The national tree of Japan, the Japanese Cedar or Sugi, is both a boon and the bane of modern Japanese all over the country. It has always been considered the holy tree of Japan and is easily the most well known tree and most used timber in the country, both in modern times and in historic times. Japan is one of the most wood covered countries in the world with most of its surface covered in forest and the wast majority of this is the Japanese Cedar. After the war large efforts were made to plant economically valuable forests around the country and this has now resulted in a national forest that is almost beyond ripe: many prefectures have so much sugi that they do not know what to do with it. Whereas other countries with a profitable forestry industry like Canada, Sweden, Finland or Russia has most of their forest on flat land that is easily accessible to an industrial scale harvesting the vast majority of Japanese forests are difficult to access even for humans on foot due to the mountainous terrain and humid climate. The relative mono culture also means that the pollen season can be brutal. The hay fever from which many Japanese suffer is one of the reasons that so many people wear surgical masks when outdoors and change their clothes as soon as they enter their homes. Even then, the smell of freshly cut sugi very popular and quite attractive, almost as nice as camphor or hinoki! Oh, and despite the English name of “Japanese Cedar” it is not related at all to the cedar in Europe or the Americas.
Still, the Sugi is extremely important for the Japanese and most shrines and temples have a holy sugi somewhere on their grounds. In Tokyo’s westernmost Okutama region I found this peculiar sugi on the grounds of the Okutama Shrine, the Triple Sugi of Hikawa (Hikawa Sanbon Sugi, 氷川三本杉) . I don’t know if this holy tree started out as three separate tree that merged as they grew bigger or if it is really one sugi that has developed three trunks but it is truly massive. At 43m height it is not even one of the larger trees in the country, these giants can sometimes reach up to 70m in height! Most sugi though, grow fatter rather than tall. One of the most famous sugi of Japan has a circumference of over 16m!
The Okutama Shrine is not much for the world except for the famous triple cedar, but I really liked the tiny green grocer that is open to business just next to the tree. It looked wonderfully nostalgic old time Japanese!
It has been a strange summer, lots of sun in the east of Japan and massive amounts of rain in the west of Japan. You might have seen on the news or even heard from friends about the huge landslide in Hiroshima Prefecture the other day that has killed 39 people so far with 51 people still missing. These kind of landslides happen often in Japan which is both incredibly densely populated, extremely hilly and prone to getting hit with large rainstorms. Perfect conditions for deadly landslides to occur.
Most landslides happen in rural areas far from any cities or towns and villages and seldom results in deaths or injuries, but one landslide yesterday passed through a town on the outskirts of Hiroshima City burying houses and cars and whole streets. It was followed by several smaller landslides in the same are which have even killed rescue workers trying to save the victims of the first landslide. And all the while the rain keeps on falling.
A couple of years ago I was in Kyushu two weeks after torrential rains had unleashed several smaller landslide that barely hit the news. I took these photos, probably in Kumamoto Prefecture showing the damaged hillsides and wrecked buildings. The photos are very poor in quality as I took most of them while inside a moving car.
An interesting point can be made from looking at the first photo. Do you notice the spot where the hillside simply slid all the way down? Can you see how close and narrow the trees are? The Japanese call this kind of forest for “Incense Forest”, meaning that it looks like a bunch of incense sticks stuck into the ground, with nothing whatsoever of under vegetation, no age differentiation in the trees and most likely artificially planted. In Japan where the annual rainfall of most European countries can fall over a couple of days normal healthy natural forest consisting of a mix of tall trees and a vigorous undergrowth, the excess water will be sucked up by the vegetation very quickly. However, in incense forests like this, the water has nowhere to go, there are not even any streams to discharge it out of the mountains, so it ends up soaking into the ground, usually with catastrophic results.
It is very easy to forget the power of nature: as we spend more and more time in human made environments, focused on screens and keyboards, we sometimes fail to catch the warning signs that out there. Stay safe everyone!
Many people who visit the mountainous Izu peninsula to the south west of Tokyo will pass through the Amagi mountain range. The mountains are actually mostly ancient volcanoes (there’s over 100 of them) and are quite popular with hikers and mountain climbers. Even for people not that interested in physical activities the Joren falls of Mount Amagi (天城山) are a very popular point to stop and rest you legs on the long drive from Tokyo to the tip of Izu. Although the best nature views are not around the falls, it is really beautiful enough to visit. The more beautiful nature around the old volcanoes are much more inaccessible but worthwhile if you have experienced hiker friends.
