Sacred Groves

‘Extinct’ birds rediscovered on Ogasawara Islands (Feb.16)


NATURE IN SHORT / Vestiges of ancient evergreen forest live on in sacred groves

Kevin Short / Daily Yomiuri (Feb. 9, 2012)

Last week, I spent several days cycling around the Hokuso countryside of northern Chiba Prefecture. I am currently working on a project to document many sacred groves that surround Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in this region. At each site, I record the species and measure the circumference at chest height for all the big trees that form the grove.

In much of Japan, the sacred groves have been left uncut for close to 150 years. Over this period, many of the trees have grown to immense size, and in some cases the grove has developed into a small packet of primary forest. In western and southern Japan, including the south Kanto region, the original primary vegetation represented the extreme northern and eastern edge of the great Asian evergreen broad-leaved forests, a huge forest tradition distributed in a wide swath from the eastern Himalayas across China to the Pacific seaboard.

The area occupied by this forest type, called Joryoku Koyo Jurin or Shoyo Jurin in Japanese, centers on the subtropical and warm temperate zones. Normally, the main Japanese islands would be well outside this area. Thanks to the ameliorating effect of the Kuroshio and Tsushima warm currents, however, the trees extend northward along the coastline as far as Aomori and Iwate prefectures in the Tohoku region.

Unfortunately, the areas formerly home to Japan’s evergreen broad-leaved forests were also the areas best suited to irrigated rice agriculture. This technology was introduced into northern Kyushu from the Korean Peninsula about 3,000 years ago, and rapidly spread eastward. As the population grew, the pressure on local forest resources increased, and much of the primary forest was cut down and replaced by faster-rejuvenating oak coppices or piney woods. In the more recent post-war years, almost all the remaining swaths of primary forest were clear-cut to make room for conifer timber plantations. Sacred groves thus now play an important ecological role by preserving small patches of this vital forest habitat.

Although my sacred grove survey is still in progress, the results clearly show that two species of tree in the Fagaceae or Beech Family (buna-ka) are dominant. These are the sudajii chinquapin (Castanopis sieboldii) and the aka-gashi evergreen oak (Quercus acuta). The most common circumferences for these sacred grove trees range from 150 centimeters to 250 centimeters, which may represent a typical size for 150-year-old trees. Some specimens, however, are obviously much older, with circumferences close to 400 centimeters.

Another charismatic sacred grove species, far rarer than the oaks and chinquapins but often rivaling them in stature, is the tabunoki bay tree. These trees are classified in the Lauraceae or Laurel Family (kusunoki-ka). They are resistant to salt air, which allows them to thrive along the immediate coastline. They are also fairly hardy, and as a result usually dominate sacred groves and other protected primary coastal forests in the far northern edge of the evergreen broad-leaved distribution.

During the winter, tabunoki can be identified by a large single bud that forms at the tip of each branch. In late April, these open up to let out the flowers and a new growth of leaves. The young leaves show a distinct reddish tint, and the flowers, although small and rather inconspicuous, are nectar-rich, and attract a varied insect clientele. The fruits are dark green at first, but ripen to a bluish people.

My daylong bicycle trips last week had one other purpose. This past Saturday, Feb. 5, marked the Risshun, or official start of spring in the traditional Asian almanac. The previous day, the spring Setsubun, was a day for celebrations welcoming the change of season. Best known among these is the widespread custom of throwing dried soybeans out the house door while shouting, “Happiness come in! Oni demons stay out!”

In the Kanto countryside, farmers also traditionally made small Setsubun wreaths, which they placed outside the house. I wanted to study these wreaths to see which plants were being used. It took quite a lot of riding before I finally stumbled upon a community where this tradition is still observed. The wreaths turned out to be made of soybean branches with empty pods and several sprigs of a tree with very spiny leaves, topped by a small sardine impaled on a wooden skewer. The tree sprigs at first looked like they might be holly, but a closer inspection showed that the leaves were arranged in an alternate pattern, with right and left leaves attached directly opposite each other. Hollies always show an alternate pattern, with noticeable gaps between the left side and right leaves.

This tree proved to be the hiiragi, or holly-olive. The spiny leaves superficially resemble those of holly, but the species is classified in the Oleaceae or Olive Family (mokusei-ka) rather than the Aquifoliaceae or Holly Family (mochinoki-ka). According to the farmers, the sharp wicked spines keep oni out of the house. The rancid smell of the sardine is also said to help repel the demons.

Oni demons in this case represent sickness, ill-fortune and unhappiness, and the wreath is thus a magical charm for protecting the house and inhabitants. Interestingly, in Europe as well, spiny-leaved holly was traditionally believed to enjoy similar power to ward off evil spells and influences. Hiiragi is not a very common native in the Kanto region, but the trees are widely planted in parks, gardens and farmsteads. When the grounds are laid out according to the principles of traditional Feng Shui geomancy (fusui) the hiiragi are usually situated in the northeast corner, called the Kimon or Oni-Gate. This is the direction from which disaster and misfortune are most likely to come calling.

