, beneath the layer of ash made by the eruption of Kikai Caldera located between Kagoshima and Okinawa, which occured 7,300 years ago.
From this, some researchers say that the ancient Japanese people had been burning the grassfield to maintain young grass, for agriculture or for ease of hunting.
Australian aborigines are known to have been burning fields for easier hunting at about the same era.
Viewing the vast grassfields of Aso, we may be seeing just the same scenery that the ancient Japanese people of 10,000 years ago had been seeing.
Aso is a land where people coexist with the tough but special terrain created by great activities of the Earth.
It may be a nice and unique destination if you have already been to places like Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto.
Today’s guide, Mr. Torii was born and raised here in Nishijin. He works as a tourist guide in and around the Nishijin area.
Nishijin Ori is famous in Japan as a traditional Japanese upper-class fabric.
The current Japanese Empress, Masako, married into the royal family in 1993, and the traditional dress used in the wedding ceremony was Nishijin Ori textile.
In addition, Nishijin-ori cloth is used as the interior decorations of the Akasaka Rikyu in the national guesthouse of Tokyo, which is generally open for tourists.
Also, Nishijin Ori is often used for traditional Noh (ancient Japanese musical) costumes and geisha’s formal wear.
However, Nishijin Ori does not refer to one particular method of weaving. Actually, any cloth woven in the area of Nishijin is called “Nishijin Ori”.
There are many kinds of weaving methods practiced in Nishijin. For example, the weaving methods below were introduced in the program;
Nukinishiki: A traditional weaving method that came from the Chinese continent around 200 BC.
Veludo (Velvet): It was brought from Portugal and was a favorite of famous Samurai lord, Oda Nobunaga who lived in the 1500s.
Other various weaving methods were born and developed during the long history of Nishijin Ori.
In the program, a special weaving style was introduced by the actual craftsperson, Keiko Mori.
Ms. Mori’s weaving style is called “Tsumegaki Hontsuzureori”.
Tsuzureori is a know style of weaving, but her style is special because she uses her nails as a miniature comb.
In the name “Tsumegaki”, “Tsume” means nail, and “gaki” means to scratch.
When weaving the yarn, in parts of the fabric where the pattern is large, she uses a large comb to fit the woof into the warp. Then, for parts where the pattern is small, a small comb is used.
Finally, for parts where tiny patterns are required, she uses the jagged edges of her fingernails cut in the shape of the warp.
Below is the nails of another weaver.
In this way, she produces fabric with patterns of animals or landscapes.
The process of weaving with nails takes a lot of work, and she says that it is just possible to advance about 5 cm of fabric working the whole day.
The weaving method of Nishijin-ori is divided into more than 20 processes, and each process has skilled craftspeople specializing in that specific process.
The combination of the work by all of these people makes a piece of Nishijin-ori.
Origin of the place name of “Nishijin”
The second guide is Mr. Umebayashi, leader of Kyoto Heights and Cliffs Club.
Umebayashi explains the origin of the place name Nishijin.
In fact, it is simple and clear, because Nishijin means “West Headquarters”.
This comes from the fact that there was the west headquarters of the “Onin War”, which was fought in Kyoto from 1467 to 1477.
The Onin War divided Kyoto into the Eastern Army and the Western Army, burning the whole city, and initiated the Sengoku (warring states) era, which was a period when many Samurai lords divided Japan and struggled for more than 100 years for domination.
The Onin war started as a fight between 2 generals. General of the Eastern Army was Katsumoto Hosokawa, and the Western Army was Sozen Yamana.
There is a stone monument at the ruins of Sozen Yamana’s mansion, and this is where the place name “Nishijin” originated.
The 2 generals were actually close neighbors, so the headquarters of the 2 armies were closeby, divided by a small river that no longer exists.
This war went on for 10 years as a struggle for inheritance of power, spreading further to most parts of western Japan, but at the end, there were no clear winner.
Once most of Kyoto was burned down, no one knew exactly who they were fighting for, and Japan entered a period of confusion and division.
Tamori also said that it was a “weird battle”.
Why Nishijin’s textile technology developed from the Onin war
Many people around Nishijin in Kyoto fled the city due to the Onin war.
Some of them fled to Osaka, which was already a developed city at the time, and learned textile technology there.
When the war was over, they returned to Nishijin and began weaving. This is thought to be the start of Nishijin as a city of txtile.
Tamori and his group walk along Kuramaguchi Street and climb a mountain called Funaokayama.
A large stone on Funaokayama has been heavily weathered, but it is known that a Buddha image had been drawn on it.
Funaokayama, located on the edge of Kyoto, has long served as a grave for the people of Kyoto.
The people of Kyoto who considered Funaokayama as the entrance of the world of afterlife, had not lived near Funaokayama until the Onin war.
However, when the people of Nishijin prospered as a textile town, they expanded the town and expanded the Nishijin area to the foot of Funaokayama.
The fact that there was available land nearby was one factor that made Nishijin prosper.
Nishijin experiences major development in Edo period
After a long time since the Onin War, Nishijin flourished as a textile town in the Edo period, starting in 1603.
