The Storytellers

A tree may be the greatest teller of time. In its youth we see hope and in its age we see resilience, and as the years go by, it simply gains character. Here in Japan, age is beautiful, resilience is beautiful, character is beautiful, so if anything is to exemplify beauty, it would be the trees.

Some trees have been the recipients of great care and affection, so much at times that they need a bit of protection. They are almost without flaw because of the care taken to preserve them, and have at times been able to reach great sizes. These gods of the forest are usually few and far between, which makes their discovery quite a memorable experience.

The most sacred shrine in Japan, Ise-Jingu is home to some of the largest trees I’ve ever seen.

At the most visited shrine in Japan in Ise, these massive Cryptomeria are given bamboo skirts to protect their bark from loving hands.

These massive Cryptomeria are given bamboo skirts to protect their bark from loving hands.  

The bark of many trees were worn smooth and glossy by the hands of over seven million visitors annually!

The bark of many trees were worn smooth and glossy by the hands of over seven million visitors annually!

Not quite sure what happened here, but the devotion to perfection is almost seamless as this bark band aid unites these two enormous cedars.

Not quite sure what happened here, but the devotion to perfection is almost seamless as this bark band aid unites these two enormous cedars.

At Kasuga-taishi, the 8th century shrine of a thousand lanterns, in Nara, just two trees make quite a statement.

This Cryptomeria is thought to be over 1000 years old, having been included in a painting made in 1309. It measures 75 feet high and 26 feet around!

This Cryptomeria is thought to be over 1000 years old, having been included in a painting made in 1309. It measures 75 feet high and 26 feet around!

This Chinese juniper, growing from the base of the Cryptomeria, was simply built around as it grew to its great stature.

This Chinese juniper, growing from the base of the Cryptomeria, was simply built around as it grew to its great stature.

As the temple buildings have been rebuilt several times over the years, this roof was respectfully custom fit to this tree.

As the temple buildings have been rebuilt several times over the years, this roof was respectfully custom fit to this tree.

On the other hand, there have been many times I have found myself under a tree thinking, ‘Please, just put it out of its misery.’ Propped up like a tent, seemingly half dead, some poor souls are not given up on, and nursed through some very hard times. This is not a practice I am terribly familiar with as, in the States and in England, there are many concerns to human health when a tree goes into decline, and it is pruned or even removed accordingly. Also, people do not typically care for a tree that looks like gnarled umbrella after a thunderstorm. Yet, to be fair, that umbrella does tell quite a story, after the storm passes and the sun comes out. Some of the most interesting trees I’ve seen are those that have been through a struggle or two, have more than a bump or a bruise, and while not initially beautiful, can soon become so.

This tree had only one stem left, propped up with stakes, and was left to provide quite a dramatic scene at this small temple at Korakuen in Okayama.

This tree had only one stem left, propped up with stakes, and was left to provide quite a dramatic scene at this small temple at Korakuen in Okayama.

Positively ancient, this large camphor tree looked to be doing quite well, with a full crown, but a Keith Richards complexion. In all seriousness though, it could be the most incredible tree I've ever seen.

Positively ancient, this large camphor tree looked to be doing quite well, with a full crown, but a Keith Richards complexion. In all seriousness though, it could be the most incredible tree I’ve ever seen.

This thirty foot wide, cliff dwelling, pine was cut after severe damage, and continues to thrive.

This thirty foot wide, cliff dwelling, pine was cut after severe damage, and continues to thrive.

Even this art installation at the Kobe Mall reinterprets an ancient tree.

Even this art installation at the Kobe Mall uses a rather sparse tree to tell a story.

Even the remnants of great trees are preserved at times.

This cavernous log was more or less enshrined and given its own shelter.

This cavernous log was more or less enshrined and given its own shelter.

Despite the dust, the grain of the wood was remarkable, looking more like flowing magma.

Despite the dust, the grain of the wood was remarkable, looking more like flowing magma.

This beautiful life of struggle that some trees live, can tell us a great deal about what we see in the created landscape. There is a clear admiration in Japan for the journey through time, the kind of journey that sees people come and people go, buildings rise and buildings fall, and this journey has become the inspiration for gardening throughout the country. We see trees pruned into small, shapely forms resembling trees of great age or great struggle, when in fact, they have experienced neither.

This contorted pine set in the rarely seen lawn in Iseshi. Where is the mulch circle? I'm confused.

This contorted pine set in the rarely seen lawn in Iseshi. Where is the mulch circle? I’m confused.

This enormous pine on Miyajima Island is cloud pruned by one brave soul with a 50 foot ladder.

This enormous pine on Miyajima Island is cloud pruned by one brave soul with a 50 foot ladder.

It's numerous trunks look like they simply burst out of the earth.

It’s numerous trunks look like they simply burst out of the earth.

The epitome of this practice is the art of bonsai, in which a tree is both nurtured and oppressed, to create a living sculpture. These diminutive creatures can express as much character as any living thing, but only through the lens of its creator. It can be effortless to see the strong sinuous trunk of a juniper, twisted and contorted by tempest or typhoon, sitting almost out of place, in a pot on a table. Through its shape and style, a bonsai tree can tell a story much more beautiful than its own, and are perhaps the most devoted actors you will ever find.

From our great teacher Matsue-san’s bonsai nursery in Kasai, a few specimens for the stage:

A black pine shaped into a semi-cascade, a habit found on rocky outcroppings and cliffs.

A black pine shaped into a semi-cascade, a habit found on rocky outcroppings and cliffs.

This small grove creates the clearest vision of an ancient wood.

This small grove creates the clearest vision of an ancient wood.

Like Betty White, this large juniper hardly looks a day over 300 years old.

This large, serpent-like juniper hardly looks a day over 300 years old.

And lastly:

This five-needle pine at Ritsurin Garden in Takamatsu, now well over twenty feet tall and wide, was once a bonsai given to the original owner in 1833.

This five-needle pine at Ritsurin Garden in Takamatsu, now well over twenty feet tall and wide, was once a bonsai given to the original owner in 1833. It’s amazing the difference a little leg room makes.

 

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