Short is a naturalist and cultural anthropology professor at Tokyo University of Information Sciences.


NATURE IN SHORT / Sacred groves amuse nature lovers, offer spiritual refreshments

Kevin Short / Daily Yomiuri (Feb. 2, 2012)

Visits to shrines and temples are an important part of any tourism experience here in Japan. Visitors enjoy the beautiful historic architecture and sense of peace and tranquility found in the precincts. Shrines and temples, many of which are surrounded by venerable old sacred trees, are also good spots to study nature or simply commune with the natural environment.

Two basic categories of big sacred trees can be found at Japanese shrines and temples. One includes individual trees, often considered especially sacred to the kami or hotoke deities enshrined there, that have been planted in front of the buildings or along the sando, or avenue of approach. At Shinto shrines, these trees will usually be marked off by a shimenawa, a twisted straw rope decorated with strips of paper cut in a zigzag shape, tied around the trunk. This type of tree may include some local native species, such as zelkova (keyaki), but frequently consist primarily of nonlocal types such as camphor (kusunoki), cryptomeria (sugi) or gingko (icho).

Another category of big tree is found in small sacred groves that are allowed to flourish behind and around the sides of the main building. These trees are often local native species, and in many instances the sacred groves actually preserve small remnants of the original primary forest cover. The Tadasu Grove of the Shimogamo Jinja shrine in Kyoto, for example, contains a rare chunk of primary deciduous forest native to the heavily developed Kyoto Basin.

Sacred groves called chinju no mori are an almost required feature at Shinto shrines, but rich groves can often be found at Buddhist temples as well. The Yushima Seido, a Confucian temple located just adjacent to Ochanomizu Station in central Tokyo, is surrounded by a fine grove consisting of both native and nonnative trees. A more general term for sacred groves, regardless of their religious affiliation, is shajirin.

Today, the spiritual essence of the kami deities worshipped at a Shinto shrine are believed to reside in sacred objects known as shintai, which are housed within a special inner chamber, a sort of holy of holies, inside the honden, or main hall, of the shrine. In front of this stands the haiden, or worship hall, where visitors pay their respects with claps, bows and offerings.

Many historians and folklorists, however, believe that this shintai and honden complex, along with impressive shrine buildings themselves, are later developments. Originally the essence of the kami were thought to reside in specific natural features, called kannabi, such as groves of trees, large or unusually shaped rock formations, waterfalls, or even entire mountains.

Some shrines still preserve this original kannabi arrangement. Omiwa Jinja, the most important shrine in Nara Prefecture, for example, totally lacks a honden. The worship hall opens out directly onto the heavily forested slopes of Mt. Miwa. The deity enshrined here, Omononushi, is considered to be the spiritual embodiment of the mountain itself.

This ancient layout is also well-preserved at shrines on the Ryukyu Islands, called utaki. Here, simple pavilions open out to groves of trees, in which the deities are believed to reside. Only female priests, called noro, are allowed to pass beyond the outer pavilion and tend the grove.

In the southern Kanto region, sacred groves are usually dominated by huge chinquapins (sudajii) and several species of evergreen oak, which are generically called kashi in Japanese. These are the same species that form the stalwarts of the region’s primary old-growth forests. They are evergreen trees with thick, shiny leaves that allow very little sunlight to pass. Several of these trees usually overlap their upper branches to form a dense canopy, keeping the atmosphere inside the grove cool and dimly lit. Only occasional shafts of bright sunlight thrust through small gaps in the branches.

Sacred groves often play an important role in conservation of local biodiversity. In urban areas they may represent the only substantial chunk of greenery for miles around. Even in countryside habitats, where the overall forest cover ratio remains high, the groves may be vital to regional species richness. Typical countryside forests, such as managed coppices, orchards and timber plantations, are mostly secondary or artificial in nature, containing younger trees that are harvested at regular intervals. Only in the protected sacred groves can trees grow to their full size and develop into primary forest habitat.

Sacred groves are found the world over. In Nigeria, for example a sacred grove at Osogbo, dedicated to the Vodoun goddess Osun, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Surveys in India have identified well over 10,000 sacred groves, mostly managed and protected communally by individual villages.

Here in Japan, the total number of sacred groves must be as high as several tens, or even hundreds, of thousands. These include immense forests surrounding major shrines such as Ise Grand Shrines and Kasuga Grand Shrine, the latter of which is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the other end of the scale are groves found at uncountable tiny local shrines and temples, which may contain only several to a dozen or so trees each. Even isolated roadside stone Buddhas and commemorative mounds are usually protected by one to several sacred trees.

Sacred groves are fine spots for studying botany or watching birds. They also provide ideal sanctuaries for prayer, meditation, quiet contemplation, yoga and other forms of spiritual refreshment and empowerment.

