Forest of Japan's Holy Heartland

Two-thirds of Japan is forested, but throughout the archipelago, from the subarctic to the subtropical zones, virgin forest accounts for only 1 percent of the trees. One could say that the basis of Japan's culture and spirituality lies in these forests. The deep woods—sacred places into which men did not lightly tread—evoked reverence and stirred the imagination. As if it were embedded in our DNA, awe of sacred trees still dwells in the hearts of modern Japanese.


Many forests are rich in natural beauty, but if one is seeking supernatural spirit, Kumano tops the list. Stretching across the Kii Peninsula in Wakayama prefecture, it has peaks and valleys lined up one after another like waves billowing across the sea. This area of remote mountains was a pilgrimage route from the Heian period (794-1192) through the Edo period (1603-1867). Commoners and emperors alike came to its three great shrines. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is still used by ascetics for spiritual practice. In the Heian period, these mountains and forests were considered the Pure Land of Buddhism, therefore sacred. Today the hills are largely covered with Japanese cedar plantations, but in antiquity the glossy-leafed temperate forest was dark and deep and full of spiritual feeling. Even now mossy stone walls and ancient Jizo carvings line the old winding path. There is a feeling of awe toward something invisible, and at the same time the simple thought of one's tiny existence within it all. One could say Japan's sense of nature is completely summed up by this feeling. These forests gave birth to writers Kumagusu Minakata, Haruo Sato, and Kenji Nakagami. These are forests that stir the imagination.

100,000 Sacred Woods remain in Japan

For the Japanese, living in one of the world's most densely forested countries, the forests that always meant the most were the "sacred woods." These were revered as the dwelling places of gods and seen as bringing blessings to human beings. At the same time, the woods were feared as awesome places, which led our ancestors instinctively to worship them.

Masaaki Ueda, professor emeritus at Kyoto University, is chairman of the Shaso Gakkai, a society established for the study, protection, and development of these sacred sites. He says sacred woods were the focal point of interaction between men and gods as far back as Jomon times (10,000 to 300 BC), thus making them the primal place in Japanese culture.

Ueda says, "The Japanese viewed giant trees and pillars as yorishiro—meaning 'a place where the gods draw near.' Even as they cut down the forests to develop rice paddies or towns, there was a sense of taboo, that if you felled a tree in a sacred forest, you would be cursed. As a result they preserved woods with original flora.

Although established as forbidden forests that people were not supposed to enter, the sacred woods became the center of the village community because people could gather around them and offer performances of dance and music to the gods." Sacred woods, which preserved the original trees of the area, are biological treasure houses. And in modern times they have played an important role in environmental preservation. Akira Miyawaki, professor emeritus at Yokohama University and director of the International Ecological Research Institute, has carried out 1,500 forestation programs since 1970. He is promoting the creation of sacred forests for the 21st century under the slogan "hometown forests with hometown trees." Stressing the strength and benefits found only in woods filled with original trees, he says, "Trees that have developed in a local climate not only grow well by themselves without much tending, but also are durable and resistant to severe occurrences such as earthquakes, typhoons, and fires. The few remaining forests with native trees are the sacred forests of the nation of Japan." Sacred woods, at the root of Japanese culture, are being rediscovered in the 21st century in light of increased environmental awareness. They reflect a Japanese view of nature based on the pantheistic belief that spirits reside in stones, plants, and trees. The belief has as its premise harmony and co-existence with nature.

The Grove of Sacred Forest

The illustration is the symbol of the Shaso Gakkai, the society dedicated to sacred sites. The torii gate stands at the beginning of the entry path, which leads man into the gods' dwelling place. As you pass under the torii, you enter the precincts of the sacred wood within which stand the shrine buildings. Spreading out around you is the "forbidden forest," preserved as the realm of gods where human feet should never tread. On the mountain rising behind the forbidden forest, Japanese people felt the divine spirit and it became the object of worship.