The Phenomenality of Japan's Sacred Shinto Trees
The 1200 year old Okusu Camphor Shrine tree on ShiShi Island
As the self-portrait photographer and arborist TreeGirl, I have spent hours of intimate time with hundreds of trees—some of the most ancient and largest individuals on the planet. My fascination with trees is equally ecological, sensory, and spiritual, but I mostly depend on my intuitive senses to guide me. I seek these trees out like a treasure hunt because I want to experience the wisdom and energy of these wise elders that cannot be somatically and sensorially understood from a photograph alone. In my practice, I listen to each ‘spirit of the tree’ energetically and psychically. If I feel inspired, and it feels safe and right to do so, I respectfully climb the tree, finding the places where I ‘fit”, as a form of somatic ecotherapy and meditation. I have captured beautiful, and sometimes energetically ecstatic, private moments on film (using a remote control) of myself in the nude intertwined with these trees. My intention in documenting these experiences is both aesthetic in the genre of classic beauty, and to show that as humans, there is no separation between us and nature. My aim is to invite intimacy with the wild, as a way to ‘rebond’ with wild nature, that from which we as a modern, industrialized culture in crisis has become alienated and disassociated.
I have traveled all over the world in my search for these trees, which has inadvertently led to an ecopsychological study of the human-tree relationship. Each region in the world is different. On a month-long tree- and forest-therapy research expedition in Japan in Spring of 2019, I made pilgrimages to sacred trees known as shinboku (or goshinboku)—trees that are revered as sacred dwelling places, shrines for kami — Shintō deities or spirits. I was very curious to meet them and understand more about the dynamic between Shintōism and trees; what makes these particular ancient trees so culturally and spiritually significant? Shinboku are especially large, old, or notably magnificent to anyone who is in their presence. In my experience, the presence, power, and energy—and I would say “holiness”— that these trees radiate go way beyond anything I had previously encountered in my twenty-five career. So much so, that I was confused about what, or who, was so powerful: was it the tree itself, the ‘spirit’ of the tree, or the kami who I was experiencing? This kind of mysterious encounter with more-than-human beings experienced through sensory perception, is what I term “phenomenality”.
Here I share with you five stories of my encounters with five phenomenal trees ‘who’ unexpectedly and forever changed the way I understood trees. I will preface by saying that as a Westerner, my understanding of Shintō is limited based my brief thirty-day experience visiting Japan. Shintō is sometimes referred to as an “intuitive religion” (“chokkan shukyō”), the essence of which can only be grasped experientially (and supposedly not completely understandable by Westerners.) Therefore, I will focus on my own personal experience as an animist, a tree expert, and my inquiry based upon my own literary research. But first, I offer some fundamentals about Shintō as a spiritual system and trees in Japanese culture.
The Trees of Japan
The Japanese culture is well known for its appreciation of the aesthetics of trees, especially during the riot of Spring blossoms (hanami) like the Cherry, or sakura (Prunus sp.) trees and the flush of warm Autumn colors such as Maples and Ginkgos. As well, the Japanese are known for their formal, manicured gardens and specific horticultural techniques, including bonsai (which some, this author included, consider to be a form of horti-torture). Finely sculpted (pruned) Pine trees (matsu), in the tradition of niwaki, have especially historically been a significant theme and symbols of many Japanese arts. The Japanese certainly love their trees, both domesticated and wild.
A painted wall screen with a classic artistic depiction of Matsu, or Pine tree from the 16th c.
Most people do not think of forests when they think of Japan, but currently over 60% of the land in Japan is beautifully forested. Most of these forests are second- and third-growth forests, since the country was almost completely deforested in the 1600s. Today, silvaculture practices take place mainly in plantation forests and any tree cutting must adhere to a strict ritual protocol involving a Shintō priest. There are over a thousand native species of trees in Japan. Some of the most dominant forest tree species are native only to Japan, such as the Japanese Red Cedar “Sugi” (Cryptomeria japonica). The genera of trees living in Japan are similar to common ones you’d find at the same northern latitude in temperate ecosystems around the world, while their species vary by region: conifers such as Pine (Pinus sp.), Fir (Abies sp.), Cypress (Cupressus sp.), Larch (Larix sp.), Spruce (Picea sp.), and broadleaf trees such as Oak (Quercus sp.), Willow (Salix sp.), Ash (Fraxinus), Linden (Tilia sp.), Birch (Betula sp.), Alder (Alnus sp.), Maple (Acer sp.), Chestnut (Castanea sp.), and Dogwood (Cornus sp.). Common to island biogeography, there are also many species endemic to specific regions in Japan.
The iconic prehistoric Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), which may come to mind when we think of Japan is not native but was actually imported from China about 1,000 years ago, so you know that every Ginkgo was intentionally planted. This abundant mix of species, some familiar and some new, made this expedition especially exciting for the tree nerd in me.
TreeGirl is an author, photographer, arborist, naturalist, forest ecotherapist and conservation educator bridging humans with wild nature.