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Sacred Forest Types

The April 18th issue of Jinja Shinpō carried another article in the series about sacred forests. It is by the same author as the previous one, about the Shikinaisha, and describes his impressions of the three broad types of sacred forest that one finds across Japan. (Apparently, he has visited more jinja than the 4,000-plus candidate Shikinaisha that he mentioned in the previous article.)

His first point is to emphasise that the general image of sacred forests as untouched by human hands is wrong. Even if entry to them is generally prohibited, most sacred forests have been maintained and altered to some extent. There are records going back centuries showing that this is not a recent phenomenon, and, as he points out, a lot of older jinja have moved, which means that new forests were defined as the sacred forest for that jinja. Nevertheless, he has observed that sacred forests tend to be nearer to the likely “natural” state of woodland in their region than other wooded areas, and thus their designation as natural monuments is appropriate.

He then goes on to describe the three broad types of sacred forest.

The first is the “classic” type: a forest that is taken to be a dwelling place of the kami, and which people are not allowed to enter. He observes that forests into which people do not go at all are very rare, but that sacred forests in this class are still basically natural forests.

The second type is a forest planted for use, with trees such as sugi (Japanese cedar) and hinoki (Japanese cypress), which are used in rebuilding the sanctuaries, or which can be sold to help support the jinja. Jingū, in Isë, has extensive forests of this type, which have been nurtured over the last century in the hope that they will be able to supply all the wood for the twenty-yearly rebuilding of the sanctuaries in another century or so. (They did supply some of the material for the most recent rebuilding, in 2013.) The author suggests that these forests were planted with sugi and hinoki because those trees were useful and valuable, but that this has helped shape people’s image of what a jinja’s sacred forest “should” look like.

The third type could be described as “ornamental” forests, such as avenues of sugi along the sacred path of a jinja, or trees planted around the sanctuaries in gardens. These are very common. For example, a lot of Tenjin Jinja have umë trees, because this sort of tree is associated with the kami.

These three types are typically all found at a single jinja (as long as the precincts are large enough). The author argues that these are all part of the sacred forest, because they are all maintained as part of the reverence for the kami, and thus all have part of that spiritual atmosphere.

He concludes by pointing out that the three types of forest can face different kinds of threats. The first type is threatened by invasive plants, such as the bamboo mentioned in an earlier article (and post). The second type is threatened by depopulation, which has meant that there are not enough people to maintain them. There are also common threats, such as invasive insect pests, or, in urban areas, complaints from the neighbours about fallen leaves or excessive shade. Thus, people need to come together to protect the forests, and hand them on to future generations.

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