On the street called “Senryo gatsuji” (Senryo street), which still remains, profit on a single day reached 1000 ryo (sen is 1000 in Japanese, and ryo is the currency of Edo), about 550,000 dollars today.
Here, Masaya Kimura, the tenth-generation wholesaler of fabric that has continued for 280 years from the middle of the Edo period, introduces their old customer book. In the customer register of the Edo period that remains in Kimura’s house, there are samples of the Imperial crest, Tokugawa (the Shogun family) crest, and other crests of powerful families.
However, at the end of the Edo period, the Tokugawa Shogunate was taken down by the Meiji Restoration in 1868. In the Meiji era, the Emperor moved to Tokyo, and at the same time the officials moved to Tokyo, and Nishijinori’s largest customers were no longer in Kyoto.
This was a crisis for the textile industry of Nishijin, but they managed through by adopting foreign technology.
It was the latest automatic weaving machine of the time, the French “Jacquard loom” that saved this crisis.
Until then, Nishijin Ori, was very time-consuming, making it an expensive product that was unreachable to the general public. The “Jacquard loom” made the work more efficient by semi-automated machine weaving with automatic control by punch card parts.
This technology saved time and effort while maintaining the same quality, and the efficiency had increased fourfold. Then, the general public was able to purchase Nishijin Ori, and the sales of Nishijin Ori was revived from around 1890.
From around this time, the number of craftsmen working in Nishijin increased rapidly, and the towns of craftsmen were created by dividing the land of the mansion of former lords of Kyoto. The complex rows of townhouses that have been created in this way still remain as the streets of Kyoto.
Nishijin has evolved as a textile town, even when times had changed.
Maybe it is a town worth taking a stroll, also with a visit to the mysterious Funaokayama.
The Japanese TV program “BuraTamori” on June 22nd, 2019 featured the Shirokane Area of Tokyo.
In BuraTamori, the famous Japanese MC, Tamori walks places of Japan and sometimes around the world, introducing the cities with deeper insight than regular tourists. (Bura comes from the Japanese word “Burabura”, which means “stroll around”.) In each episode, a guide who knows the city well accompanies Tamori and the crew.
The Shirokane Area of Tokyo is located inside the Yamanote train line which circles the Tokyo Area.
Shirokane is known as a town where the rich of Tokyo live.
People call the residents of Shirokane as “Shiroganese”, which is a pun on Milanese, meaning residents of Milan, Italy.
In BuraTamori, it was explained why this area came to be such a luxurious residential area.
The guide of this episode is Mr. Okamoto, who is a researcher specializing in city formation of Tokyo.
Okamoto says the requirements for a high-class residential area are the following four;
High ground (Hills)
Also, he mentions “moderate quietness” as an addition.
We will look into how each one applies to the Shirokane area.
Large Mansion: Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum
The building currently known as the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum was introduced.
This luxurious mansion was where former members of the Royal family of Japan, Asakanomiya Yasuhiko and his wife Nobuko lived in the early 1900s.
This place was also introduced in “Sekai Fushigi Hakken”, another famous TV program of Japan.
The building itself is of Western style, but in front of the entrance there are a pair of guardian lion-dogs that can be seen at entrances of Shinto Shrines of Japan. The statues were installed at the time of construction in 1934, according to the intention of His Highness, Asakanomiya. The designers seemed to be against it, because it certainly looks a little strange in front of a Western building, but today it is an individual characteristic of this mansion.
The craft glass that stands out on the surface were created exclusively for this palace by Rene Lalique, a French craftsman who was active in the early 20th century. These were made by a special process of pouring glass into mold.
This building is built entirely in Art Deco style. It is an architectural style characterized by geometric patterns that were popular in France from 1910 to 1920.
Inside, the curved ceiling of a large hall is made of plaster. It required considerable technical skill to make the curves and steps on the ceiling with plaster which is soft and slow to dry.
In the museum, we can see a video from immediately after construction where the life of the royal family is introduced. The many white peacocks which were kept as pets were also shown in the video.
However, this mansion had experienced danger of being lost.
After Word War II, the Royal family was made to pay taxes as normal citizens. The Asakanomiya family was no exception and had to pay up to 79% of all assets as taxes. This mansion was in danger of being sold, but it was protected because it was used as the official residence of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Minister of Foreign Affairs of the time, Shigeru Yoshida, served concurrently as the Prime Minister, so the mansion was virtually the prime minister’s residence at the time. It wasn’t sold to individuals, but became property of the government.
The study was the favorite of Shigeru Yoshida.
One of the reasons he liked it was that the visitors who came to the mansion were clearly visible from the study located on the second floor.
Plant life: Institute of Nature Study
The large forest in the middle of Shirokane is the Institute of Nature Study, which is an attached institute to the National Science Museum of Japan.
It is now a national institute, but this forest has been in danger of being lost many times in the history of Tokyo.
The crew visits a strange road outside the forest area. There is a wide but short road that suddenly ends just under the highway. This was once a planned route for the highway. On this route, the highway was scheduled to run straight through the forest that is currently the Institute of Nature Study.
