A Tale of Balance


At the end of June, I went on a four-day-trip to Izumo, Shimane, and wrote a report on my experience for my landscape management and sustainable tourism class. I tried to combine academic writing and story telling, and am somewhat proud of the result. I thought it would be nice to share my experience and my “work” with more people than just my professor, so here it goes:

A Tale of Balance


An Introduction
A small fire, some candles and a few gas lanterns are the only things illuminating the large, Japanese-style room. Smoke and the smell of the tatami fill the air. Most of the doors and windows are open, and occasionally a soft ocean breeze wafts inside. My host, Hajime, and I are sitting around a square hole, which many years ago used to work like a kotatsu, but now serves as a fireplace. We are engaging in small talk, exchanging stories, while sipping on canned beer that Hajime kept cool in an old chabako in the corner of the room. Whenever the fire grows too weak, Hajime tosses a piece of wood into the hole, or two, then blows air at the fire using a long bamboo pipe.

An hour or so into our conversation, Hajime asks me: “Why did you come to Shimane?” He has switched from beer to red wine (“From Germany! ‘Mariengold!'”) at this point, which he has poured into a tea cup. In broken Japanese I tell him that I want to experience balance, in humans and nature interacting. Shimane, far away from busy, messy Tokyo, a place that almost nobody around me knows anything about or has ever considered visiting, seemed like a good choice; and staying in an Airbnb like Hajime’s (with no running water, gas and electricity) like an even better one, like a “cherry on top”. He listens intently, gazing at the cup he is balancing in his left hand. “I am going to say something really good now,” he starts after I finish. “I think the reason why you came to Shimane is to meet tatara.”

Tatara? Never has tatara popped up in any of my many Google searches in preparation for this trip, nor do I even understand the meaning of this word. So I dig deeper. “Tatara is where production, industry, people and nature meet,” Hajime explains. “But I don’t know if I can tell the story right. I don’t start work until noon tomorrow. Let’s get up early and I will drive you to the place of tatara. Then you can see for yourself.”

Journey Back in Time
Hajime’s place is located on the outer edge of Izumo city, right by the coast to the Sea of Japan, in western Shimane. It should be only an hour drive away from our destination, Yoshida village (now officially part of the city of Unnan, next to Izumo). But, for various reasons, we end up taking almost three. Hajime drops me off somewhere close to the tourist information centre, tells me to contact him if I cannot find a way back to the Airbnb by myself, then hurriedly drives to work.

Until the latter half of the 19th century, Yoshida village, or rather former Yoshida village, was a centre of tatara, a unique Japanese method of iron production. (Pig) iron — crude, raw iron — was usually obtained from iron ore, only scarcely available in Japan. Iron sand, on the other hand, was abundant. For tatara, this iron sand was first collected from mountains, rivers, the sea. Inside a rectangular furnace, large amounts of charcoal were burned to heat the iron sand to a high temperature. On the long sides of the furnace, there were bellows or fuigo, used to generate wind and raise temperatures even further. Like this, impurities in the sand were melted and drained out as slag, until only the iron remained.

Experts are unsure about the exact origins of tatara. Early tatara furnaces can be traced back as far as the 500s, but an exact time remains undefined. It was of great importance to Japan over many centuries, probably until the end of the Taisho era (from 1912 to 1926), approximately when Western iron mass production methods found their way into the island nation. During peak times, especially in Shimane and the greater Chuugoku region, tatara was supposedly responsible for 90 percent of all iron production in Japan.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that the traces of tatara are still visible today. Tatara even inspired part of a well-known animation movie — Princess Mononoke, by the Japanese Studio Ghibli under famous film maker Hayao Miyazaki. A big chunk of the movie is set in the industrial town of Tataraba (or simply called “Irontown” in the English version.) Approximately half an hour into the movie, the male protagonist Ashitaka peeks into a factory building and sees a huge furnace, shaped almost like a volcano. Men are next to the mouth of the furnace, tossing rocks and sand into the blazing flames. On the left, there is a group of women, alternately stepping down on the opposite sides of a wooden board (a foot bellow), generating air. This is it, the Princess Mononoke version of tatara.

Initially, I do not realize how much Princess Mononoke will influence my experience in Yoshida village. After a short visit to the tourist information centre to find out if there is a way for me to get home later — there is, as the friendly lady working there informs me, though it involves a lot of walking and even more waiting —, I wander around a bit. At first glance,Yoshida village looks like every other Japanese village: a mixture of shadowed, narrow alleys and open, green spaces; a wider main road parted by a small river; traditional-style family houses that are a far cry from the concrete or crystalline skyscrapers of Tokyo. Once or twice, I cross paths with an elderly woman, and she greets me with a “konnichi wa!” and a big, warm smile, looking excited to see me. I cannot imagine the village gets too many visitors, especially not from abroad.

