A Toyota-run environmental institute outside Tokyo allows visitors to go green and experience unspoiled nature
Kachakrit Yawilerng and his three schoolmates stood rooted deep in the woods, in pitch darkness and with no sense of direction one rainy night. They had no mobile phone, no flashlight or anything else to communicate with others in their group. But instead of feeling lost, they felt unimaginably composed, overtaken, as if by some inner peace and found themselves in perfect harmony with nature around them.
I could hear nothing but the beautiful sound of the waterfall and flowing river," said Kachakrit, a 12th-grade student of Chiangkhongwittayakom School in Chiang Rai province. "Even though I could not see a thing, I felt absolutely at peace and in touch with nature. I have never had such an experience before."
The forest night walk was one of the green activities Kachakrit and his friends _ winners at Toyota Motor Thailand "7th Stop Global Warming" competition _ joined during their excursion to Shirakawa-Go Eco Institute outside Tokyo, run by the Japanese automobile powerhouse.
Located in Gifu prefecture, about two hours from Tokyo by the famed Shinkansen bullet train, the institute was founded in April 2005 with the sole objective of raising public awareness about the environment.
Set against the village of Shirakawa-Go, a Unesco World Heritage site, the institute at first glance appears like any other travel destination. But once visitors spend a few nights there and engage in the Earth-friendly activities available to them, they will realise this place is more than just a tourist resort.
The land on which the institute is built, a sprawling 1,000 rai, used to be an abandoned plot, left uncultivated because most of the time it was covered in snow, with only 10 families living off the land. Then about 40 years ago Toyota bought the plot with the intention to turn it into a holiday home for its staff.
However, given its remote location, Toyota staff hardly paid it a visit. In 1981, the area was swamped by 8m-high snowdrifts that devastated eight family homes, partly damaging the other two.
Toyota found it imperative to do something to preserve the neighbourhood, or else lose everything to nature and snow. Thus the idea of Shirakawa-Go Eco Institute was born.
''It began as a collaboration between Toyota, the Japan Environmental Education Forum (JEEF) and local communities,'' recalled Asano Yoshiaki, director of the institute. ''Our goal was to create Japan's best and biggest environmental school where people would get an opportunity to live with nature and at the same time learn how to help save the environment.''
Powered purely by natural energy, the institute should be viewed as an attempt by Toyota to compensate society for any damage its operations may have caused to the environment.
Battling environmental problems, Yoshiaki said, three weapons are essential: innovation, laws and social standards, and the promotion of public awareness regarding the environment.
And of these three arms, public awareness is the most important, for ignorance on part of the people can lead to deadly consequences.
''Staff at the institute strive to create awareness and better understanding regarding environmental problems, especially among the young ones. We hope this place is like a school where children can experience and learn more about nature. But what is special about this school is that adults can attend and learn something too,'' the director said.
Nature-friendly hands-on activities available to visitors include hiking and camping on nearby Mt Hakusan during which they learn how the local people manage to live harmoniously with nature, attend cultural classes such as handicraft workshops, and learn of environmentally-friendly innovations including the use of natural energy such as solar and soil energy to create heat during winter.
The institute also has a large facility where stored is tonnes of natural mountain snow for keeping temperatures cool during summer. The highlight is a forest walk at night. Experienced Japanese lecturers lead visitors deep into the woods where they are not allowed to speak or make noises. And while there, they hear only the sound of waterfalls and experience undisturbed nature.
''I felt so peaceful,'' said Wannipha Deeprom, a student from Wang Krasae Witthayakhom School in Nakhon Phanom province after one such walk.
''This was the first time I stayed so close to nature, saw starry skies and listened to the sound of water flowing in complete jungle serenity. The experience was so magnificent.''
There are several other green projects visitors can join, such as plant trees, grow rice or revive historical routes, wetlands and forests. The institute also provides accommodation for people wishing to spend a few nights close to nature. These Japanese- and Western-style lodges however can only accommodate up to 100 visitors per day.
According to Yoshiaki, the institute is packed with visitors all year round. Last year, 13,000 spent a night or more there while approximately 1,800 arrived on day-long tours. Guests are mostly from nearby prefectures such as Aichi, Gifu, Tokyo, Osaka, Hyogo and Kanagawa, but also come from around the world.
Thitima Srilert, a 12th-grade student from Saingam Pitthayakom School in Kamphaeng Phet province, said on the issue of tackling environmental issues that people's awareness is paramount, and the institute is the perfect place to engender among the general public a concern for the environment.
''Environment is an issue that involves all of us. It has a bearing on our daily life,'' commented Thitima.
''From the moment we wake up, we start taking advantage of the environment. This place enabled me to realise that nature is the most valuable thing for human beings and if we take it for granted and do not take good care of it, one day it will be completely wiped out.''
By Arusa Pisuthipan
26 June 2012