Short is a naturalist and cultural anthropology professor at Tokyo University of Information Sciences.


NATURE IN SHORT / Holly trees, plants serve as guardians of mounds

Kevin Short / Daily Yomiuri (Feb. 16, 2012)

How quickly pass the seasons. This year is just cruising along in the manner of true Asian water-dragons, which are long, slim creatures that wiggle and wind their way across the sky in much the way a snake swims across the surface of a pond. Already the first moon of the new dragon year has reached third quarter. Over the next few days, our beautiful celestial dancing partner should be visible in the western sky during the morning hours, before the sun climbs too high.

These days, with the university on spring vacation, I’m usually out on my countryside bike forays, working on a project to document local sacred groves. This is actually an ambitious project, as each small farming community maintains its own small Shinto shrine. In addition, the countryside landscape is dotted with tiny mounds, called tsuka, topped by stone statues or commemorative slabs. Each of these is backed by at least one to several trees.

Documenting these tsuka is a fascinating exercise in both botany and folklore. Each site is related to some local story or legend. One very famous mound, protected by cryptomerias, evergreen oaks and Japanese holly-olives, contains several small stone statues depicting Buddhas that have horsehead motifs carved into their headdress. This particular deity is Bato Kannon, or “Horsehead Kannon,” and as might be expected, is almost always associated with horses.

In the past, horses were widely employed in farmwork, and also for transporting goods and people along the many historic post roads that crisscross the area of northern Chiba Prefecture where I work. Bato Kannon statues were commissioned to pray for the health of these valuable animals, and also in repose of their spirits. This particular mound, however, is dedicated to the horse of Yorimasa Minamoto, a well-known 12th-century general belonging to the famous Genji clan of samurai warriors.

According to local legend, Yorimasa was defeated in 1180, in a battle that took place at Uji, on the outskirts of Kyoto, then Japan’s capital city. Afraid that his victorious enemies would make a circus show of parading his severed head through the streets of the capital, Yorimasa committed suicide, after instructing his retainers to chop his head off and carry it far away to the east. The general’s head was placed on his trusty horse, which then ran all the way to Chiba Prefecture before collapsing from exhaustion right at the very spot where the mound now stands.

Typical trees chosen for commemorative mounds include flowering cherries for their beauty, and hackberries for their excellent shade. Various evergreen oaks are also widely used. Once in a while I find a mound topped by a rare species of native holly. Called inu-tsuge in Japanese, this is an evergreen shrub characterized by very tiny leaves and dark blue-gray fruits. The inu-tsuge is one of many Japanese trees with a somewhat unfortunate name. Tsuge refers to the tsuge, or Japanese boxwood (Buxus microphylla), a completely different species that is highly prized for its beautiful hard wood, used for making inkan name seals and the playing pieces for high-quality shogi chess games. The tiny holly leaves closely resemble those of the boxwood, but the wood is of comparatively poorer quality. The word inu means “dog,” and when used as a modifier in plant names usually indicates a species that is of lesser value to humans.

Another “doggy” tree occasionally found on commemorative mounds is the inu-maki podocarp. Podocarps, with about 100 species known worldwide, are conifers with narrow, lance-like leaves and seed cones that look like colorful berries. The Japanese species is distributed from the Ryukyu Islands north and west through Kyushu, Shikoku and Honshu as far east as the Kanto region.

There is no clear indication as to which specific species of tree the maki in this name is referring to. Several valuable timber conifers are collectively known as maki. The one with most similar leaves is the koya-maki (Sciadopytis verticillata) an endemic Japanese species that thrives on Mt. Koya in Wakayama Prefecture and is greatly valued for its rot-resistant, highly aromatic wood. Actually, the podocarp itself proves to be quite a useful tree. In the Ryukyu Islands, the wood is used for building homes. Also, the foliage is very dense and responds well to pruning, making the podocarp excellent as a wind-break and hedge species. In Chiba, the podocarp is so widely used for this purpose that it has been designated the official prefectural tree.

Most local shrines are situated at the edge of rises overlooking the villages. Commemorative mounds, on the other hand, may be located anywhere. There is a tendency to find them at crossroads or boundaries, but once in a while they can also be seen sticking up among flat open stretches of hatake vegetable fields.

In these locations, the branches of the mound trees will often be filled with chattering birds. The vegetable fields, rich in wind-blown seeds as well as worms and insect larvae, are ideal winter foraging habitat for wild birds; while the mound trees offer a protected place to rest and hide from enemies such as feral cats and goshawks.

Both the Japanese holly and the inu-maki podocarp also provide birds with an extra benefit in terms of edible berries. One species often seen in these trees is the tsugumi or dusky thrush. These large thrushes are winter visitors here in Japan. They forage heavily for worms and insects on the ground, and are frequent customers at the hatake, but also make good use of available food in the trees, and are especially fond of holly berries.

Short is a naturalist and cultural anthropology professor at Tokyo University of Information Sciences.

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