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Sacred Tree

A few weeks ago, I visited Suwa Jinja in Kitakami, Iwatë Prefecture. (No English on their homepage.) This is a nice example of a fairly large jinja of significant local importance, but that people outside the area would not normally have heard of. The main jinja has six kami, and there are five subsidiary jinja, two of which share a building, but I am writing this article because it has a very impressive sacred tree.

This tree is a sawara (Google says Scomberomorus niphonius  — no, wait, that’s a fish. Chamaecyparis pisifera, also known as sawara cypress), and is thought to be about five centuries old. The wonderful hollow in the trunk is said to be due to a lightning strike.

The shimënawa around the trunk is a standard feature of sacred trees, but the gohei is less common. In this sort of situation, a gohei would naturally be interpreted as a vessel for a kami, and that is presumably the kami of the tree. Indeed, there is a little sign next to the tree saying “Thank you for coming to pay your respects. Please do not throw coin offerings at the sacred tree”.

The tree is obviously an object of veneration, and the way it is presented strongly implies the presence of kami within it. On the other hand, the main matsuri are for the kami enshrined in the sanctuaries, not for the tree. This sort of situation makes it very hard to accurately and simply describe the place of nature veneration within Shinto. On the one hand, it is definitely wrong to describe Shinto as a nature religion that venerates trees and rocks. That takes something that is peripheral in practice and makes it sound central. On the other hand, Shinto practitioners do venerate trees and rocks at jinja, and that is not a weird, fringe practice. Many jinja, like this one, have to put up signs and barriers to protect their sacred trees and rocks from over-veneration. (That’s like over-tourism, and equally bad for the object.)

Theoretical concerns aside, you can see why people venerate this tree.

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1 thought on “Sacred Tree”

  1. There is an enormous Nootka cypress in the wooded park near me that was struck by lightning six years ago, it has a beautiful hollow within it like this tree. Many people will leave fallen twigs woven into wreaths inside the hollow of the tree, especially in fall.

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