Photo/IllutrationMembers of the landscape conservation organization, Nara Hito to Shizen no Kai, fell dead trees in Nara Prefecture in 2017. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

I was recently presented with an illustrated reference book titled "Mitsukeyo Shizen no Nakama--Narayama no Konchu to Shokubutsu tachi" (Let's find friends in nature--Narayama's insects and plants).

The book was a gift from a rural landscape conservation organization based in Nara. Every chapter overflows with images of the rich nature found in the hilly Narayama region.

I was so captivated by the striking photos, taken over a decade, that I decided to visit the area.

The scenery that unfolded before my eyes was just as I had imagined from the book--lovingly tended rice paddies and crop fields, a biotope, an apiary, and so on.

I was surprised to learn that the average age of the members of the organization is 72. Their preretirement professional backgrounds are also quite varied and impressive. Among them are former bankers, civil servants and even opera singers.

"Most of us have never worked in forestry," said Sueichi Suzuki, 77, the head of the organization. "Everyone has the names and contact information of their family and primary care doctor written on the back of their name tag," he chuckled.

They get together only once a week, on Thursdays. The meeting starts with "rajio taiso" (a radio workout), after which they enjoy activities such as forest-thinning and tending vegetable gardens.

Ever since its foundation in 2001, the organization has remained committed to reviving and preserving about 16 hectares of prefectural land.

Specifically, work includes mowing overgrown grass, removing discarded car tires and bicycles, cutting down dead trees, creating irrigation networks and opening footpaths for nature observation.

There are similar organizations around Japan, but keeping them going is no easy feat.

"The secret of our success lies in never requiring our members to participate in any task against their will and never prying into anyone's former professional status," explained Suzuki.

The membership, currently 170 strong, consists of individuals with diverse talents and special skills. For some, carpentry is their passion; for others, it's bugs; and there are fund-raising experts, too.

Multiply their average age by 170, and you get more than 12,000 years' worth of combined know-how and experience.

This coming weekend, the organization will hold a nature observation event combined with a curry party.

And there will be an "imoni" stew cookout in autumn, followed in winter by an "inoculation" of shiitake mushrooms.

I can imagine the happy voices of local residents filling the meticulously maintained countryside in each of the four seasons.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 22

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.