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Week twenty-two (August 21, 2005)

"Nature's Wisdom" - a folly?

This week I will focus on the theme of the Aichi Expo, "Nature's Wisdom" (shizen no eichi). I visited the Expo's other area, the smaller Seto Area, recently and witnessed how the nature theme is tackled there. These observations and others I made in other parts of the Nagakute Expo site helped me form my thoughts about the way the approach to the nature theme is handled here at the Expo.

· The general setup of the Expo

In Japanese, the Expo is called "Aichikyûhaku", which is a pun, meaning "Love (The) Earth Exposition", while incorporating the name of Aichi Prefecture where the event takes place. The theme demonstrates the Expo's general aim to open up solutions for sustainable development and man's cohabitance with nature. The whole setup and site design of the Expo is supposed to be least-possible-impact on the environment and is to leave no "ecological footprints" - and that's true in the sense of the word if you consider the construction of the elevated Global Loop, which was erected to minimize visitor's passage impact on the environment. The official Environmental Impact Assessment brochure does a good job explaining this philosophy:

At the beginning of the project planning, approximately 540 ha of terrain southest of Seto (the Seto Area) was originally chosen as the future site of the EXPO, but during the EIA, a nesting pair of goshawk was found. The project site was changed to utilize approximately 158 ha of the Aichi Youth Park areas of Nagakute city as the main site (the Nagakute area), limiting the use of the Seto Area to approximately 15ha (the Seto Area). The final site chosen for the EXPO decreased the total area used from the originally planned 540 ha to 173 ha. During the planning, the anticipated number of visitors decreased from 25 million to 15 million people for the six-month event as well. (...)

The Nagakute Area was originally known as the 'Aichi Youth Park' and included recreational facilities such as baseball fields, tennis courts, campsites, and a skating rink. In the master plan, we retained as much of the park as possible, and decided to leave the forest and irrigation ponds which occupy about a half of the ground forest area. Visitors can enjoy this area by way of an easy walk, called the Global Loop.

Source: Japan Association for the 2005 World Exposition (2005): Environmental Impact Assessment. Planning and Management of EXPO 2005 AICHI, JAPAN

As I reported before, the countries' pavilions are housed inside of easily dismountable modules allowing for easy deconstruction without construction waste. The same is true of the corporate pavilions which used special mounting and bolting techniques to enable a 100% clean dismounting. After all, the whole site is supposed to be rid of most pavilions and other buildings and be restored to its previous state within two months of the end of the Expo.

The Expo web site, official information brochures and on-site signs will go on endlessly about how the walkways were constructed from fast-growing timber cut in forest thinning and the maps and sign from biomass, how eco-friendly the inner-site transportation is, how much consideration is put into the 3R (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) and so on. There is also heaps of information material covering the environmental impact assessment, measures of environmental concern in merchandise goods and so forth.

· The "Nature Experience" areas

The Expo brochures boast that "half of the site is untouched nature" and that visitors can experience "characteristic forms of life" through the Nature Experience program at the Expo. One gets the image that one may stroll through huge areas of pristine, thick-growing forests, observing a multitude of animals in their natural habitat - at least, that's what the name Forest Experience Zone would evoke in me.

Forests are "danger zones" at the Expo

In for a picnic? Forget it.

In reality, entering one of the forest zones is - as everything here - a hugely organized and strictly regulated endeavour. You can only walk on designated concrete roads, smaller unpaved paths through the forest or steps maybe leading to a small lake are blocked with "no entry" signs - "danger areas" which are keenly guarded by the ever-present security guards. Apparently it was deemed far too dangerous to let visitors wander through the forest on their own.

Another project in this "experience program" is the Global Village in the northwest corner of the Expo site that hosts various non-governmental organizations (NGO) and non-profit organizations (NPO) and also features an event space and work shops. The NGO include various environmental and humanitarian organizations, the most outstanding of which is the World Toilet Organization. It features various exhibitions about toilets in the world, such as statistics, design of toilets, emergency disaster relief toilets and so on. You can also sign a form with one of the pencils whose grips are formed like various types of feces (I shit you not here, excuse the pun also).

Global Village seen from the ferris wheel

World Toilet Organization pavilion

The Growing Village was created by John Gathright (Johnsan) and will remain even after the end of the Expo. It is focused on the theme of "growing", such as in "growing trees", "growing friendships", and "growing peace". The Growing Village features tree-climbing to "experience the wonders of the forest", wood sculptures grown out of living trees, workshops to gather information about the forest and so on. They have a nice interactive application that shows the growing process of the area. I haven't visited myself, and the whole thing seems more geared towards children, but it doesn't sound too bad.

