top of page
White Structure

Feature Article

At Loggerheads:

Conservationists in Dispute

The villagers do not consider these fish as dangerous invaders, or indeed as pets. They simply say that the fish are friendly neighbours that help to keep everything moving.

August 10th, 2018:

Darting through Kyōto railway station, I look around anxiously for my host - I am already late. Seita Mori is his name, and he greets me with the biggest grin on his face, clutching his A4 folder and our train tickets. "We have little time, let us make our way to the platform" he tells me, and so we shuffle through the horde of commuters and onto the platform. Our train to Takashima arrives obediently on time, and we squeeze ourselves in amongst the mass of white-collared passengers. Seita is a local landscape researcher, and he has agreed to take me to a little-known village just outside of Kyōto, called Harie.

Harie is a fairytale village in the Shiga Prefecture of Honshu - and is home to a very rare and beautiful ecosystem that has been developing in complexity for over a thousand years. The villagers have protected their unique way of life here, following post-war modernisation, and I have come to immerse myself in their collective philosophy and understanding of the natural world. Their rare cultural traditions have emerged through a long process of close co-habitation with other species, and their resulting peri-urban infrastructure is centred around the utilisation of distinctive geomorphologic activity that occurs beneath their feet.

Wet Infrastructure, or 'Kabata'

The village is currently built up of 165 houses, and is located between two major water sources: 1) The Adogawa River, and 2) Lake Biwa. Lake Biwa is Japan's largest freshwater lake, known for its abundant fish population, migratory water birds and wetland regions. And the ground beneath Harie, which slopes down towards the lake, is built up of several layers of clay and sedimentary rock. This multi-layered geological composition passively purifies water from the river, and creates a constant underground channel that flows into Lake Biwa.

Harie's industrious villagers have tapped into this underground network by drilling boreholes through the clay to draw freshwater springs up into their houses. These freshwater springs have become an essential feature of the village, and they inform the urban plan and local architecture as a result.

Of the 165 houses in the village, 110 own a private kabata within their residential plots. There is also a network of public kabata which many of the locals use during festivals and community gatherings. A kabata is a flooded room (or small hut which extends from the house) that has a constant flow of spring water into it, which is connected to the central public canal system. The room acts as a kitchen and/or wet room, which the villagers use to store and prepare food. Like a cold running tap, a kabata is constantly flowing and flushing out impurities.

However, the most pioneering technology that makes the kabata special is not the spring water network, but the inhabitants that live within it. Hungry carp swim along the man-made central canal and inside the private kabata rooms, purifying the water as they move. Carp are bottom-feeding scavenger fish, and they feed on the left-overs that residents leave on their dishes. Because kabata are used not only to prepare and store food, but also to clean dishes, bowls, cups, and other utensils - the fish have become volunteer dishwashers, living in a wonderfully balanced circular ecology.

The villagers do not consider these fish as dangerous invaders, or indeed as pets. They simply say that the fish are friendly neighbours that help to keep everything moving.

On Mutualism and Design

Seita is a much-loved figure in the community, because he regularly helps with the village's seasonal canal dredging events that clear algae from the water. He introduces me to some of the local villagers, and they each encourage me to taste the cold spring water from their respective kabata. There is a real sense of pride and collective obedience in Harie. And I begin to wonder how this mutualistic bond with carp is inadvertently playing a major role in shaping the more traditionally 'cultural' facets of their lives. How could this deep symbiosis be scaled up and translated into cohabitation with other species? And is mutualism (a mutual reliance) a better model than commensalism in the post-industrial urban age? It certainly works here.

Water conservation in Harie has become an on-going cross-species process. And the model of 'mutualism', of building a core infrastructure that allows control to be shared amongst humans and carp, has created a very resilient urban ecology on a small scale. But behind this infrastructure are some beautifully crafted details that architects were best placed to design. After the second world war ended, Harie's canal system needed to be re-excavated and re-built. The government put forward a new plan, but according to Seita, the villagers rejected it. They saw the smooth concrete design of the canal, and rightfully pointed out to the developers that the carp would not thrive in such conditions, and the sealed concrete canal-bed would stop water from springing up to the surface. The developers were also informed that due to the strong current of the water, the carp would need recessed pockets in the canal wall to hide and lay eggs. They went back to the drawing board, and the pockets were later designed into the canal through a decoratively patterned facade that now adds both formal and functional depth to Harie's signature architecture.

More recently, the local community have banded together again to change the aesthetics of the sewage infrastructure in the village. Sewage pipes are buried underground horizontally, because the water table is so high that it is very difficult to dig a deep hole. The sewage water is then sent by a vacuum pump, and the vacuuming system has lots of vents throughout the village, which are silver-coloured metal pipes sticking out of the ground. According to Seita,

"The villagers didn't like the cold appearance of those vents, so they made street lights and covered the vents with them. There are more than 10 streets lights in the village now. Power for them is generated in ways with no CO2 emission, such as turbine, solar panels, and the waterwheel."

The proud little village of Harie is a model of resilience, and proof that we can consciously co-habit with other species and welcome non-invasive creatures into our homes. And the diligent villagers are testament to the benefits of cultivating a strong community of place, and a complex circular ecology. Long live their cleansing neighbours.

Written by Steven Hutt

Special thanks to Seita Mori

Wilder Stories
Wilder Projects
bottom of page