While walking, I try to study the many pamphlets and brochures I picked up at the tourist information, and they all point me towards “Yoshida Townscape”, so I decide to follow their instructions. I almost feel like I have travelled back in time: Save a few cars, street signs and electricity poles, the area looks like a scene from an old Japanese film set in the Edo period, with its wooden townhouses with baked tile roofs. There is a museum there, on the history of iron production, where I learn more about tatara — about the importance of the type of charcoal, for instance, or the different roles and tasks people exercised in production, or sannai. Sannai, Japanese for “inside the mountains”, refers to the unique communities that formed around tatara, the small villages that served as both the workplace and the home of around 30 households of tatara workers and their families. I find out that there is a former sannai nearby Yoshida village, and decide to go there.



Sugaya Tatara, as this sannai is called, turns out to be farther away than I thought. When I finally spot the red and orange and brown roofs of the houses of the community a steep 40-minute hike later, I feel equal parts exhaustion and exhilaration. A small, white van is parked next to the road leading down to the sannai, and a Japanese man, probably in his 60s, gets out. We exchange greetings, and he tells me that he was born and raised in Sugaya Tatara. I get the feeling he must be the unofficial ambassador as he boasts about the history of his home and proceeds to invite me to come and explore the village. It is quiet, so quiet and peaceful. Unreal and real at the same time because it does not try to be a perfect reenactment of the past — not all of the houses are in best condition, and there is a big construction site at one end of the village. (I am not sure what is being rebuilt there, but the man tells me to come back in ten years or so to see it, and we both laugh.)

Close to the construction site, there stands a house different from all the others, with a large wooden door and a high roof. Recalling what I saw at the museum, I deduct that this must be an old takadono, the building which contained the box-shaped furnace and other tatara equipment. The man tells me to wait, and disappears around a corner. A minute later I hear the sound of a key being turned inside the lock. The wooden door swings open, revealing him with his arms open in a welcoming manner. “Yokoso!

It is dark inside the takadono, and it smells like wood and earth, also a bit like smoke. In the centre of the room is the typical tatara structure — a rectangular furnace with fuigo bellows attached to its long sides. The man explains the tatara process — and I feel happy and thankful that I learned about it from Hajime first and then a second time at the museum, because his Shimane dialect is fast, words occasionally blending together, and hard on my untrained ears. He sounds proud when he tells me just how old this building is (at least over a hundred years), and how it served as Hayao Miyazaki’s inspiration for the factory building in Princess Mononoke. I thank him and he thanks me, even offering to give me a ride back to Yoshida village, but “no, it is alright, I can walk!” With a final bow, we part ways. Maybe I will see him again “in ten years or so.”

“Intentional Symbiosis Between Man and Nature”
“Did you notice how it looks a little red?” Hajime jerks his head in the direction of a river, one of the many we have already passed on our way to Yoshida village. Iron sand could be obtained in many different ways, through simply digging holes in the mountains, for example, or, later, by using the kanna nagashi method. For kanna nagashi, a reservoir was built at the top of a mountain, and a downward stream created. Iron sand would be poured into the stream, and the heavier iron particles would sink to the bottom while everything else continued to flow down the mountain. Hajime tells me that not all of the iron could be collected; some remained at the riverbed and rusted, and “that is why the rivers in this area are red.” Kanna nagashi, and tatara in general, deeply impacted the mountain scape of the Chuugoku region, both negatively and positively. High amounts of mountain sand would accumulate at the base of the mountains, causing floods, sometimes even contaminating rivers, with drastic consequences for the local agriculture. Simultaneously, this reorganization of the mountains allowed for the erection of tanada, rice paddy terraces, and consequently for humans to settle.

Charcoal was just as integral to tatara as iron sand. If the former was bad, it was not possible to produce iron, no matter how good the quality of the latter. There was a number of trees particularly well-suited as charcoal for tatara iron production, like certain types of pine trees, or chestnut trees. Some were never used, such as the katsura tree because it was regarded as holy. A lot of charcoal was needed, 1,800 hectares for one single tatara during peak times (in the second half of the 19th century). However, trees would be cut only every 25 to 30 years, so carefully that they could grow back fairly quickly. A cyclical system, one that was “sustainable”.

“The system was an intentional symbiosis between man and nature,” it is written in the Tatara Guide Map I received at Yoshida village’s tourist information centre. Witnessing tatara has revived in me a question that I have been grappling with for many months now — that of what constitutes nature.

