Kids Web Japan

Learning About Nature Through "Moku-iku" Activities

Inside Hinohara Toy Museum
(Photo courtesy of Hinohara Toy Museum Tokyo.)

Japan is a country full of nature, where two-thirds of the land is covered in forest. In fact, Japan's rate of forested land is second only to Finland, so it's fair to describe it as a forest-rich country. Because of these natural surroundings, wood has been deeply connected to Japanese people's way of life for hundreds of years, from living in wooden houses to eating from wooden dishes. As a result, Japan has formed various unique customs and traditions related to trees and wood, which are passed on through educational activities called moku-iku. Let's take a closer look at what this term means.

Making Kids Interested in Trees to Protect the Forests of the Future

Moku-iku began in 2004 in Hokkaido, the most northern region of Japan, to further people's understanding of woodworking culture and teach them the value of trees.
It refers to a wide range of activities designed to give kids more of an opportunity to get up close and personal with trees and forests, led by local communities, schools, and companies. These include handling wood and wooden products, planting trees, taking part in forestry activities, and more. The kids get to enjoy experiences like playing in the woods, making wooden handicrafts, and planting tree seedlings in forests and parks. Sounds pretty fun, doesn't it?

Woodworking Culture in Japan

Japanese woodworking culture has a very long history — in fact, Horyu-ji Temple in Nara is the world's oldest example of wooden architecture. These days many people live in reinforced concrete housing, but wooden housing is still a familiar sight to modern Japanese people. There are lots of everyday objects made from tree products too, like lacquerware dishes and chopsticks, which are coated ('lacquered') in a type of tree sap, and tableware designed to show off the natural texture of wood.

Wooden tableware is light, difficult to break, and smooth to touch, so it can be safely used by babies and children.

Wooden tableware has a natural warmth that's popular with babies and kids.(Photo courtesy of Craft Konomi Co., Ltd.)

Wood You Like to Play?

These days, more and more preschools and kindergartens use wooden buildings and play equipment. Not only does wood have a gentle warmth and feel, but its smell is said to be relaxing, and it even helps to control humidity, so it's great for creating a comfortable environment.

This kindergarten is made of wood, with a tall ceiling and plenty of space.(Photo courtesy of New Constructor's Network Co., Ltd. Photo by Ippei Shinzawa.)

There's also a series of toy museums built specifically for moku-iku. There are currently twelve of these museums throughout Japan, all of which are built with wood from their local area. They're a great place for kids and parents to play with wooden toys or even try making their own crafts out of wood.

Tokyo Toy Museum was converted from an old school building. (Photo courtesy of Tokyo Toy Museum.)

This toy museum is in Tokushima Prefecture, which is three-quarters forest and woodland. (Photo courtesy of Tokushima Wooden Toy Museum.)

Feeling the Magic of Forests and Trees

People climbing trees at a moku-iku event in Hokkaido (photo courtesy of the Hokkaido government.)

Events focused on interacting directly with wood, trees, and forests are held in various parts of Japan.

The Hokkaido region, where moku-iku first started, has one of the busiest forestry industries in Japan. Local governments, forestry companies and wooden furniture manufacturers host various hands-on experiences, like planting tree seedlings in the forest, and making crafts out of wood.

Some schools even have educational programs based around moku-iku, like the "Abemaki School Desk Project" which was launched in 2015 in Minokamo City, Gifu Prefecture, in the center of Japan. Abemaki is the name of a type of tree, also known as Chinese cork oak.

A woodland area full of wild abemaki trees. The foliage looks beautiful in fall. (Photo courtesy of Minokamo City.)

The concept of the project is that kids living in the city use a desk made from local abemaki wood for their whole six years at elementary school. Using the same desk from their first days at school right through to graduation teaches them to appreciate local nature and wood.

Each new student at participating schools is gifted an abemaki desk when they first join the school. This becomes their own personal desk for every class they take, even after they move up to the next grade. Once the kids reach their fifth year of elementary school, they take a field trip to a local forest to watch abemaki trees being cut down, and in their sixth year they help turn the wood from those same trees into desktops. The finished desks are gifted to the first-year students starting in the next school year, and so the project continues.

Left: Fifth-year students watching an abemaki tree being cut down. (Photo courtesy of Minokamo City.)
Right: Sixth-year students helping craft desktops. (Photo courtesy of Minokamo City.)

Because each kid uses the same desk for six years straight, they grow attached to their desks and treat them with care. When they graduate, they're each gifted a wooden book stand made out of their desktop, with all the same scratches and scribbles. It's a one-of-a-kind memento that holds special significance for each child.

Each desktop is turned into a book stand and gifted to the graduating students. (Photo courtesy of Minokamo City.)

Moku-iku Also Helps the Environment

When forests are dense, it becomes harder for light to enter, which hinders the growth of trees and weakens the forest as a whole. It's therefore necessary to cut down some of the trees to protect the health of the forest. This process is called thinning, and more and more efforts are now being made to use the lumber from thinning effectively, so that none of the wood goes to waste.

In Minamiaizu Town, Fukushima Prefecture, wooden toys are gifted to every newborn baby. These toys are made from woodworking offcuts (leftover pieces produced when wooden products are made), or from thinned wood.

Wooden toys made by local artisans are gifted to every newborn baby in the Aizu region of Fukushima, where Minamiaizu is located. (Photo courtesy of Mastro Geppetto Corporation.)

This toy was constructed from a wooden model kit made out of thinned wood. (Photo courtesy of Chuo Environmental Information Center.)

People are using thinned wood and offcuts in all kinds of other creative ways, too. For example, carpenters in the Chuo Ward of Tokyo teach techniques for making toys out of thinned wood in workshops and videos that they share online, and some wooden furniture makers hold workshops all about crafting with offcuts.

(Photo courtesy of: KARIMOKU FURNITURE INC.)

Children in Japan are exposed to wood from a young age and play with it throughout their childhood, so they grow up feeling a close bond with trees. When these kids become adults, they're sure to treat trees and forests with respect — perhaps even more so than adults today. This is bound to lead to greater protection of the world's environment.