Sayama Forest

Protecting a magical Japanese land.
Story Carlo Acuña

In legendary director Hayao Miyazaki’s animated movie, My Neighbour Totoro, two sisters share adventures with a magical forest spirit called Totoro in the woods surrounding their rural home. But this wonderland doesn’t exist only on film. The real life inspiration for this classic tale is an island of green forest surrounded by the sprawling metropolis of modern urban Japan. It is called the Sayama Forest.

Covering nearly 24-square kilometres, Sayama Forest is a one-hour train ride from Tokyo’s core. Known as satoyama, which translates as mixed community forests, the area contains farmland, rice paddies and wetlands. The forest is a treasure trove of nature, providing a home for 1,400 kinds of ferns and other plants, 200 birds, 19 mammals and 2,500 insects, as well as reptiles and amphibians. Furthermore, 235 archaeological sites document human habitation in the area over the past 10,000 years.

However, real estate costs are high in Japan and due to its close proximity to Tokyo, the Sayama Forest is under constant threat from urban development. Work to preserve the land from development began in the 1970s. In April 1990, Miyazaki and four other contributors started the Totoro no Furusato, Totoro’s homeland foundation, with the purpose of preserving the beautiful natural habitat and cultural assets of Sayama Forest and its surrounding areas. Using the money that these first five contributors gathered, the group was able to buy a small parcel of land in the forest. As of December 2007, six plots have been acquired, totalling about three acres.

Today, the foundation is involved in more than just land acquisition. The group’s members educate the public about why the Sayama Forest should be preserved, and research the land’s plants, animals and historic cultural assets.

An auction in 2008 brought together more than 200 artists from around the world to sell their original paintings, illustrations and sculptures, with all proceeds going to the foundation. With efforts such as these, the Sayama Forest will stay green, lush and magical for many years to come.