Amidst the vast scenery of Okayama Prefecture’s Hiruzen Plateau is GREENable HIRUZEN, a facility designed by architect Kengo Kuma that inspires the world to embrace sustainability. By increasing opportunities to get in touch with nature and promoting the local harmonious way of life with fun and educational activities, GREENable HIRUZEN aims to raise awareness on environmental preservation while rethinking human activities through a more sustainable approach. Curious about this lifestyle, I ventured to GREENable HIRUZEN to bring some valuable teachings back home!
Reflect Upon the Meaning of Coexisting With Nature in Okayama’s Hiruzen Plateau
Around 100 kilometers separate GREENable HIRUZEN from Okayamaーthe biggest city in the prefecture. This sizable distance gave me the opportunity to appreciate the gradual change of scenery outside the car window, as buildings and congested roads were replaced by vast expanses of greenery as I continued into the mountains. My destination, Maniwa City’s Hiruzen area, in the northern part of Okayama, is a place of rural beauty where unspoiled nature has been preserved and spreads out into flourishing grasslands and majestic wooded mountains.
80% of Maniwa is covered in forests, and the Hiruzen Plateau is part of the Daisen-Oki National Park. Locals have long learned to coexist in harmony with the environment. In Maniwa, lumber scraps are used to produce electricity through biomass power plants, kitchen waste are carefully collected and converted into agricultural fertilizer by methane fermentation, while oyster shellsーa famous product from the nearby Seto Inland Seaーare repurposed as soil conditioner to grow rice and grapes.
Maniwa’s efforts towards sustainability and the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals were such that, in 2018, the city was even selected as a “SDGs Future City.” Within this unique cultural landscape, the “GREENable” project and GREENable HIRUZEN were established as symbols of sustainable development.
After one final turn, the distinctive silhouette of GREENable HIRUZEN appeared before my eyes, a woodcraft masterpiece with mesmerizing geometric shapes that create the illusion of flowing in unison with the wind. The name “GREENable” combines two English words, “green” and “sustainable,” not only in reference to the abundant nature that surrounds the facility, but also as a way to convey the intent of transmitting this local, sustainability-oriented society to the world.
The concept of GREENable is to let visitors can come in contact with and enjoy the charms of rural areas while appreciating the merits of a sustainable lifestyle through museums, stores, and activities.
CLT Pavilion: A Symbol of Sustainable Architecture Designed by Renowned Architect Kengo Kuma
Symbolic of these efforts is the CLT Pavilion “Kaze no Ha” (Leaves Blowing in the Wind) which is located on the grounds of GREENable HIRUZEN. This building is made of CLT (cross-laminated timber) and reproduces the leaves and forests of Hiruzen soaring in a spiral towards the sky with their diamond shape and arrangement. Kaze no Ha even feels like such, I realized upon stepping inside, as the gaps between the panels allow the breeze, light, scents, and sounds to gently pass through, as though filtered by foliage, letting me sense the touch of nature even while under the pavilion.
Known for his designs that blend seamlessly into the local environment and for his search for new, more sustainable materials, architect Kengo Kuma wanted to realize a place where people could return to nature, which I experienced for myself when exploring the grounds of GREENable HIRUZEN.
Kaze no Ha stands out as an example of unity with nature not only for its design, but also for its materials and surprising origins. The pavilion was originally located and used as an exhibition facility in Harumi, Tokyo, among the mass of high-rise apartment buildings that crowd Tokyo Bay’s man-made islands. For a second, I tried to imagine Kaze no Ha amidst this futuristic skyline, but it sits so harmoniously in the wilderness that it was hard to envision it elsewhere.
Nonetheless, its temporary presence in Tokyo fulfilled the important role of conveying the charm and potential of the Hiruzen area to the people of the city, as the structure employs CLT produced in Maniwa, one of the leading regions in the development of CLT technology. CLT consists of solid wood panels made from layering and bonding together sawn boards in alternating directions. This process creates a lightweight yet extremely strong material—so strong that it can replace concrete or steel—that is also fire and earthquake-resistant with extraordinary heat and sound insulation.
The use of CLT also contributes to the reduction of CO2 emissions in both material production and on-site energy consumption. This is because CLT can be installed quickly, leaving minimal waste and reducing construction times, and can be dismantled and upcycled easily, a difficult feat with conventional architecture.
Hiruzen Museum: Enjoy Sustainable Learning Through Contemporary Art
The same mastery of craft also welcomed me inside when I visited the Hiruzen Museum, a place of learning that embodies the philosophy of the GREENable project by connecting the community, visitors, and nature through contemporary art.
