Sakaki: Sacred Tree of Shinto
In the Shinto religion of Japan, nature is sacred. To be in contact with nature is to be close to the gods, and natural objects are worshipped as sacred spirits, or kami. Especially sacred is the sakaki (Cleyera japonica), an evergreen tree found in Japanese mythology, literature, and sacred rituals.
Cleyera japonica is a low-spreading, medium-sized evergreen tree of the tea family (Theaceae), which also includes tea and camellia. It has relatively smooth bark and alternate leaves, which are a lustrous deep green on top and pale yellowish-green underneath. In spring, sakaki produces fragrant, drooping creamy-white flowers, followed by dark red berries. The tree, which grows in warm areas of Japan, Korea, and mainland China, may reach a height of about ten meters and is one of the common trees in the second layer of the evergreen oak forests. The wood is used for building, utensils, combs, turneries, and fuel.
The Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) is a text valued in the Shinto religion and thought to date back to the eighth century. According to this text and other references for Japanese mythology, the sakaki played a significant role in the Japanese creation story, as follows. The divine couple, Izanagi and Isanami, gave birth to the Japanese islands, and their children became the deities of the various Japanese clans. Their daughter, Amaterasu Omikami ("Great Divinity Illuminating Heaven"), born from the left eye of her father, became the celestial sun goddess from whom the Japanese imperial family claims descent. Her brother Susanoo, the storm god, was sent to rule the sea. Before going, Susanoo destroyed the rice fields, defiled his sister's dwelling, and threw a flayed horse through her weaving hall. Indignant, Amaterasu withdrew to a rock cave and fastened the rock door, plunging the world into darkness. Eight hundred other gods conferred on how to lure the sun goddess out and thereby restore the cycle of night and day. Gods dug up a 500-branched sakaki tree from the heavenly Mount Kaga; on its upper branches they hung an eight-foot string of 500 jewels, on its middle branches an eight-foot long mirror, and on its lower branches were placed white and blue offerings. Then came Amenouzume, a celestial goddess, using club moss as a sash, branches from the sakaki as a headdress, and leaves of bamboo grass as a posy. She performed a provocative dance, which so delighted the assembled gods that they roared with laughter. Amaterasu, curious how the gods could be so merry when the world was plunged in darkness and told that outside the cave there was a goddess more illustrious than she, peeked out of the cave and saw her reflection in the mirror hanging from the sakaki. Entranced by the sight, she was drawn out of the cave. The gods then quickly threw a shimenawa, or sacred rope of rice straw, before the rock door to prevent her return to hiding. Thus, light was restored to both the heavens and the earth.
Amaterasu's chief place of worship is the Grand Shrine of Ise, the foremost Shinto shrine in Japan. She is manifested there in a mirror that is one of the three Imperial Treasures of Japan. The sakaki is represented by the shinno-mihashira, or sacred central post, over and around which the wooden shrine is built. Also, in imitation of the myth, mirrors are hung in sakaki trees at other Shinto shrines.
The sakaki tree also plays an important role in Japanese Shinto literature and theater. In Den'en no Yuutsu, the narrator and his wife visit a countryside village. The major center of interest for the narrator is the back garden, which is surrounded by a hedge of sacred sakaki trees. The tree traditionally plays an important role in the Shinto ritual by drawing local spirits into a sacred compound. The compound is usually bare except for a single sakaki tree, through which the priest would invite the spirit to enter the hallowed ground. With respect to the narrator of the story, the sakaki helps create a barrier to protect the garden in which the narrator explores his own state of mind.
The sakaki is also present in religious verse. Verse at the Imashinmei shrine reads, "Many times rime-laden, / Leaves of the sakaki tree bloom forth: / Crystal frost flowers." Similarly, the sakaki is the subject of a kagura uta, or poem used in Shinto religious ceremonies: "Frost may cover them many times, / Yet they do not wither, / Sakaki leaves. / Just so fresh and flourishing is she, / Priestess of the god." The evergreen sakaki represents constancy or permanence and expresses the eternal presence and power of the goddess of the shrine.
As for theater, along the back wall of a noh theater stage the only decoration is the painting of a twisted pine, the yogomatsu or "shadow-welcoming pine." In ancient times, the gods were thought to live in the leaves of such mighty trees. From the tree, the divine spirit may be transferred to a twig of the sakaki tree. Later, the deities "moved" into the shrines, but even now, once a year, they are escorted in a solemn procession from the shrine back to the sacred trees on which they had descended from heaven.
In Shinto ceremonies holy streamers called gohei are hung on holy straw ropes or branches of the holy sakaki tree to invoke the presence of the kami. Gohei are also know as Oho-nusa or "great offerings" and are still in use on important occasions. The Oho-nusa consist of two wands placed side by side, from the ends of which hang hemp fiber (Cannabis sativa) and several strips of paper. One of the wands is made of wood from sakaki, Cleyera japonica. The other is made from a bamboo stem. Their use is connected with an old Japanese rule of etiquette that presents to a superior should be delivered attached to a branch of a tree to mark the respectful aloofness of the giver from the receiver.
A tiny symbol of devotion seen scattered all over the Izumo fields is the nobori, or prayer banner. Leaves of the sacred sakaki are fastened to the top. Each typifies the granting of a prayer. The nobori are especially common near Shinto temples. At the great temple of Izumo there are said to be countless banners, making a white line around the base of the great buildings.
From mythology to literature to both ancient and modern ceremony, the sakaki tree claims a unique place in the Shinto religion and culture of Japan.
Gardening World Cup Japan 2010