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!
Two weekends ago I visited the famous Mount Takao, probably the most visited mountai/nature park in Tokyo. People here love seeing the seasons changing so the getting out of the city to watch the changing colors of the autumn leaves is almost as popular as getting out in spring to watch the cherry blossoms. It always feels unreal to visit this mountain as you get onto a normal commuter at the worlds busiest train station, and step off an hour later, surrounded by an almost overwhelming amount of nature.
Among all this nature there is also quite a bit of culture, as the mountain is home of one of the more powerful buddhist temples in Japan, founded all the way back in 744 A.D. The temple’s statues, markers and stones are scattered along the path to the temple and makes for some very photogenic scenery!
Mount Takao is officially just over 599m tall, but in the old days it used to be over 601m. A couple of big earthquakes early last century forced officials to recalculate the mountain and it appears to have shrunk a tiny bit. There botany of the mountain is also quite varied and has been intensively studied, yielding a stunning 63 new plant species first discovered (by science) at this mountain.
Japanese love to feel and see the changing of the seasons, and the two major seasonal indicators are the cherry blossom viewing in the spring and in autumn, the viewing of autumn leaves. It’s even a major part of every day conversation – people will ask about this years autumn leave viewing season, get recommendations on where to go and when to visit what places. It is a chance for many near-urban communities and nature reserves to drum up business as city people venture out en masse to sample the fresh mountain air. Nature has also guaranteed a certain fairness in the game of getting the most tourist visitors – the famous areas for cherry blossom viewing gets no visitors during the autumn leave viewing season, and vice versa. Even pine trees, that aren’t very popular for viewing in any season at least has a certain economical value so it all evens out.
I and what felt like most everyone else living in Tokyo visited Mount Takao in Tokyo’s western Hachioji City last weekend to get our dose of autumn beauty, and although there is both a cable car and a lift system to ferry people past the difficult part of the walk the lines were hour long so I did like so many other well equipped people and walked all the way up the mountain, about all 3.8km, which is an easy thing on flat terrain but slightly more strenuous at a steep angle. Still, there were plenty of people with small children or elderly grandparents in tow! Japanese have always loved the outdoors and you’ll see many well kitted up people and even quite a few in their ordinary office clothes – like me. Mount Takao has a lot of fantastic Japanese Cedars that look unbelievably massive. Many of these are so old that they have started decomposing from the bottom while the top is as vigorous as ever, and the best ones are even fenced in to stop people from wearing them out by getting to close. There’s supposedly quite a lot of wildlife over here but in all the times I have visited I have never seen anything bigger than a butterfly or a hawk, but I would love to catch one of the little Maimaikaburi beetles, the “little hunters of Mount Takao” who prey on snails and worms. Warning signs tell us that it is very advisable not to look them too close in the eye since they can squirt noxious stuff that is very painful to get in your eyes. The walk up the mountain is made interesting by the many statues nestled in the side of the mountain, popular with tourists and pilgrims alike.
Mount Takao is easily accesible from Shinjuku on the Keio line, to Takaosanguchi station (高尾山口駅), and the walk to the cable car and lift stations are lined with excellent soba restaurants. If you have the health and the opportunity I recommend walking up the mountain at least once, although the lift is pretty fun too. If you want to take it easy or are worried about your health I recommend the cable car especially off seasons when it is not so crowded.
I still find it insanely difficult to get decent shots of nature stuff, but I am getting more practice this season. More photos to come!
Here’s another post with terrible photos – please forgive me for posting these, but I couldn’t resist the subject, a massive himalayan cedar growing right out of the foundations of a little convenience store in central Tokyo! As all connoisseurs or “shitamachi”, or the classical “downtown” areas of Tokyo knows, Yanaka is one of the best. Situated on a high field overlooking Ueno to south and famous mainly for the many tiny temples and one massive cemetery, Yanaka is popular with locals preserving the low, single or double storied architecture of the area. It’s surprisingly easy to miss and I often wonder how it has managed to escape the lure of the property development people as the location must be really attractive. I always get lost on the labyrinth like little streets of the area and yesterday I wandered into one of Yanaka’s famous spots, the Himalayan Cedar (ヒマラヤ杉) and the Mikado bread store (みかどパン店)! It’s hard to get a sense of just how massive this tree is, and how sudden and unexpected it is as you come upon it from either one of the three streets meeting at the base of the tree. I used a very wide angle lens to capture it in these photos, but the pictures doesn’t come close to showing how awe inspiring this tree is. I really hope this tree will be around for the joy of future generations hundreds of years to come. The old lady who runs the little convenience store seemed as ancient as the tree itself, and I hope she will last many year to come as well, although I didn’t see the cat which is almost as famous as the store itself.