Ashio: Memory of the Forest
Deep in the mountains of Tochigi Prefecture, 100 kilometers north of Tokyo, Ashio has long been known as a mining town. Copper deposits were first discovered there 400 years ago and mining continued there until the 1970s. In its heyday, the mine produced 40% of all of Japan's copper and nearly 40,000 people lived in the area. Although mining brought prosperity, it also created massive pollution: Ashio became infamous as the site of the country's first major pollution disaster. Sulfur dioxide gas from the refining process killed off the surrounding forests. And huge amounts of toxic chemicals were carried downstream to the lowlands by the Watarase River. Potter Euan Craig grew up in Bendigo, southeastern Australia, a community that also suffered from the effects of mining pollution. On this episode of Journeys in Japan, Euan travels to Ashio to see for himself how people have brought life back to the mountains, thanks to a massive reforestation program. He also visits the Watarase Retarding Basin in the lowlands, and observes how it too has taken on a new life.

Ashio Copper Mine Tourism (Ashio Dozan Kanko)

After mining operations halted, one section was opened to the public in the form of a historical museum. Visitors can ride a trolley train to the entrance of the pit, and walk underground from there. Dioramas with life-size figures show how mining was done in the old days, as well as the processes required for turning raw ore into purified copper. The site is a 10-minute walk from Tsudo Station on the Watarase Keikoku Railway.

Ashio Environmental Learning Center

This facility is run by Grow Green in Ashio, a non-profit organization. Displays explain the natural environment around Ashio and the extent of the pollution damage to the mountainsides, which became barren due to the toxic gases emitted from the copper refining plant. This NPO is also engaged in a program of reforestation, which aims to plant 1 million trees on the surrounding slopes. Prior reservations are required if you want to participate in the tree planting.

Watarase Retarding Basin (Watarase Yusuichi)

This huge reservoir covering 33 square kilometers was created for storing water, controlling floods and purifying toxins from the polluted water that flowed downstream from the Ashio copper mine. A cycling road has been built, as well as a path where it is safe for visitors to enter. Wild birds can be seen here throughout the year. Visitors can also view the area from hot-air balloon tours, which start early in the morning.

Access

To reach Ashio, it takes 50 minutes by local bus from Nikko (either Tobu Nikko Line or JR Nikko Line station). You can get there on Watarase Keikoku Railway. The closest station to the Watarase Retarding Basin is Fujioka, on the Tobu Nikko line.