the climate, rice and snow

The Snow

The Uonuma region of Niigata is only 460 m above sea level and close to the coast. In winter, when a prevailing wind blows fine sand from mainland Asia across the sea, the moisture laden air freezes into big snowflakes the instant it reaches this northern edge of the Japanese alps. The snow is sticky, very wet and heavy. When it falls in Uonuma, it is easily compressed into solid ice. By the end of the winter, it accumulates up to a depth of 5 m. It is this deep snow that often isolates the villages scattered along the mountainside from the rest of Kawanishi.

There are many small agricultural communities in the rural mountainous landscapes of Japan that are increasingly defined by depopulation, overgrown forests and abandoned rice fields. The name Kawanishi no longer appears on maps printed after April 2005, following the town’s absorption into the neighbouring city of Toukamachi.

All this conditions are taken into account when designing and building during the hot and humid summer, when is difficult to imagine the green landscape covered in 5m of snow.

Economic Climate – Local

This landscape is affected not only by the forces of nature, but by the economic constraints upon agriculture since the 1970s. As the young have left,many of the villages have simply ceased to exist.Thatched houses that remain unoccupied soon collapse or are flattened by the weight of the winter snow. Terraced rice fields that are left uncultivated eventually become detached from their irrigation systems and slide down the mountain.

Economic Climate – General

In the late 1970s the Niigata-born former prime minister of Japan,Kakuei Tanaka,established the ‘Japanese Islands Rebuilding Plan’.One of its major provisions was for the construction of Japan’s longest tunnel to carry the bullet train through the Central Alps,a landscape spanning from Tokyo in the south to Niigata in the north. At the time, it dramatically shrank the notion of distance.However, contrary to Tanaka’s vision, it also exaggerated the sense of contrast between the lifestyles in the different places. The bullet pipeline encouraged migration from the north to the larger cities in the south; it also promoted a sense of isolation in places like Kawanishi that lay on the path of the speeding train.

Ecomomy – Local Rice/Micro Industries

Kawanishi is also known for Uonuma Koshihikari, the best quality rice in Japan. Although it commands the highest market price,most of the farmers find it difficult to benefit from the trade,partly due to the inherited trading mechanisms of their union, and partly because government legislation encourages them to lower their rice yields to counterbalance increasing rice imports from abroad.Ironically, this was the same government that officially certified Koshirakura as one of the most beautiful ‘traditional’ rural villages in the country. Regardless of the economic futility of ricefarming, the community continues to maintain the terraced fields and irrigation systems with the aim of preserving the picturesque views and preventing further landslides.They also continue to produce excellent rice crops on parts of these fields, out of a sense of local pride and for personal pleasure and consumption;other parts of the fields have been converted to provide income from cottage industries such as farming.Most of the residents have two or three jobs which shift seasonally among the family members; grandparents, for instance,often grow rice and carp in the summer and run a small ropemaking business in the winter (making,among other things, the ring ropes for sumo wrestling). Other family-run cottage industries reveal the influence of globalisation. Behind the authentic fabric of these traditional dwellings, with their thatched roofs and modern twists such as integrated satellite dishes, families produce high-precision metal prototype components,supplying companies not only in Japan but also in the USA and Germany.

Snow and Localities

The winter snow, with its weight and volume, is a major force in shaping and reshaping the residents’ lifestyles and the buildings of the village.Their daily routines during the winter months include digging out their own houses so as to maintain connections to the main road, and shared duties such as fieldwork and snow clearing.These shared practices extend into seasonal festivities that require a high degree of social cohesion and community participation. The traditional house,known as chumon zukuri, has a steep thatched roof that directs the snow into a pond which is fed by a constant supply of water to prevent it from freezing.The water is drawn from a horizontal well, dug out by hand,that extends several hundred metres into the face of the mountain.In summers past these wells were used as storage. The pond has always been an important lifeline for the house:it collects melted snow from the roof to prevent the house from collapsing, and the small stream ofwater that runs along the side of the house clears any snow blocking the path between the street and the entrance.‘Koi’ carp are often farmed in the pond,traditionally as a food source during winter, and in the more recent past,when the Nishiki Koi was a popular pet, as a very successful source of income.

Glossary

Gang; enclosed eave

Yokoido; horizontal well

Yukigako;i snow-shuttering