Nature can be understood in many ways — “the essential quality and character of something” or “the inherent force which directs either the world or human beings or both” or “the material world itself, taken as including or not including human beings.” In these definitions, but also commonly in every day life, nature is perceived as something “before, separate from, or outside of society, human history, and volition.” Something “timeless, universal, […][a] basic quality.” But is it just that, really? Dr. Ingo Kowarik, head of the Institute of Ecology of the Technical University of Berlin, has identified two possible ways of defining “nature” or “naturalness” — as, first, “a reference to historical benchmarks (pristine landscapes virtually untouched by humans)” or, second, as “relying on a high level of self-organization of ecosystems that may be achieved even after human-mediated, nonreversible shifts in environmental conditions.” The way Raymond Williams and the general public view nature fits with this first idea of nature as pristine, untouched landscapes.

Tatara, But In Reverse”
On my last full day in Shimane, Hajime and I head out together again, but this time he is a little more cryptic about our destination. “Tatara, but in reverse,” is all he says. Skillfully he maneuvers his van along narrow, sharply curving mountain roads as we drive deeper and deeper into a forest. Just as the car ride is about to turn painful (after I have managed to hit my left elbow one too many times against the passenger side door because of the constant shaking and stuttering and jumping), we reach a clearing. Hajime stops the van. “We are here.” A light rain has been falling since early morning, enveloping the trees in a thin, light grey fog. It smells fresh, like spring. Somewhere a few birds are having a very intense conversation, their cries echoing throughout the woods. Hajime tells me that there used to be a sannai here, many, many years ago, and I cannot believe it; there is nothing eluding to humans ever having touched this place, except for parts of the ground being elevated by a bit, like a very spread-out stone staircase. Apparently a fire destroyed the houses, the equipment, everything. The people who used to live there fled and never returned, but with time passing the soil recovered, and plants, flowers, trees, and non-human animals too came back around. “A bit like the ending of Princess Mononoke,” Hajime laughs, referring to one of the final scenes where Tataraba is reclaimed by the god of the surrounding forest and overgrown by plants.

The aspect of self-organization of ecosystems is evident here, in line with Kowarik’s second idea on nature. In the same work, Kowarik develops the so-called Four Natures approach, defining four different kinds of nature: remnants of pristine ecosystems, cultural landscapes, generated urban green spaces, and spontaneous urban green spaces. There are parallels between Hajime’s example of “tatara, but in reverse” and the Berlin Nordbahnhof, an old, short-lived railway station in the German capital, used by Kowarik to demonstrate the fourth kind of nature, namely spontaneous urban green space. In both cases, nature, or rather non-human lifeforms have recaptured domination over something dominated by human hand beforehand. Can we not refer to such an instance as “natural”? It may not be pristine, untouched by and in isolation of human action, but it is a representation of life, in whatever way or form, running its course.

A Final Note
Princess Mononoke is about a battle between humanity, or rather human technology, and (pristine) nature, about a struggle for balance — balance that is ultimately not achieved. At the end of the film, Ashitaka, representing humans and their technology, and San (Princess Mononoke), the female protagonist who grew up in the forest alongside wolves and represents (pristine) nature, choose to live separately (though they remain friends), and San’s “hatred toward humans never disappears.” But in reality, it does not have to end like that. I learned in Shimane that, with mindfulness and a lot of respect, balance is possible. Like the example of tatara illustrates, human action and nature do not have to be separate. One can come after the other goes, or both can simply co-exist. The lesson tatara taught me is one I will always remember, one I wish to explore even further … in ten years or so? But hopefully much sooner.



Hitachi Metals. “Materials Magic. Tale of the Tatara.“ https://www.hitachi-metals.co.jp/e/tatara/index.htm (Accessed 29 June 2019).

Kitamura, T., H. Katayama, and I. Takahashi. 1997. “Approach to the Environment Conscious Iron and Steel Making Process.” Mem. Fac. Sci. Eng. Shimane Univ. Series A 31: 291-301. Accessed 12 July 2019.

Kowarik, Ingo. 2013. “Cities and Wilderness. A New Perspective.“ International Journal of Wilderness 19 (3): 32-36. Accessed 20 April 2019.

Kozo, Mayumi, Barry D. Solomon and Jason Chang. 2005. “The Ecological and Consumption Themes of the Films of Hayao Miyazaki.“ Ecological Economics 54: 1-7. Accessed 30 June 2019.

Princess Mononoke. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. 1997.

Road of Iron Culture Promotion Conference. “The History and Development of Tatara.“ http:// tetsunomichi.gr.jp/lang-en/history-development-tatara/ (Accessed 29 June 2019).

———. Tatara Guide Map.

Robbins, Paul, John Hintz, and Sarah A. Moore. 2014. Environment and Society. Second Edition. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Yoshida Furusatomura. “What’s Yoshida-mura?” https://www.y-furusatomura.co.jp/ yoshidamuratoha.html (Accessed 29 June 2019).



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