Japanese Folklore: Sacred Trees, Shinto Shrines, and the Takasago Pine Story

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the University of Essex’s Myth Reading Group to run a session on Japanese folklore. The group is part of the university’s Centre for Myth Studies, which aims to support and promote the study of myth.

For the past two terms, the Myth Reading Group has been focusing on trees in mythology. My session was about sacred trees in Japanese culture and the story of the Takasago pines, which I previously explored in the article I wrote for the Centre for Myth Studies blog earlier this year.

Old man and woman sweeping pine needles
19th century fukusa (type of Japanese cloth) depicting the Takasago pine tree story. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The Takasago story is a popular noh drama (type of classical Japanese theatre) about two pine trees which were planted by the kami (Shinto deities) from the same seed. One stands in Takasago, and the other in Sumiyoshi. A Shinto priest visiting Takasago meets an elderly couple beneath the Takasago pine and asks them about the tree. They tell him about it being related to the one in Sumiyoshi, and that the man travels between the two places to care for the trees and be with his love. The distance between them is insignificant, because their hearts are the same. They also tell him that pine trees are special, because they are unchanging. Where other trees turn brown and shed their foliage in the autumn, pine trees remain evergreen. The priest then asks the couple for their names, and they reveal that they are really the spirits of the Takasago and Sumiyoshi pine trees temporarily in human form.

The priest meets the couple again in Sumiyoshi, and they have a feast to celebrate the relationship between humans and kami.

Aerial view of Takasago town
View of Takasago from Mount Takamikura

In Japanese culture, pine trees are revered as symbols of longevity and believed to ward off bad luck and evil spirits. You can often find them in the grounds of Shinto shrines, where visitors will tie omikuji (paper fortunes) to their branches. If the fortune is bad, the pine tree will help to negate its effects. Some larger shrines also mark their perimeters with pine trees to keep out negative energy.

Two ancient pine trees stand in the grounds of Takasago Shrine. They are nicknamed ‘Jo’ and ‘Uba’ (loosely translates as ‘old man’ and ‘old woman’), and many couples visit them to ask for blessings for a long and healthy relationship.

Image from the Centre for Myth Studies Twitter.

Some of the trees around Shinto shrines are especially prestigious. These trees are called ‘goshinboku,’ which means ‘god trees’ in English, and they are trees where kami are believed to live. You can tell a goshinboku because it will be marked by a shimenawa (rope made from woven rice straw) and shide (lightning bolt-shaped strips of paper).

As well as living in goshinboku, kami also use these trees to travel between the heavens and the earth. Some, like the pine trees in the Takasago noh play, are also reported to have been planted by kami.

Before shrines were built, places of worship were merely natural sites were it was believed kami were present. These were often groves of trees or mountains, called yorishiro. Also, the kanji for shrine 社 (jinja) and forest 杜 (mori) are very similar. It’s possible that they could have been used interchangeably or meant to mean one and the same thing.

Tree with rice straw rope and paper lightning bolts tied around it
Goshinboku in Nara

In her story ‘The Wind in the Pine Tree,’ Grace James writes in slow, dreamy prose about a pine tree planted by a kami on the beach in Takasago. It becomes home to a host of nature spirits, and also dark, mysterious creatures from Yomi which is the underworld in Japanese mythology. As the wind blows through the tree’s branches, it disperses the voices of the spirits and positive energy which draws lovers to it. The end of the story repeats this imagery, implying that it is a never-ending cycle of the tree sending out this mystical wind and drawing more positivity to it. The story is only one small part of its steadfast, evergreen life.

Having worked in Takasago, I can definitely vouch for the importance of pine trees in this city. I often found myself picking fallen needles out of my shoes, and many of the local mascots were based on pine cones. During school events, some poor teacher or student would draw the short straw of wearing the pinecone mascot costume and parading around the track in 80% humidity (thankfully never me!) It’s wonderful to see how the story of the pine trees shapes the identity of Takasago, and has made it a place of cultural and folkloric significance.

Pinecone mascot
Takasago Senior High School’s mascot

It was a joy to share this topic at the Myth Reading Group. Thank you to Pietra Palazzolo, executive of the Centre for Myth Studies, for inviting me to do the session. Also thank you to the Myth Reading Group members who attended, and for your enthusiasm during the discussion. It was lovely to meet you all, and I hope to attend more of your meetings in the future!

References & further reading

‘The Wind in the Pine Tree’ by Grace James in Japanese Fairy Tales (London: Senate, 1996)

Myths and Legends of Japan by F. Hadland Davis (New York: Dover, 1992). Also available online.

Bilingual Guide to Japan: Shinto Shrine by Kato Kenji (Tokyo: Shogakukan, 2016)

Takasago (高砂)‘ on Theatre Nohgaku Blog

The Legend of the Twin Pines, and Jo and Uba – the Happy Married Couple (尉と媼 Jō-to-Uba)‘ on Japanese Mythology & Folklore

Takasago Shrine English Guide‘ on Takasago City’s website

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Amelia Starling is a writer and folklorist. She graduated from the University of Winchester with a degree in Creative Writing, and is Senior Editor for Folklore Thursday. She loves travelling and collecting stories, and spent 15 months living in Japan doing this alongside teaching English. Amelia blogs about folklore and fairy tales at The Willow Web. You can follow her on Twitter @amyelize.

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