We spoke with people from the Shirakaba Project about the story of forests and people, with a focus on the past and the future.
Tobayama Satoshi, Shirakaba Project representative director, was initially reluctant to get on board.
The Shirakaba Project began around 2014, when Akitsu Hiroshi of the Forest Products Research Institute, Forest Research Department, Hokkaido Research Organization (Asahikawa) selected the white birch as the subject of his research. White birch has a shorter lifespan than other broadleaf trees (about 500 to 1,000 years for Mongolian oak and 80 to 100 years for Japanese white birch) and its trunk is thin so it is often used as chip material for paper manufacturing. However, upon investigation, it turned out that the trunk was surprisingly dense and as strong as cherry and walnut trees, which are popular as furniture materials. It was in 2016 that Tobayama, who runs the Kitokurashi no Kobo workshop in Higashikawa, a town next to Asahikawa, was approached.
Tobayama's initial reaction was indifferent, partly due to his impression that the material is soft. When we asked him why he accepted the project, we learned that Tobayama, who started a workshop for furniture restoration and manufacturing in 2002, had long struggled with the question of what kind of wood to use. After trying a variety of wood types, he was recommended white birch, and made a desk for studying with some skepticism. After having a positive experiencing working with white birch, he agreed to launch the Shirakaba Project in 2018. 10 forestry professionals and academics who wanted to pursue the possibilities of white birch gathered together to form this group.
In 2019, basket artist Tani Sachiko showed him overseas literature on white birch, and he recalls, "I learned that the utilization of white birch had been done in the northern regions of the world for a long time, and I felt a spiritual connection that got me hooked."
Tanaka Sadafumi, who runs an advertising design firm called papa's design in Asahikawa, has joined the Shirakaba Project
Tanaka, who has a log house which serves as his home and office, says, "I want to be a nature-based designer." He strongly sympathizes with the concept that the white birch, which grows quickly, is a precious resource from which we can continue to receive blessings with as little burden as possible on forests, and he decided to take on the role of compiling information. The brochures, which feature the graphic design skills that he has displayed for more than 40 years, are all beautiful and enjoyable to read.
Tanaka also designed the space for the permanent booth set up in June 2019 at Asahikawa Design Center, a comprehensive Asahikawa furniture and craft store. Tobayama says, “The space turned out to be surprisingly Hokkaido-like, and the response was great.” Tanaka also stated, “One of our achievements is that we were able to express our philosophy of 'Starting from the forest'."
The Shirakaba Project's objective is to "reevaluate the white birch as a sustainable local resource in Hokkaido, connect forests and consumers, and establish the white birch as an industry and culture." One of the activities to realize this goal is a forest tour centered around the Hokkaido University Uryu Experimental Forest in Horokanai Town..
There are also opportunities to experience the blessings of the white birch tree, of which every part is useful, such as collecting young leaves and bark for herbal tea, and workshops for making crafts from the bark.
The growing interest in and understanding of the white birch has led to an increase in orders for furniture and fixtures made specifically from the wood. The "andon" condominium, which opened in Higashikawa in October 2022, features original rooms by three Asahikawa furniture studios. One of the three rooms is a white birch room created by Kitokurashi no Kobo, the workshop led by Tobayama.
The next goal of the Shirakaba Project is to nurture, and this is not limited to the white birch. Tobayama says, "It is important to form a social consensus on the use of broadleaf trees, including the white birch."
Hokkaido used to have lush forests with a good mix of broadleaf and coniferous trees, but excessive logging during and after World War II resulted in a drastic decrease in the number of high-quality broadleaf trees. Moreover, the planting of large numbers of coniferous trees has significantly changed the natural appearance of these forests. Although natural forests are recovering, it will take a long time to restore resource sustainability because most broadleaf trees take 100 to 200 years to grow.
Taking these current conditions into consideration, the project's intention is to "continue to grow white birch trees which will be ready for usage in approximately 50 years, and utilize them while waiting for other broadleaf trees, such as oak and Japanese ash, to grow.”
Tobayama says, "Everyone knows that we should conserve forests, but the actual site of forestry is difficult to visualize, and the cycle is long. That is why the Shirakaba Project must continue to carry out its activities for the next 50 years."
Higashimachi 3-2-14, Higashikawa, Hokkaido, Japan