Tokyobling's Blog

Hikawa Sanbon Sugi – Triple Cedar at Okutama

Posted in Nature, Places by tokyobling on September 10, 2014

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!

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Boarded Up Tree

Posted in Japanese Traditions, Nature, Places by tokyobling on September 13, 2010

The fact that Japanese people are some of the most long lived in the world is pretty well known by now, but even they live very short lives compared to Japanese trees. I’ve been in quite a few countries around the planet but I have never seen as many old trees as in Japan. Here there are ancient giants everywhere. Of course the most famous old trees of Japan are on the island of Yakushima, including the 2000-7000 year old Jomon Sugi、or the incredible 65km long avenue of Sugi (Japanese Cedar) that leads pilgrims to the grave of Tokugawa Ieyasu and was planted about 400 years ago. But really, you often don’t have to go further than to your local shrine to see some very old trees. While in Omiya I saw this tree, a giant (Cryptomeria japonica?) that is so old the core has completely rotted out. This being safety minded Japan, naturally the old tree has been boarded up to keep people out of it. I don’t know about you, but I have never seen doors and locks on a tree before!

I believe that the Japanese religion of Shinto is to thank for the abundance of old growth trees even in urban areas. These trees are believed to house kami (spirits or Gods) that protect the neighborhood and people are very reluctant to cut them down. In fact, the cutting of an old tree is such a dastardly deed that even when absolutely necessary, many people will hire a non-local to do it. This specialist will perform rituals to appease the Gods and the wrath of the locals. I’d hate to be an arborist in Japan!


@ All images copyrighted. Please use only with permission.

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