Just over a year has elapsed since the charismatic environmentalist C. W. Nicol MBE passed away in April 2020.
Born in Wales in 1940, Nicol spent the second part of his life working on a remote woodland in Shinanomachi, Nagano, creating a magical world full of wildlife and greenery.
His enthusiasm was captured in an NHK program about his life broadcast in 2020 – a program that ultimately inspired me to drive from my home in East Nagano to his forest in the north, one sunny morning in July 2021.
Shortly after arriving at Afan Woodland, I am assigned a helpful tour guide, Kentaro Fukuchi. We enter the verdant forest and I immediately reach for my camera.
“Has anything changed since C.W. Nicol’s passing in April 2020?” I ask.
“Yes, the number of Afan Woodland membership applications has increased. So has the number of people wanting to come here,” Fukuchi explains. However, while there has been an increase in those wanting to visit, not many people have actually done so due to COVID-19.
The place is clearly special. Spread across an area of about 35 hectares, the woodland is home to about 550 types of plants, and roughly 83 types of birds.
After buying the land in the 1980s, Nicol set about making the forest as diverse as possible through years of diligent cultivation. His tremendous effort was duly recognized. In 2008, Prince Charles visited Afan Woodland, and then in 2016, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko made the same visit.
Fukuchi and I walk on. He introduces me to his co-worker – a man holding a sophisticated mowing device, who is carefully deciding which parts of the forest to trim and which to not.
It is a reassuring sight. The Afan Woodland team is clearly dedicated to maintaining the forest as best they can despite the absence of their leader. They are determined to carry on Nicol’s legacy.
Initially, the Wales-born visionary developed the woodland as a place for wildlife and greenery to thrive, but as the years went by, people were encouraged to visit and appreciate the joys of nature.
For example, after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, Nicol regularly invited children from the Tohoku region to Afan Woodland, to bring a smile to their faces. The kids would often leave happy.
The place also attracts people who are fond of forest therapy – a type of therapy for which the town of Shinanomachi is “number one in Japan,” according to Fukuchi.
Just before the end of the tour, my guide points to an owl’s birdhouse high up on a tree. “A natural hole should open up in that tree – so the man-made birdhouse will no longer be necessary,” says Fukuchi.
It’s not sure when that day will be, but it’s a safe bet the dedicated team at Afan will be there when it happens.
As my tour comes to an end, I genuinely feel more relaxed than before I went in. Immersing oneself in a forest surrounded by a diverse range of wildlife is a calming experience. The tour also makes me more intrigued about forest therapy, and the health benefits that it can bring.
In this current age of children spending too much time looking at screens, a family visit to a place like Afan Woodland seems more important than ever.
Perhaps Nicol predicted that there would be this trend of excessive screen time, but either way, it’s fantastic that he has given children and their children the option of going to a magical forest.
Find additional information about Afan Woodland and the Afan Woodland Trust, including access, at this link.
Author: David Spurr