Uncovering local resources and attracting city people in a remote village: Case Study at Kuwatori village, Joetsu-city, Niigata, Japan

Typical Japanese village in the mountains

Kuwatori village is located at “Kuwatori valley” in Joetsu-shi, Niigata prefecture. It takes around two and half hours from Tokyo by train to reach the nearby station, and then it needs around 45 minutes by local bus to come into the village. The Kuwatori valley lies along the 15 km long river “Kuwatori” that flows from the mountains of 1,000 meter high towards the Japan Sea. Although the location of the village is not so far from the sea shore, it is a typical Japanese mountain village surrounded with deep forests and most of the villagers have been cultivating terraced fields and producing rice and vegetables mostly for own consumptions. Administratively, the village has been a part of Joetsu city of Niigata prefecture after it merged in 1955 (when it merged, the name of the city was “Naoetsu”, and it again merged to become “Joetsu” city in 1971). However, the villagers still regard themselves as the villagers of Kuwatori, and have strong identity with the Kuwatori valley.

The village consists of 9 hamlets, and the total population is around 360. The number decreases from around 1,300 in 1955. Most of the younger generation has already migrated out to live in more convenient towns or cities because they felt it was hard to earn much money in such a remote small mountain village. There is no industry in the village other than small scale agriculture and forestry. Now, most of the villagers have aged (more than 40% of the total population is over 65 years old), and they live quiet and isolated especially in the winter season when snow falls to a depth of more than 2 meters. It is a typical Japanese mountain village with de-population and aging, except for the existence of an active NPO (Non Profit Organization) “Kamiechigo Yamazato (mountain village) Fun Club (KYFC)” that brings energy and positive future for the village.


KYFC was established in 2001 by the people who were concerned about the problem of rapidly decreasing and aging population in the Kuwatori area. It aims at preserving the local culture and traditional lifestyle, maintaining agriculture land, and creating sustainable industry based on the existing resources in the area. It implements various community activities in Kuwatori village as follows;

1) “Joetsu Earth Environment School” (JEE School)

The JEE school has its base at an old school building closed in 1999 due to drastic decrease of the children in the area Once this “Nakanomata elementary school” had had more than 100 students for 90 years, but there was only 1 child remained in late 1990s. After close of the school, the community people expected to continue using the school building for welfare and productive activities, and the Joetsu city government decided to open “Joetsu Earth Environment School” to provide opportunities of environment education with the city people.

The NPO KYFC is entrusted with the management of the JEE school, and it receives around 5 thousand visitors annually. The main concept of the JEE school is “experiencing lively life of mountain village”. It aims at providing opportunities for the visitors to experience how the villagers have constructed harmonious relations with the nature around the village. The nature does not exist isolated from the human beings, but it has been preserved by the community people who has utilized its resources sustainably. Through various activities of the JEE school such as playing in the small stream, experiencing planting and harvesting rice in the terraced rice field, helping forest-thinning in the village forest, making handicrafts from the forest products, cooking wild plants taken from the field, and burning charcoal by traditional kiln, the children who participated in the school can learn how the villagers have been living with the existing natural resources and what kinds of traditional wisdom the villagers have inherited in order to preserve and utilize the nature.

2) Kuwatori Citizens’ Forest (KCF)

The Kuwatori Citizens’ Forest (KCF) is a nature park located at the most interior part of the Kuwatori valley with 272 ha of forest. A part of the forest is designated as protected area for the source of drinking water of the Joetsu city. Another part of the forest is “Satoyama (nearby forest)” that has been utilized by the villagers for their everyday life. The purpose of establishment of “Kuwatori Citizens’ Forest (KCF)” is to preserve natural resources in the forest through the participation of interested citizens from outside towns and cities. It is also NPO KYFC that the Joetsu city government entrusted with the management of the KCF.

In the forest, the NPO KYFC implements several activities that invite the outside people to participate. Forest maintenance works such as cutting weeds and thinning trees are open to the interested outside people to experience. The outside people are also invited to experience charcoal burning activity in the forest. In addition, the NPO arrange various types of nature observation tours to explore inside the deep forest. It also provides nature education programs to the children of the local areas.

