The article about sacred forests in the August 29th issue of Jinja Shinpō reported on the ongoing activities of a group that is investigating the sacred forests in the area covered by the ancient Musashi province. That area covers much of Tokyo and Saitama prefectures, and a bit of Kanagawa — I live in what was Musashi. Although it covers a lot of extremely urban areas, the northern mountains suffer from depopulation, so it is quite a diverse area.
The group is made up of volunteers, and the people who participate vary from one occasion to another. There are always at least a couple of experts, and between half-a-dozen and a dozen participants in total each time. They visit a number of jinja over the course of a day, and record the details of each jinja, including the kami it enshrines, as well as obvious things such as its name and address. The main part of the study, however, is a map of the trees on the site, which records how large and what type they are. Over the last six years, the group has been out 46 times, and visited 155 jinja.
The author of the article analysed the surveys by dividing the sacred forests into five ranks.
A: There is a proper sacred forest, and it looks as though it could sustain itself naturally. There are probably areas that people are not allowed to enter.
B: There is a proper sacred forest, but it probably could not sustain itself naturally.
C: There are a good number of trees, but no proper sacred forest.
D: There are just a few trees near the sanctuaries or scattered around the precincts.
E: There are hardly any trees in the precincts, no more than one or two.
The results of the analysis were that 20% were A rank, 18% were B rank, 27% were C rank, 29% were D rank, and 6% were E rank. This, in part, reflects the fact that a lot of the group’s activities have taken place in the more rural parts of Musashi province; more than a third of the visits were in rural or suburban parts of Saitama or Kanagawa. It is not impossible to have an A rank sacred forest within urban Tokyo (Meiji Jingū does), but it is much easier to do so in the countryside.
The very small number of E rank jinja is notable. The author suggests that this reflects the general feeling that a jinja should have a sacred forest, so the people managing a jinja make a real effort to get at least to rank D. That is entirely plausible, but it would be nice to get some direct evidence by asking the people involved.
This is a very interesting set of results, and I hope that they continue gathering data, and that the idea spreads to more areas. I do wonder whether my area has already been done; I think my local jinja, Shirahata Hachiman Daijin, would be B rank, as would the next closest two. Working out a bit further, though, I think the next one is E rank. In any case, I hope that these results really are evidence that sacred forests will survive even in urban areas.