Living in Japan, it is impossible to ignore the influence of trees. In spring, you will be invited to attend Hanami, the cherry blossom viewing festival. This is one of the biggest social events of the year, when everyone gathers together to share food and sake beneath the trees, and appreciate their fleeting beauty before the petals disappear. In summer, you can send wishes to the gods on bamboo trees during Tanabata, the Star Festival. In autumn, hike into the mountains and immerse yourself in cascades of saccharine momiji leaves.
Of all the seasonal trees, it is the winter pines which are especially meaningful. Aside from their tidy beauty when wearing their snow ropes, pine trees have spiritual and cultural significance. Bundles of pine branches are used to make kadomatsu (literal translation ‘gate pine’), which are traditional Japanese new year decorations. These are placed in doorways to attract prosperity for the year ahead, particularly for marriages. But the importance of pine is not only confined to this season. In Shinto belief, pine trees hold great power. It is said that the kami (Shinto gods and goddesses) use the branches of pine trees to descend to earth, and therefore many of their spirits reside within them. In the grounds of every Shinto shrine, you will find at least one pine tree. Some larger shrines use them to mark their entire perimeters. Their presence wards off negative energy and spirits, and invites messages from the kami. It is customary to purchase omikuji (paper fortunes) at shrines, and tie the bad ones on or near the pine trees to negate their effects.
Omikuji tied to ropes on a pine branch at Namba Yasaka Shrine, Osaka Prefecture (photo by Amelia Starling)
In the town of Takasago in Hyogo Prefecture, pine trees hold extra meaning. Their needles cover the ground on almost every street, and the town mascot is even a pine cone. He adorns buses and shop windows. According to Japanese mythology, Takasago is the location of a pair of pine trees which were planted by the kami. They grow in the grounds of Takasago Shrine, and can never be parted. As such, they have become symbols of love and marriage. These pines feature in a well-known Noh play called Takasago, which is about two lovers who express their relationship through the legend of the trees.
Traditionally, the backs of Noh stages are decorated with murals of pine trees to pay homage to the kami and thank them for giving people the gift of Noh. The Noh pine is said to be modelled on the Yogo pine tree in the grounds of Kasuga Shrine in Nara Prefecture. According to legend, an old man was seen dancing beneath this tree. In actuality, he was the human form of the tree’s spirit, and his dance was to express the bond between humans and kami. Having a depiction of a pine tree present during Noh performances is a way of remembering and celebrating this bond.
Pine mural on the Noh stage at Itsukushima Shrine, Hiroshima Prefecture (photo by Amelia Starling)
Takasago falls under the category of kami mono (god plays), which are Noh plays that tell mythological stories of Shinto shrines and kami. They often feature kami disguised as humans, who do not reveal their true identities until near the end of the performance. In Takasago, the two lovers fulfil these roles; at the end they reveal themselves to be the spirits of the pair of pine trees.
The folk tale ‘The Wind in the Pine Tree,’ featured in the book Japanese Fairy Tales by Grace James, is a prose retelling of Takasago. It details how the pine tree was planted by a kami, and became a sacred place where spirits of nature came to play. It also attracted ‘the mysteries, the sounds and scents of the dark’ from Yomi, which is the land of the dead in Japanese mythology. The combined energies of the spirits made the tree ‘holy and haunted,’ and the sound of the wind in its branches spread feelings of happiness and nostalgia throughout the town.
It was this mystical wind which drew the two lovers together. The maiden was from Takasago, and spent her days weaving in the shade of the pine tree. The boy was a rice farmer from a distant province, away over the sea. A crane flew to him, and after seeing it he was compelled to follow the ‘voice in [his] heart.’ The crane led him over the ocean to the pine tree, where he met the maiden. Soon they were married, and lived a peaceful life together. When they were elderly, they visited the pine tree once more to hear ‘the song of the wind.’ They lay beneath it together and died, and their spirits were received by the branches. The story ends by repeating how the spirits of nature and from Yomi inhabit the pine tree, and that lovers walking near it pause to ask one another ‘do you hear the wind in the pine tree?’
Pine trees lining the path to Kibitsu Shrine, Okayama Prefecture (photo by Amelia Starling)
In Japanese folklore, pine trees are also symbols of longevity. In this story, the Takasago pine brings people together and watches over their lives. They are fleeting, but the pine tree remains steadfast and continues to be so even after human lifespans end. It is a guardian for both the living and the dead, and is the heart of a sacred space where beings from all planes of existence can find joy. It is a Shinto belief that everything has a spirit, and how it is treated determines whether it becomes benevolent or malevolent. Since it invites so much love and is treated well, the Takasago pine’s spirit is also good and it maintains a cycle of continually collecting and emanating positive energy.
In contrast to this are the trees in Aokigahara, a forest at the base of Mount Fuji with a long history of murders and suicides. Over the years, the trees of Aokigahara have witnessed a myriad of deaths. As a result, they hold all of that negative energy in their roots and branches, which contributes to the unsettling atmosphere of the place and in turn attracts more sorrow to it. It is no coincidence that Aokigahara is renowned for being inhabited by yūrei, wrathful ghosts of people who die in traumatic circumstances. Aokigahara is also known as 樹海 (Jukai), meaning ‘Sea of Trees,’ because it is so densely packed. This adds to the intensity of the trees’ energy, cultivating the dark atmosphere of the place. Aokigahara’s spirits died in trauma and cannot rest, unlike the pine tree lovers who died peacefully and whose spirits contribute to the happiness of Takasago.
It is true that there are two pine trees, side by side, in the grounds of Takasago Shrine, and that they have been there since before the time the shrine was founded. Their nicknames are ‘Jo’ and ‘Uba,’ which mean ‘old man’ and ‘old woman’ respectively. They are revered as ambassadors for a happy marriage, and many couples visit to pay homage to them. Whether these trees are inhabited by the spirits of the lovers from the Noh play, the written folktale, the kami themselves, or even all three, makes little difference. Whichever you choose to believe, there is no denying that these trees are special and contribute to the prominence of pine trees in Japanese culture. If you ever visit Takasago, stand beneath them. Listen carefully. Perhaps you too will hear the mystical wind in the pine tree.
Fukusa (type of Japanese cloth used for gift wrapping) embroidered with Jo and Uba beneath a pine branch, early nineteenth century, Wikimedia
Amelia Starling is a writer and folklorist. She graduated from the University of Winchester with a degree in creative writing, and is a content editor for Folklore Thursday. She blogs about folklore and fairy tales, with particular interest in witchcraft, Japanese folklore, and the ocean. You can follow her on Twitter @amyelize, and visit her blog at http://thewillowweb.com.