Inside the museum, wood with beautiful grain is used, creating a sense of harmony with the art pieces on display. In the main exhibition hall, the wood is intricately layered, cascading from the second floor into the stairs and down to the floor. Dynamically arranged, the wood blocks felt almost in motion, flowing and changing like swaying leaves.
Along with the unique use of wood, Hiruzen Museum distinguishes itself from other museums by exhibiting works from active artists who are often involved in the planning process itself. As artists get to consult with the museum itself and provide their opinion on how to display their artworks and arrange the exhibition, I felt like I had the chance to understand them on a deeper level as they guided me from one room to the next.
GREENable HIRUZEN Shop: Incorporate Sustainability Into Your Daily Life
My day of learning about sustainability continued at GREENable HIRUZEN Shop, which promotes a shift towards sustainable lifestyles by collaborating with companies that focus on spreading its value.
It was fun wandering the shop and finding many new, different ways of reducing my impact on nature by adopting simple adjustments or incorporating recycled products into my everyday life. I was immediately drawn to the cute bags on display, and was delighted to discover that they are actually hand-made by local artisans of “gama-zaiku,” the art of weaving dried bulrush reeds that has been handed down in the Hiruzen region for over 640 years and produces light, waterproof, and durable items.
Local craftsmanship also shines through the “Maniwa Hakko” project, which I learnt about from the shop staff after being attracted to some gorgeous products depicting an original design of regional plants and animals.
The Maniwa area boasts both soft and hard water sources, which is rare in Japan. For this reason, it used to have a thriving fermentation industry which unfortunately declined with the passing of time. To revitalize this local fermented food culture and share its beauty with the world, in 2012, the “Maniwa Hakko” team was set up. Consisting of seven local companies producing soy sauce, vinegar, miso, sake, wine, beer, and even cheese, the team aims to create a circulation of knowledge about fermentation, which resulted in this stylish lineup of delicacies on sale at GREENable HIRUZEN Shop.
If you feel like trying some more local treats, or just grabbing a couple of fabulous souvenirs, Hiruzen Chocolat is another yummy option! These luxurious chocolate bars are made with seasonal dried fruits grown in the Setouchi area and selected ingredients from Okayama Prefecture, such as fragrant white peaches, deliciously sweet Pione-grape raisins, and even Sakushu black soybeans for an irresistibly creamy and fruity taste that will win your palate!
*Hiruzen Chocolat is not sold at the GREENable HIRUZEN Shop, but it is sold at souvenir shops in Okayama Station and Hiruzen Chocolat online shop.
I love a beautiful mug for my breakfast and tea time, so these pieces piqued my interest as I continued browsing around the shop. They are part of the “RI-CO” Bizen Ware recycling project which works on reducing the waste produced during the manufacturing of Bizen Ware, the traditional pottery of Okayama Prefecture, by pulverizing pottery waste, kneading it with local clay, and molding it again to give it new life as sophisticated pottery easy to incorporate into everyone’s life. Not only are they made from recycled materials, but the staff also said that they are ideal to drink coffee as both the shape and materials were carefully chosen to maintain temperature and scent!
GREENable HIRUZEN Cycling Center: Engage in Environmental Conservation Activities While Rediscovering the Beauty of Rural Areas
Another building that instantly caught my attention at GREENable HIRUZEN was the cycling center, as the intriguing silhouette of its roof instantly reminded me of a traditional Japanese thatched roof but upside down. This similarity was created on purpose by architect Kengo Kuma, who aimed to show the wonders and sustainability of thatched roofing through a novel design that needs very little maintenance.
Although made with a sustainable material and imbued with Japanese tradition, typical thatched roofs require constant reroofing. The cycling center thatched roof instead takes advantage of flourishing local pampas grass growing wild in the grasslands of Hiruzen which has been preserved for centuries by locals through mountain burning. Meanwhile, the flipped design of the roof protects it from direct exposure to rain, sun, and other destructive elements, ensuring its longevity. Along with being sustainable, this innovative thatched roof design creates a mellow atmosphere that fully let me take in the charm and value of its precious material.
In line with the concept of “GREENable,” the cycling center provides cycling and hiking tours that allow visitors to appreciate the natural and cultural resources of Maniwa and the Hiruzen Plateau. Also offered are environmental conservation activities such as ensuring safety on mountain trails or helping with the preparation for the ancient tradition of “yamayaki” (mountain burning) that has been practiced by locals for around 800 years to protect the beautiful grassland scenery of Hiruzen.
Take in the True Meaning of Sustainability at GREENable HIRUZEN
Spend the day surrounded by the beauty and value of a sustainable lifestyle and learn to incorporate bits of local wisdom into your daily life. At GREENable HIRUZEN, harmonious architecture and fun learning activities are bound to reconnect you with nature while making you appreciate the rural charms of the Hiruzen area!