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Tree Spirits

The March 29th issue of Jinja Shinpō had an interesting article about a new feature of Fuji Sengen Jinja, a jinja in Oyama, in Shizuoka Prefecture. The town is very close to Mount Fuji, and the Sengen Jinja enshrine the kami of that mountain, identified as Konohanasakuyabimë, who is also identified with cherry blossoms. However, the article was not about the main sanctuary or the main kami.

The precincts of the jinja include two large sugi trees (cryptomeria; Japanese cedar), which are known as “Husband-and-Wife Cedars”, because they grow close together, and one of them has a swelling on the lower trunk that looks rather like a pregnant stomach. According to the article, many of the people visiting the jinja told the priests that these two trees had power over becoming pregnant and safe delivery, and as those are also blessings attributed to the main kami of the jinja (in her capacity as wife of Ninigi-no-mikoto, the grandson of Amaterasu Ōmikami who descended from the heavens to begin the imperial line), the priests decided to enhance the location.

They obtained a “kantsū ishi” from a local construction company. This is one of the stones created when a tunnel breaks through and becomes connected, and they are supposed to have benefits for safe delivery. The article attributes this to a legend about Jingū Kōgō, who during her campaign in the Korean peninsula is supposed to have dug a tunnel to get behind a Korean army, and kept the kantsū ishi, which helped her when she was giving birth to Ōjin Tennō. That legend is not in the Nihonshoki, and I’m not sure that we really need an additional legend to explain why people might think that a stone obtained when a tunnel was opened might have a sympathetic connection to successful birth.

The stone has been set up between the two trees, with a roof over it, and it was dedicated in a matsuri during which the creation of a new “place for prayer” was announced to the kami of the jinja and the “kodama”, or “tree spirits”, of the two trees.

People writing about Shinto, including me, are often at pains to emphasise that it is not just a religion in which people venerate trees, rocks, and the spirits in them. This is true, and needs to be emphasised because Westerners first approaching Shinto often misunderstand it in that way. However, as this example shows, it is also important to remember that Shinto is a religion in which people venerate trees, rocks, and the spirits in them — it is just that this is not the whole of Shinto, or, indeed, the core of it.

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