Japanese Folklore: Sacred Trees and the Takasago Pines

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 in the public domain – source

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!

Sources

Storytelling: Test Valley Festival June 2016

Test Valley Festival

Live in England (preferably Hampshire!) and want to hear some fairy tales?

On Sunday 12th June, along with my friend and fellow storyteller Claire Kerry, I am are going to be storytelling at Test Valley Garden & Literary Festival! We’re doing short performances of lesser-known fairy tales, including ‘White Bear King Valemon,’ ‘Bremen Town Musicians,’ and ‘Snow White Fire Red.’

Test Valley Festival storytelling

We’re so excited and honoured to be a part of this new event. Celebrating nature and literature in one festival, what could be better?! We’re also looking forward to meeting new people and having fun doing what we love. There are lots of other great activities too, including craft workshops, live music, gardening talks and demonstrations, art displays, and poetry readings.

For more information and tickets, please visit the Test Valley Festival website.

 

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Update: Event Recap

Despite the rain, the festival was a great success and we had many visitors to our little story gazebo! If anything, the weather only added to the charm of the day. Nothing like a great British summertime festival with a good helping of mud and wellies! Thank you to everyone who attended and supported the event. Here are some photos of Claire & I and our fairy tale antics.

 

 

Fairy Tales: Fly Away Home & Meeting Marina Warner

Last week, I travelled to the University of Chichester for a talk and book signing with Marina Warner, hosted by the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy. When I saw this event being advertised I knew I had to go, because Marina Warner. Enough said.

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Instead of reading from her new short story collection, Fly Away Home, Marina read a couple of off-cuts which didn’t make it into the final book. Both of these were inspired by some of Kiki Smith’s sculptures, which were themselves inspired by stories. I love how creativity can go on like this, in a chain of inspiration, from one art form to another.

After the readings, there was a short discussion and Q&A session. Marina spoke about how she believes fairy tales and folktales don’t age because they contain artificial structures. Almost like a grid, these tales have a feeling of a mythical past which can be reworked. So long as that feeling remains in some way, the tales live. They can be altered using their motifs or emotional content, and these alterations create new retellings. There is no progress as such, just constant change.

Fairy tales and folk tales are also timeless because they contain perpetually relevant topics, for example love, death, war, relationships, and nature. These will always be important, and so it’s always worthwhile to tell stories about them them.

From what I’ve read so far, many of the stories in Fly Away Home feature characters who undergo change. Transformation is threatening for some people, but it’s impossible to go back in time. As Marina herself said, nostalgia always has to be defeated in order to move on.

Image from Salt Publishing.

Marina also discussed the notion of fairy tales and myths as a way of exploring identity. Storytelling is a cultural activity, and it’s crucial to remember this now with so many people on the move and refugees being driven away from their home countries. We need to remember that they need space for their own stories and heritage in the new places they inhabit. Culture is an exchange, and stories are a driving force behind this.

As well as getting a signed copy of Fly Away Home, I also got my much-loved copy of Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale signed. This is a useful and insightful little book, and I highly recommend it to fairy tale fans. It’s concise enough to be a great starting point, and in-depth enough to supplement existing knowledge.

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Marina was very friendly, and the whole conference was was a great experience. Not only is it wonderful to meet writers in person to hear them read from and discuss their work, it’s also wonderful to attend events like this and mingle with like-minded people. Thank you to the Sussex Centre for hosting this event, and to Marina for being a constant source of inspiration.

Storytelling: Mannington Hall August 2015

On the August 16th, I went to Mannington Hall in Norfolk for their fairy tales and fables day. As part of this event, I did some storytelling for families and also gave a talk about the history and context of fairy tales for adults. All in all, it was a wonderful day and I am so grateful I was given the opportunity to take part. Mannington is a beautiful, historic estate, with a little garden by a stream which was a perfect location to tell stories in the sun.

Mannington Hall, Norfolk
Mannington Hall. Image my own.

I told three of my favourite stories: Norwegian fairy tale ‘White Bear King Valemon,’ Giambattista Basile’s ‘Petrosinella,’ and a Baba Yaga story based on the one in Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales. All three were very well-received; I don’t think many people had heard them before, which made me glad I chose them. My favourite moment was after telling ‘White Bear King Valemon,’ when one family went rushing out to the front of the house to look under the bridge for the troll-hag!

Amelia Starling storytelling
Storytelling in the garden. Image my own, taken by my friend.

Inside the hall, Lady Walpole and I put together a display of fairy tale books from both of our collections. They received a lot of attention, especially after I gave the talk. It was lovely to see people engaging with them and discovering new stories. One sweet woman also came up and told me that I had inspired her to tell more fairy tales to her grandchildren, and to be more creative with them. I smiled and thanked her, and inside I was melting with joy. Such a small thing, to tell a story. But such a big difference it can make to someone’s life. I made up my mind then and there to do more events like this.

Mannington Hall fairy tales
Display of fairy tales books from my own and Lady Walpole’s collection. Image my own.

In the room next to our display there was a fabulous children’s book stall run by Norfolk Children’s Book Centre, selling a selection of children’s and YA fantasy literature. Outside in the gardens, a hidden trail of adorable metal fairies made by the talented Baron Tremain at Wolterton Forge led visitors on a treasure hunt.

Mannington Hall fairy tales
Fairy trail. Image my own.

Local hospices came and set up stalls in the gardens, too. In total, over £300 was raised to support them. Fairy tales and helping charity – what a great combination! Thank you to Lord & Lady Walpole for organising and hosting this event, and to everyone who came and generously supported it.