Another article in the series about sacred forests was in the December 13th issue of Jinja Shinpō. It was written by a priest of Hiraoka Jinja in Osaka Prefecture, the original jinja enshrining Amënokoyanë, the ancestral kami of the Nakatomi and Fujiwara. In 2001, when he had been at the jinja for nine years, its umë grove was selected as one of the “100 Best Smelling Places in Japan” by the Environment Ministry. He doesn’t recall having much reaction beyond thinking “yes, it does smell nice”, but the selection got the parishioners thinking more about the jinja’s precincts and forests. They formed a committee to improve things, and he was chosen to be the secretary.
The committee did some work on hedges, walls, and bridges, but he wasn’t sure that this was the best way to work on improving the sacred forest. As luck would have it, Shasō Gakkai, the academic group for the study of sacred forests (which are also called shasō) was holding a course for Shasō Insutorakutaa (Sacred Forest Instructors), which he took. He learned a lot, and decided to undertake a survey of the biodiversity of the forest.
This survey was brought to an early halt by his discovery that much of the forest had failed to recover from some landslides about twenty years earlier. The areas where the trees had been removed by the landslides were covered with grass and creepers, and the creepers were also covering the surrounding trees, leaving the forest floor completely dark. The survey was abandoned, and they started clearing the area.
However, there was far too much work for the small number of people they had, and he looked around for assistance. Once again, he was lucky. The prefecture was running a practical course for forestry volunteers, and he was able to get the work at the jinja made part of that. So, in summer 2004, about forty volunteers turned up to clear the undergrowth. Things went very well, and they were able to form a volunteer group to continue the work. In March the following year, they planted about 150 broad-leaf trees across a hectare of cleared land.
Later that year, the priest took another course, this one a six-month course on how to run safe and interesting forestry volunteer projects, and building on that he has run 182 events ranging from tree planting to thinning the forest, and also covering nature craft or acorn collection. The volunteers have also uncovered and restored a pond that was filled in by the landslides, and used the water from that to create a (wet) rice field and (dry) arable field in the area. These enabled the jinja to hold planting and harvest ceremonies in its precincts, which the priest says is good because agricultural festivals are central to the Shinto ritual year, but the number of rice fields is dropping nationwide.
He also investigated the history of the forest, and it turns out that it certainly hasn’t been left alone, although there was a plan to do that at one point about a century ago. As I mentioned in an earlier article, there is an idea that sacred forests are left undisturbed, but that is certainly not the case at this one. The umë trees that got the whole thing started were planted on the site of a Buddhist temple that was suppressed at the Meiji Revolution, for example. The priest is continuing this tradition, actively intervening in the forest to make it look as he thinks it should. Since he is doing that in consideration of biodiversity and the “natural” flora of the local area, I expect that it is having a good effect, but it is still not a case of leaving things to nature. Of course, if it has been managed to be close to a natural state, it should be able to sustain itself in that state if the active management stops. And that is exactly what restoring ecosystems is about.