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The Chief Priestess and the Sacred Forest

The article about sacred forests in the June 20th issue of Jinja Shinpō concerned Yaëgaki Jinja in Miyagi Prefecture. If you have read my essay about the impact of the Great East Japan Earthquake on Miyagi, you already know about this place, because it was one of my examples: its chief priestess, Revd Fujinami, has been very active.

The author of the article was a professor from a university in Osaka (almost certainly also female, but there are very few completely unambiguous Japanese names) who has been visiting the jinja since a year after the earthquake, and the article focuses on the trees, although it does touch on the other elements of the reconstruction. For example, the new flood barriers have led to the beach shrinking substantially, as well as transforming the view.

Before the disaster, the woods around the jinja were almost all black pines (kuromatsu), which helped stop blown sand, and also mitigated the effects of flooding. Most of them were killed by the tsunami or its aftermath, but one, a kami tree next to the sanctuary, survived. According to Revd Fujinami, the trees grow quite slowly on that site (lots of wind off the sea), and so the kami tree is probably about four hundred years old. The jinja is about 1200 years old, however, so the jinja was definitely there first.

The sacred forest that was replanted after the disaster included a lot of different species, following the methods of Miyawaki Akira, with Machilus thunbergii, or tabunoki in Japanese, as the central species. This is a broadleaf evergreen, as are most of the other varieties, although the mix includes a few deciduous trees as well. The professor says that the trees are doing well, and the photograph that she took when she visited in May this year backs that up. It is now about ten years since the first trees were planted, so competition between them should now really get going, and the woodland will start evolving to its final form.

Some additional trees have also been planted. In 2017, the Imperial Palace in Kyoto donated a few hundred red pine (akamatsu) saplings, which have been planted, and are apparently doing quite well, despite the tough environment.

The site of the jinja is exposed to strong winds and salt, making it a difficult environment for trees. The kami tree and the newly-planted sacred forest will adapt to it over time, and maybe, over a couple of centuries, will become a precious ancient woodland.

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