3) “Learning through experence” progarams

Apart from the above mentioned entrusted programs contracted with the local government, NPO KYFC has also implemented some activities as own independent programs mainly focusing on providing opportunities of learning experience to the outside people about various traditional activities of the villagers. Those “learning through experience” programs are called “schools”, and the NPO has so far implemented three kinds of “school”.

a) “House repairing school”

There are old traditional houses with thatched roof in the village. For the maintenance of those houses, the villagers had utilized various plants such as grasses, bamboo, and woods taken from the field or forest of the village. All the villagers had to repair and maintain their houses by their own skills and resources. However, as the villagers are getting aged, such skills and local wisdoms are being lost. The “House repairing school” aims at providing opportunity for the people to learn such local skills and wisdoms of maintenance of the old traditional houses. Major themes of the school are carpentry, plastering, roof thatching, gardening, and constructing water course.

b) “Vegetable garden school”

The women in Kuwatori village cultivate vegetable garden near their housing plots, and produce various kinds of vegetables. They also have good skills of processing the vegetables into various types of foodstuff such as pickles, Miso, Tofu, and Natto that are highly nutritious and preserve for long. In order to inherit the wisdom for living of those rural women, the participants of “Vegetable garden school” learn ways of cultivating vegetable garden and processing or cooking produces of the garden.

c) “Rice terrace school”

As the Kuwatori village is located in mountainous area, the villagers have been cultivating rice and vegetables in the terraced field. For the maintenance of the rice terrace, it requires special skill to control water and soil in a sustainable manner. In the “Rice terrace school”, the participants learn various skills of how to grow rice, how to maintain terraced field, and in general, how to cope with the power of nature. Through experiencing the various activities of rice cultivation at the terrace, the participants obtain not only delicious rice harvested in the terrace where they work, but also they can acquire precious insights about the real sense of living on the earth that lays at the background of rice production.

d) “School of living skills for four seasons”

Based on the experience of implementing the above mentioned schools, the NPO KYFC has newly starts an integrated type of “learning through experience” school. At the early stage of the NPO in 2001, it conducted a research on traditional skills of the local people at Kuwatori area, and prepared a list of “Red data book on traditional life skills” that indicates possibility of extinction of various traditional life skills that only the aged villagers keep. Skills of masonry, bamboo crafting, taking care of grass field, sericulture, firewood gathering, snowshoes making, charcoal burning, and building charcoal kiln are the examples of “endangered life skills” that can be vanished within 10 years.

Although such life skills are considered in modern society to be meaningless or useless, they are crystallization of local wisdom that have been accumulated and inherited for generations in the village to utilize the existing natural resources in sustainable way to live in harmony with the nature. The NPO regards such life skills are surely important for all the people to learn if they want to change their life styles to be more environmental friendly and sustainable.

From this perspective, the NPO has started “School of living skills for four seasons” where the participants will learn the traditional life skills directly from the village people who have inherited and utilized them. The school aims at providing opportunities for the participants to acquire the life skills while staying in the village and appreciating traditional life style and culture of the local people. Apart from direct learning from the field experience, it also provides lectures that analyze and synthesize such life skills in scientific way from broader perspectives. The examples of direct learning classes and lectures are shown in the box 1.


(Experience)Collecting, cooking and preserving wild plants, Timber logging, plowing rice field, grinding sickle, spring festival, etc.

(Lecture) Agriculture in Kuwatori, Characteristics of Joetsu area, Culture of Yui (mutual helping), Eco-system of the forest, etc.


(Experience) Producing salt, ascent along a mountain stream, traditional Bon festival, sawing, harvesting summer vegetables, mowing in rice field, sea fishing and cooking, etc.

(Lecture) Eco-system in the sea, Water circulation and utilization, food security and present condition of food distribution, food and health, etc.


(Experience) Paddy harvesting, grinding rice and buckwheat flour, Soba-making, Charcoal burning, Autumn festival, wild duck cooking, etc.

(Lecture) Energy issues in Japan and the world, Folk customs and events in Kuwatori, etc.


(Experience) straw works, walking by snow-shoes, catching wild rabbits and cooking, riding sledge, new year events, graduation ceremony, etc.

(Lecture) fungus and fermentation, tools and instruments for snow season, 12 months in the valley, etc.

Uncovering local resources that attract outside people

One of the uniqueness of Kamiechigo Yamasato Fun Club (KYFC) is that it considered the existing ways of life, skills, customs, and wisdoms of the local people as precious and important resources for community development. In fact, the traditional life styles and life skills, such as how to utilize natural resources in sustainable way and how to help each other among the villagers, had once existed everywhere throughout Japan before modernization came in. Local people in the villages of Japan now think those life skills and customs are too old-fashioned and have no value. However, as the “dark side” of modernization and capitalism, such as destruction of natural environment, rural de-population and urban over-population, decrease of human relationship and increase of social in-security, has become known more and more broadly, people in Japan have started to search for alternative ways of life styles and human relations.

