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The Rise of the Eco Villages

The Rise of the Eco Villages
By Jon Wilks

Considering that climate change is upon us and the world is spiraling towards meltdown, the man on the other end of the phone is a very laid-back fellow. This could be because he spends his time in one of Japan’s most picturesque settings, or it could be because business is starting to take off. Or it could be that he’s seen the future, and it’s not the fiery furnace the doomsayers would have you fear. Quite the opposite; the future, according to Jake Reiner, is entirely green.

Jake is an eco architect, and the country he now calls home is waking up to his line of thinking. This summer, Japan saw inhabitants move into its latest purpose-built eco village, a plot of land in Shiga Prefecture called Kobunaki Mura. G-Project, the company behind the initiative, are building carbon neutral houses in the village, each with 30 square meters of gardening space for families to cultivate and harvest. They hold regular workshops to teach residents how to become self-sustaining farmers, ready to face the changes the world has in store.

Nobunaki may be one of the first purpose-built projects, but it’s not the only eco village in Japan. Jake founded the Earth Embassy group 8 years ago, building their first Eco home in Tokyo in 2005, then developing the Solar Cafe, Guest House and Organic Farm in Narusawa Mura, Yamanashi. Earth Embassy sees it as their mission to become entirely self-sufficient; growing all their own farm produce, collecting and using only rain water, recycling their own waste, reducing energy consumption and producing their own energy. Oh, and they’re interested in "educating the world", too, to which ends they have set up the Eden Farm Center, which welcomes school groups, corporate retreats and family visits, and provides hands-on experience in all things organic.

"The Japanese are only a generation or 2 from the farm," explains Jake, "and lots of people are interested in getting back to the land." It’s hard to imagine young Tokyoites on a vegetable plot, interminable city dwellers that they are, but as the Obon period testifies, city folk are often there for work, returning to the family homestead when traditions dictate. "Most of their obaachans have a vegetable garden," Jake points out.

Jake’s also involved in the creation of eco villages as part of his Eden Homes project. However, while the company are capable of putting up green homes of considerable longevity, it’s not their only aim. Unlike the folk at Kobunaki, Eden Homes are as interested in revitalizing (recycling on a much larger scale) as they are in building from scratch; their flagship development was a 150 year old kominka (farmhouse) in Emura, near Lake Saiko, that they nurtured from dereliction to classy modern abode, capable of lasting another 100 years. It was recently sold to Jake’s ideal customers, "a young family, interested in moving in, living there (instead of using it as a weekend retreat) and revitalizing the area."

Such revitalization must be anathema to the Japanese building industry – surely one of the world’s must destructive forces – and it’s interesting that one of the most successful redevelopment projects, now in its 3rd decade, was also set up by a foreigner. Chiiori, in Shikoku’s Iya Valley, was a kominka purchased and renovated by Alex Kerr during the early 70s (documented in his bestseller, Lost Japan). The surrounding village has effectively been rescued from the bulldozers by Kerr and his colleagues, and now operates to educate visitors on the successful sustainability of aging communities – teaching the Japanese how to appreciate, rather than destroy, what their forefathers worked hard to cultivate.

I’m intrigued as to how the locals take to this kind of foreign invasion. Doesn’t it gall them to see foreigners move in and lay claim to what is rightfully theirs? "For the most part, they’re delighted," says Jake. "Since we moved the first family in, the locals have been coming to me and asking me if I can find young families for the rest of the village." It must be a relief for many of these elderly farmers to find that the land they’ve worked on all their lives is not being cleared to make way for an anonymous apartment block; that it’s actually going to live on in the hands of like-minded others once they’ve gone.

Another of Jake’s tactics is to get the locals involved in what they’re doing. Rather than bring in a truckload of foreigners to work on the buildings, Eden Homes have involved local carpenters and farmers to help revitalize the area. He’s worked in and around the village for the best part of a decade, so he’s earned their trust and become a part of the landscape.

I ask him how easy it is to get involved with eco villages, and he points to the Solar Cafe as an example of a community welcoming in outsiders to nurture a better understanding of what’s involved. Many of the people working at the Earth Embassy buildings are WWOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farmers), having found the group via the WWOOF website. WWOOF has plenty of Japan-based opportunities for anyone interested in getting out of the cities and learning about the land, and the website organizers are fluent English speakers happy to answer any questions regarding working visas and living conditions.

As Japan becomes more aware of carbon footprints and other media buzzwords, it’s likely that we’ll see more green initiatives. So far, however, campaigns such as My Hashi and Idling Stop have failed to cement themselves firmly in the public consciousness. It seems there’s a huge difference between bandying around katakana catch-phrases and actually taking action. Whether the eco village will have greater success is yet to be seen, but the sense of community that they engender sits nicely with the group mentality so beloved of this nation. If we’re going to achieve the 14% emission cuts Fukuda wants by 2020 (let alone the 40% hoped for by global scientists), someone’s going to have to lead the way, and it’s nice to know that the likes of Jake Reiner have a few ideas up their sleeves.

If this article has peaked your interest, skip over to Freddy Benstein’s compelling 4 Actions Japan Will Never Take to Stop Global Warming.

Useful Websites

Earth Embassy:
www.earthembassy.org

Eden Homes:
www.eden.st

Chiiori Trust:
www.chiiori.org

Kobunaki Eco Village:
www.kobunaki-ecomura.com

WWOOF Japan:
www.wwoofjapan.com

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