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Shiver me Timbers! A Visit to Tsukuba's Xylarium

Author: Avi Landau, Issue: May 2007, Topic: Research, Tourism, Location: Tsukuba City

Hisashi Abe at the Xylarium

When Dr. Hisashi Abe, a wood anatomist, first mentioned his place of work to me, my eyes lit up with excitement. Tsukuba`s xylarium. Not only had I never been to or heard of such a place, but I had absolutely no idea what the word meant (c`mon, admit it. You don't either)! So being a person always open to the thrill of fresh experience, without skipping a beat,I asked if he could take me there-right away. He said yes, and we were off. This was great! Dr. Abe filled me in on the way to our destination, in fluent English and with a passion only found in those who truly love their work.

First, the meaning of xylarium. Of course. I should have known! The xy- is the same as that found in the word xylophone, which comes from the Greek word for wood (xulum). Thus, just as an arboretum is a botanical tree garden, a xylarium is a collection of wood specimens.According to Dr Abe, there are only 2 such collections in Japan with the only active one being in Tsukuba, where 23,000 samples from 8,000 tree species are on display. Being an avid tree-hugger and armchair environmentalist, the notion of going to see a bunch a wood chips in glass cases put a severe damper on my eagerness.

This feeling, however, was soon dispelled, as the door to the collection opened and the variety of the world's wood, in all its glory, stood displayed before me, waiting to be touched, smelled and admired. Dr Abe`s surprisingly dramatic stories of the daily workings of the xylarium further helped rekindle my excitement.

As I held the world's lightest type of wood (balsa) in one hand, and the heaviest (lignum vitae, a protected species) in the other, the aroma of 8,000 resins filled my head, and Dr Abe described the work of the xylarium staff. Besides travelling to exotic locations to gather samples (Abe just got back from Tokunoshima Island) classifying specimens, and creating a huge (and beautiful) database, their office is often contacted by outside agencies for special wood identification assistance. The police come to the office whenever they need help with identifying forensic evidence. Just this week, the Saitama Police brought a blood-stained wood fragment which was removed from a bludgeoned man`s skull. Knowing the type of wood the murder weapon is made of will help the investigation. The staff of the xylarium has assisted in several high profile murder cases, with the most famous, probably being that of serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki. The Customs Bureau frequently requires the xylarium's services in their efforts to foil the activities of timber smugglers who try to pass protected timber off as more common species. Archaeologists need to identify wooden objects dug up in excavations and numerous food companies consult with the staff when claims of wooden matter being found in products are made and taken to court. For identification, Abe and the staff need only a 1mm sliver, which is what art historians might extract from an ancient Buddha statue for determination of the wood it was carved from.

If you are into wood in all its variety. If you are interested in looking at, handling and sniffing at a huge spectrum of the types of the world`s lumber. If you would like to hold a piece of the most expensive type of wood or learn about what kinds of wood different major-leaguers prefer their bats to be made of, you can head out to the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute, off route 408. Before heading out, please contact Dr Abe by email or phone to let him know you are coming. I'm sure you will have a great time. Knock on wood!

Dr. Hisashi Abe

<< Of the Birds and the Bees: Celebrating Life, the Feline Way | Master Index | Sen(Hime)sational! The Sen-Hime Festival in Mitsukaido >>

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