It is in this background that KYFC tries to preserve and revive local life skills and customs in Kuwatori village, and it also utilizes them as resources for community business. As already explained above, KYFC arrange various “school classes” where outside people can learn various life skills and customs of Kuwatori village through field exposure and experiencing activities. Outside people who participated in the “school” activities got interested in the life of Kuwatori, started to have continuous relations with the villagers, and some of them repeatedly visit the village.

As a result of such “experience school” activities and the exchange with the outside people, the Kuwatori villagers themselves also become stimulated to take further initiatives for reviving traditional skills and customs. In Nakanomata hamlet, there is a local group called “Takibi-kai” (bon-fire group) that works for revitalization of the village. It tries to revive traditional way of cultivating rice, old-fashioned bon dance, and an event to pulling out big trees from the mountain by using traditional sledge. The villagers themselves now become active in utilizing existing resources for constructing future livelihood.

How the outsiders come in and received by the community

It may be surprising fact that such various activities of KYFC are mostly planned and implemented by a group of young people who recently came into the Kuwatori village. There are nine active members of KYFC, and all of them are under mid-thirties of age, and migrated into the village from towns and cities outside. Mr. Mikita Nakagawa, who is the leader of KYFC, explains how they entered the village and started the activities.

Firstly when I started living in Kuwatori village in 2001, I tried to participate in various events and meetings of the village as much as possible. In those events such as mowing grasses, cleaning roads and canals, traditional folk events, sports festival, youth association, and fire-fighting team, etc., I could gradually construct relationship with the villagers. At such events or meetings, I often tried to help the villagers behind the scenes rather than being treated as “guest” from outside. It is most important that you should be received by the villagers as “equal partner” or even “the person who come to learn from them”. You should not be a teacher or instructor of the villagers. If you want to teach them and directly oppose to what you are told by the villagers, they will never accept you.

While participating in various events and meetings, we also tried to uncover what the villagers had been maintaining as traditional life styles. When we found something interesting, we asked the villagers to revive them. “Cultivating rice field by cow” was one of such activities revived, and it became epoch-making event for the village as it was introduced in mass media and the villagers started to realize the value of what they had had as traditional life style for long time. In this process, various types of traditional life skills and customs are “discovered” and become revived to be parts of classes for “learning through experience” schools of the NPO.

It is important to listen to the villagers carefully and to show interest in their stories. The villagers feel comfortable if the young people from outside show interest in their everyday life and old stories. You should be humble and follow the local traditional manner of human relations. If you listen carefully to the villagers story, you will be able to find out many hints for starting various activities with the villagers.

Future challenge of KYFC

After 6 years since its establishment, KYFC has constructed partnership with the village people and started various activities that utilize existing local resources especially local life skills and customs. A quiet tiny village now receives many outside people to participate in various “school” activities, and the villagers themselves now feel proud of their own culture and life styles, and they become more and more active in preserving and reviving traditional life skills and customs.

When it started in Kuwatori, the NPO KYFC did not have much concrete ideas about what can be done by themselves. Although it had a clear mission of “activating mountain village”, the NPO did not have plans on concrete actions except for some activities entrusted by the local government. It started partnership building with the villagers, and while they were accepted as “partner” by the village people, the NPO started uncovering existing local resources especially life skills and customs. And based on what were discovered in the village, it developed various activities that attract the outside people to come in.

One of the present challenges for the NPO KYFC is “sustainability” and “independency”. Most of its staff salary is paid from the income that the NPO receives from the local government as the fee for the entrusted projects. If the Joetsu city government changes its policy to entrust the projects with KYFC, the NPO may lose its financial basis for implementing own activities initiated by themselves. Mr. Nakagawa, the leader of KYFC, has strong will to make the NPO financially sustainable and independent, thus, he tries to up-grade the on-going “school” activities to be more attractive and continuous ones. The “School of living skills for four seasons” is one of such trials, and the NPO expects to have much more visitors to come and to make them “repeaters” who regularly come to the village.

It is not only the NPO’s challenge to activate the Kuwatori village, but also it is the future dream for the villagers themselves. How the villagers can utilize the existing local resources and develop new “products” that attract city people? How can a village of remote mountain area remain populated while maintaining rich natural environment and traditional culture? Those are the common challenges for not only Kuwatori villagers, but for all the village people living in rural areas in Japan. The trials of KYFC can give us interesting and stimulating example of the roles of outsiders and the cases of collaboration among NPO/NGO, local communities, and local government.

Rie Yamada & M.Nagahata (i-i-network)

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