Spend a while walking the streets of any Japanese city and you are bound to notice it: Here and there among the concrete towers, shops and bustling streets, you’ll find clusters of trees. In some places, five or 10 stately Japanese cedars provide a patch of welcome shade. In others a full-fledged urban jungle hums, in season, with cicadas, honeybees and songbirds. You might even spot a few trees belted with ropes of twisted straw and hung with white paper ornaments.
Chances are, straw ropes or not, you’ve stumbled on a chinjū no mori (sacred grove) around a Shinto shrine.
In Japan’s indigenous Shinto spirituality, certain large old trees are objects of worship. These are customarily protected from felling, pruning or other human interference. For that reason, even as development has stripped more and more greenery from Japanese cities over the past century, some of these sacred groves have survived. Today, many of the nation’s most important old trees are found in these urban oases.
And that, says Nara arborist Jin Kobayashi, is exactly what puts them at extreme risk of meeting a sudden and fiery death.
“Lightning is very common in Japan. In many neighborhoods, the tallest things around are the trees at shrines and in sacred groves. I’ve seen many trees burned by lightning,” says Kobayashi, who runs Arbor Japan, a small tree-care company in the shrine-packed ancient Imperial capital. He says he has a plan for protecting these national treasures.
As he explains the details of that plan, Kobayashi strolls the grounds of Nara’s Tsuhiko Shrine, home to one of his favorite trees. The modest wooden shrine building draws none of the crowds common at Nara’s more famous Todaiji Temple, where tourists pass through a park teeming with photo-op-friendly sacred deer as they flock to see a 15-meter-tall statue of the Buddha. Here, the only sound is of chirping birds.
Kobayashi heads down a narrow path leading to a small ravine behind the shrine. Suddenly, a truly stunning kusu (camphor tree) pops into view. The primeval-looking specimen is twice the height of the Todaiji Buddha, with a lichen- and moss-encrusted trunk that’s almost 13 meters around at the base. According to groundskeeper Yoshiharu Kimura, that camphor tree has stood here for at least 1,000 years — and perhaps, he says, it was even already alive when the city became Japan’s capital in 709.
Kobayashi pats the trunk gently. At 39, he himself is as straight-backed and solid as an ancient tree.
“I want to attach a lightning rod to the top of trees like this,” he explains.
That is common practice in Europe and the United States. In Japan, however, Kobayashi faces two obstacles. One is that many important trees are designated as natural monuments, so working on them requires permission from bureaucracy-bound government offices. The second problem is that domestic lightning-protection companies don’t offer systems tailored to trees (as opposed to buildings) — because up till now there has been little demand for them. Kobayashi is tackling both problems.
He admits, however, that he did not always care about trees. Raised in a garden-less apartment in Osaka, he says he studied landscaping at college mainly because he wanted to become a skilled laborer of some sort. It was only after he actually began working as a gardener that he noticed the preponderance of big old trees at shrines.
Large, well-off shrines hire so-called tree doctors to look after their woodlands. But small neighborhood shrines often don’t have the money for such specialists.
“I wondered who was caring for all these trees,” Kobayashi says. “It turned out that, in many cases, no one was — and I saw a business opportunity.”
Following that realization, Kobayashi traveled to England to study arboriculture, learning from masters of the craft at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew in west London, and from those at renowned Westonbirt, the National Arboretum near the historic market town of Tetbury in Gloucestershire, southwest England. Back in Japan, he began working at shrines and temples. One of his clients is Nara’s famous Kasuga Grand Shrine.
That ancient complex of buildings is located on nearly 10 hectares of forested hillside and is home to many historic trees. When asked to name a few, groundskeeper Masahito Nakamura, 47, pulls out a thick book containing survey data for the property and begins flipping through it.
“There’s this crabapple tree dating back to the end of the Heian Period (794-1185) that was said to have been planted by an emperor; the main shrine sugi (Japanese cedar) that shows up in an 800-year-old drawing; this laurel with seven different parasitic trees growing out of it … once I get started naming them there’s really no end!” says Nakamura, who is dressed in a traditional white jacket tucked into a pair of brilliant purple trousers.
“The trees have spirits. When we cut them, we say a prayer. Although the god of this shrine dwells inside a building, some trees are considered to be places that gods dwell in or visit, too. Our policy is to preserve the big ones to the greatest extent possible,” he explains.
Nakamura has been working at Kasuga Shrine for 25 years. During that period, one tree burned down after being struck by lightning. He estimates that dozens more — perhaps as many as 100 — were also scarred by bolts from the sky.
“When lightning strikes a tree, it forces its way downwards through the sap. The sap instantly turns to steam and that can cause an explosion. Lightning can also run down the wet outer surface of a tree and cause damage,” explains Masaru Sakai, general manager of Hikari Sangyo, a lightning-protection company in Tochigi Prefecture that sometimes works on trees.
Sakai says lightning is common throughout Japan, but especially so in the Kanto region, which includes Tochigi as well as Tokyo. In that part of central Honshu, damp air from the Pacific Ocean blows over the hot plains during the summer and causes thunderstorms to develop. Sakai says tall trees are frequently victims of these storms.
Nakamura views that as a fact of life. “There’s really nothing we can do about it,” he says.
Kobayashi disagrees. In fact, the big Japanese cedar outside Kasuga’s main shrine building already has a lightning rod attached to it. According to Nakamura it was installed about 40 years ago during a national spate of public works aimed at protecting Japan’s cultural heritage from disasters. The rod pokes antler-like from the upper part of the tree, and is held in place by several metal bands encircling the trunk. This, Kobayashi says, is a problem.
“The bands are too tight. As the tree grows, the part above and below the band swells and the narrow part with the band becomes a weak point where the tree can break,” he says. A better option, he believes, is to attach a light, custom-designed metal network to the tree’s main branches using special bolts. He learned about one such system invented by Ben Fuest, owner of Arborbolt Systems, a lightning-protection company in England, and says it causes less harm than band-type systems originally designed for inanimate structures.
Kobayashi has approached several Japanese lightning-protection companies about developing a similar system (Hikari Sangyo is one of them). He says some responded positively but want a certain number of orders before they will make the investment. So Kobayashi is preparing to launch a nationwide information campaign aimed at local government offices that oversee important trees. He hopes this will generate enough orders to get the project rolling.
“Lightning protection is easy to understand. And actually, I hope to use it as a foot in the door to start providing these trees with more overall care,” he says.
As he explains the plans, his voice is so full of excitement it’s hard to believe he was raised in Osaka’s concrete jungle rather than amid real, verdant countryside. He laughs at the disconnect.
“I even think it’s weird myself sometimes,” he says. “But this is my life work.”