Growing home in the Growing Village (source)

Satsuki and Mei's house (source)

Another special attraction is "Satsuki and Mei's House" which is reproduced after the popular 1988 Studio Ghibli anime movie "My Neighbour Totoro" (tonari no totoro). It is constructed in the way country houses were built in the 1950s and underwent artificial aging to make for authenticity. I guess there is some kind of hype among anime freaks to see this attraction, but it is only accessible in guided tours of 30 persons, lasting 45 minutes - therefore, a terribly small number of visitors can be admitted, and reservation tickets were only given away in a country-wide lottery.

· Seto Area

The Seto Area is located a few kilometers apart from the main Nagakute site and is accessible by gondola or shuttle bus. It contains only three pavilions (Civic Pavilion, Aichi Pavilion Seto and Japan Pavilion Seto) and various workshops and exhibitions in the Kaisho Plaza. This area, like the Global Village, has a very strong grassroots/volunteering air about it - it is relatively uncrowded and radiates the atmosphere of a boy scout summer camp.

Most of the Seto area can be seen on this photo

Workshops inside the Seto area

Wooden pole construction

Water mist on the Seto site

The Civic Pavilion features numerous exhibitions and a Discussion Center (Civic Theater) with all kinds of speeches, workshops and events. Get a grip and marvel at the following excerpt from the event schedule, ranging from the ridiculously bizarre to the supremely interesting (honest, I didn't make these up):

"Garbage can be a wonderful wizard", "Swiss Music Festival of horns made from the timber cut in forest-thinning", "Buddhism and Ecology", "Young Astronauts' Club", "The Zabun Award", "What I have learned from the dolphins", "World Clown Festival", "Meme Expo 2005", "Alaska, its spirits and Michio Hoshino", "If the world were a village of 100 people - 2005 version", "Keep fighting, eco-entrepreneurs!"

Civic pavilion

Dialogue Theatre (Civic pavilion)

Aichi Pavilion Seto

Japan Pavilion Seto

The Aichi Pavilion Seto explains the reasons why the main Expo site was moved from Seto to Nagakute during the planning process. The main show of the pavilion, the Forest Theater tells this story through presenting movies from the construction and close-up video images of the forest fauna. The movie is not bad (nice visual style), but it is interspersed with a rather kitschy opera performance.

Forest Theater inside the Aichi Pavilion Seto (source)

Bug Gallery inside the Aichi Pavilion Seto (source)

After you exit the show, you enter the Bug Gallery, which displays exhibits of insects created out of everyday objects by around 10.000 children of Aichi prefecture - quite impressive. Another special exhibit is a 20m tall Konara tree that had to be cut down during the construction, but was transplanted inside the pavilion and kind of became the symbol of the eco-activities in the Seto Area. Quite interestingly, a weekly on-line "Konara Diary" is kept by the staff (in Japanese and remarkably good English translation) that includes some general information and various events.

Aichi Pavilion Seto staff (source)

Volunteer eco-activists in Seto (source)

Unfortunately, I couldn't visit the Japan Pavilion Seto because we arrived at the area quite late, and since the Seto Area closes already at 7 pm (only in August, even earlier in the other months), we had to get started to go back to the Nagakute Area. To sum it up, the Seto Area certainly is a nice getaway from the heat and the crowds of the main site, but the question remains whether it holds up to its purpose, and if it was worth constructing all the infrastructure (roads, gondola) and security fences for this relatively small - but unpretentious - enterprise.

Volunteer work sure is exhausting

Seto visitor taking a rest, counting her fortunes

· Summary

You can argue whether this Expo's theme "Nature's Wisdom" is any better or worse than that of previous or upcoming World Expositions. The organization in regards to eco-friendliness is a mixed bag: on-site garbage separation is handled very thoroughly and strict (I wrote about this in Week 13 - Recyclomania). You even have volunteers at the waste bins advising visitors how to properly separate the waste, and the rules for the participants regarding garbage are comprehensive and checked earnestly.

Also, individual car traffic to the site has been limited severly by imbusing a 3km off-limits zone around the Expo site for motorists (this is called "'my car' limitation" in Japanese): there are no parking lots for visitors in the vicinity of the Expo sites, so they need to park in six designated parking areas and from there are transferred by shuttle bus. This eases traffic congestion and eliminates nearly all traffic jams, a much welcomed circumstance for motorized staff - for those dependant on public transport (such as the Linimo), it is a living hell though.

As I mentioned above, other measures seem rather forced and do not live up to their expectations. And in some respects, major doubts exist whether the keenness on eco-friendliness has been perceived at all - for example, you still receive everything you buy in plastic bags, wrapped in another plastic bag (as is usual in Japan); change money rolls are also wrapped in plastic instead of paper; etc. Anyhow, conclusively, they are not doing a bad job.

The biggest problem for me personally is the general approach to the nature theme. I didn't expect to come to Japan - once the country where "the future was now" - to be met by somewhat hollow "let's get back to nature" eco messages. Wouldn't you rather expect presentations of the latest bio-tech instead?

· Next week: A trip around the Global Commons