The Ministry of Construction wanted to construct the highway through the forest which was the shortest path, but the Ministry of Education opposed because the forest was already a national monument of nature. This opposition was also encouraged by Shirokane residents.
As a result, the highway was changed to a route that passes outside the forest. The strange road visited by the crew was a remnant of the non-accepted route that was already purchased and made at that time.
They also visited a place where the sidewalk on the road under the highway suddenly ends. The Ministry of Construction tryed to make the sidewalk in addition to the highway, but because this piece of land was also a property of the forest, the Ministry of Education did not allow it, leaving the sidewalk to end abruptly.
Further back in time, there seemed to be many attempts and fortunes that protected this forest.
An unusual plant was introduced by Dr. Yano, an honorary researcher at the Institute of Nature Study. At first glance, it is an ordinary plant, but it is actually an endangered species that originally grows in Kyushu and Shikoku, parts of Japan to the far west of Japan.
Why are these rare plants growing in the middle of Tokyo?
This is because there was a Daimyo (Samurai lord) residence of Takamatsu (region of Shikoku) in this place during the Edo period (1603-1868). The plants that were brought to this place at that time have remained to this day. A black pine in the garden planted in the Edo period is over 300 years old.
Going back further, during the Muromachi period (1336-1573), there were low earthen walls stretched around the forest area. It is thought that a powerful family who ruled the area made these walls. The walls were built to a considerable extent, indicating that this family had been quite wealthy.
They had a lot of silver. In ancient Japanese, the word for “Silver” is “Shirokane”, and this is believed to be the origin of the place name.
Next, the crew comes to a tree called “Jayanagi”, planted in the Meiji period (1868-1912). This forest was used as a gunpowder storehouse during the Meiji period. “Jayanagi” was suitable for making charcoal, so many were planted during this time.
In the Meiji era, the parts of the forest other than the warehouse were left untouched.
In this way, the forest of nature continued to be protected for at least 700 years. Today, it is a place where we can observe the original nature of Tokyo.
There are many birds in this area such as kingfishers and goshawks that are said to be flying jewels.
High ground (Hills)
There is a slope called Sankozaka near Shirokane Takanawa Station.
Nearby is the Seishin Woman’s University (University of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo), where the former Empress of Japan, Michiko graduated.
From the school gate, there is a very long path to the nearest street. This path is actually a private property of the University.
This path is a remnant of the Daimyo (Samurai lord) mansion from the Edo period. The university is built on the former land of a strong Daimyo family. Because the mantion was connected to the outside world by a long and narrow road, the road remains today.
In addition to the university, there are many mansions that use the land of former Daimyo residences.
A large Western-style building sometimes called a mysterious mansion. Although it is not possible to enter, it is a mansion once owned by the founder of a famous watchmaker SEIKO.
The residential area in Shirokane have steep curves and slopes. It seems that the land sections of Daimyo mansions were preserved because this complexity of terrain made modern development difficult.
The remaining Edo period land divisions have many dead ends and acute curves. Such terrain seems inconvenient, but leads to the last point for a high-class residential area…
With the hills and zigzag streets full of curves and slopes, the Shirokane area is difficult for strangers to find the way.
Only residents get into the narrow streets, so it is easy to spot strangers.
Also, it is difficult for theifs to escape in steep hills.
Thus, the Shirokane area meets the 4 requirements of a high-class residential area; Large Mansion, Plant life, High ground (Hills), and Public Security.
In the early 1900s, the rich of Tokyo build one mansion after another. These are still used as wedding halls and hotels.
The extra point for a high-class area was “moderate silence”.
This can be seen on Platinum Street, the main street of Shirokane made in 1971.
It is a large road with two lanes on one side, but there is little traffic. This is because it is not possible to pass through to the urban Shinagawa area because of a dead end. It was originally planned to connect to Shinagawa Station, but the plan was abandoned due to lack of budget.
This was another coincidence that made the city relaxed with “moderate tranquility”.
However, today there seems to be a plan about resuming the construction of Platinum street that had been stopped for a long time.
Will the city change or will it be protected without change? In any case, Shirokane is a high-class residential area that was born from a combination of fortunate coincidence.
With my budget, Shirokane is difficult to live… so someday I would like to take a slow walk around the town to know its history.
BuraTamori (ブラタモリ）is a Japanese TV show on NHK, which is Japan’s national broadcasting company. The host of this program is Tamori, a famous MC and comedian of Japan. BuraTamori comes from the word, “Burabura” which means “to stroll around”, combined with the name of the host.
As the name suggests, in BuraTamori, Tamori walks places of Japan and sometimes around the world, introducing the cities with deeper insight than regular tourists. In each episode, there is a guide who introduces the city. These guides can be professional or amateur geologists, local historians or curators, and explores the place’s terrain features and geological changes, as well as its history, culture and civil engineering.
In each episode, a theme or question is introduced at the beginning of the program. Tamori and his crew walk the land to find the answers to this question.
The program started in 2008 when Tamori was extremely busy with other programs, so at first, the destinations were usually within or close to Tokyo. These days, the destinations have become farther away, and its viewership has been consistently over 10% since 2015, which is contributing to the program being one of NHK’s highest viewed programs.