The Joren falls (浄蓮の滝) were formed 17 000 years ago when the volcanoes last erupted and you can clearly see the magma flows in the columnar joints making up the base of the falls. The walk down to the falls from the road is a little steep but has some good views on the way. The river valley is home to a small Wasabi plantation and there’s usually small rest house open that offers food, drinks and sweets (many with a wasabi theme). The falls are located in Izu City (伊豆市), Yugashima (湯ヶ島).
There are some old folk-tales associated with the falls:
Once upon a time, there lived an old farmer who had a field on the back of Joren Falls, near the basin of the waterfall. One day, after working in the field for some time, he sat and rested on a stump. There he found a Joro-Gumo (wasp spider) winding a web around his leg. “The spider must take my leg for a branch”, he thought and cut the web to wind it around a branch. Suddenly the earth started to shake, and the next moment, the stump was dragged into the basin with a lot of noise. Trembling with fear, he said to the villages, “The master of Joren Falls is a beautiful Joro-Gumo. It will drag you into the pool by winding its web”. Since then, no villager had come close to the waterfall.
A few years later, a lumber jack from another village entered the forest. When he was cutting of a tree near Joren Falls, he accidentally dropped his hatchet into the pool of the waterfall. He was at a loss of what to d. After a while later, a beautiful woman with the hatchet in her hand appeared and said, “You can get your hatchet back. But don’t tell anyone that have seen me or I will take your life.” Without a word he received the hatchet from her. Later he figured that the beautiful woman he met was the dreadful master of the waterfall, Joro-Gumo.
After the incident he moved to another village for work, though he couldn’t forget the fearful experience and the promise he made with the woman. One night, when was drinking with his friends, he let the word slip out about the beautiful master of the Joren Fall. After the party was over, the drunken lumberjack closed his eyes and never woke up.
There are lot of folk tales in Japan people disrespecting nature or not keeping the promises or talking too much. A common theme in many stories are also the village drinking party! It must have been an important aspect of the social life of ancient Japanese people.
Since for the last few days at Yuigahama, the famous Pacific Ocean beach just on the edge of Kamakura city to the south west of Tokyo, there’s been a rather unusual algal bloom, a phenomena known as akashio (赤潮) in Japan and often called “red tide” in English. It is a natural occurring phenomena when concentrations in plankton grow rapidly and has nothing to do with tide nor is it often very red. Sometimes these algal blooms are associated with a kind of plankton that can glow with a bluish light in the dark but there hasn’t been any reported bioluminescence so far this time at Yuigahama, although I have heard that there were some two nights ago in Enoshima, further down the coast to the west of Kamakura but I am not sure how correct those observations were. If you live in the area, tonight might be the best night of the year for a midnight walk along the beach!
I was a little disappointed with bloom, as it looks a little bit and could be poisonous I was in no mood for swimming so instead I decided to head as far as possible to the east along the beach. I got quite far when another very interesting natural phenomena occured, a kaimu, or ocean mist. For a few minutes there were white wisps of smoke blowing in over the water, as if there were many small fires further out in the ocean. The sun was still blazing though, but in a few minutes a thick wall of mist rolled in from the ocean, completely obscuring the sun and turning midday into early evening in a few minutes. It reminded me of the solar eclipse we had a couple of years ago. Visibility was very bad in mist and the water level rose very quickly, which sent quite a few beach goers scrambling to get their stuff out of the rising water. The silence was also erie, sounds being muffled and nothing much being visible. Quite an experience! The mist last about an hour but even as it passed it left a strangely muted sky much of it remained until nightfall, all over the city of Kamakura.
All in all, it was an interesting day at the beach. I tried to look out for dead marine life but didn’t find anything out of the ordinary, the odd dried up blowfish or carp. As I always do, I also gathered a full plastic bag of plastic garbage that had drifted in from the ocean or been blown out on the beach by careless beach goers. If everyone picked just one piece of garbage every time they visited a beach the world would be a cleaner place in no time!