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The Iconic Trees of Japan

The special meaning of trees in Japanese culture

As I’ve mentioned before, many plants and flowers of Japan have special meanings which symbolize power, health, longevity, loyalty and so on. Graphic images of plants are even used for creating family crests known as kamon. Interestingly, not only the images, but the trees themselves also contain special meanings.

The word ‘matsuri’ meaning a holiday comes from the word ‘matsu’, or pine tree in Japanese. There is no need to explain the association of a holiday with that evergreen tree as it’s quite common with some western traditions such as decorating Christmas trees and the more ancient worship of evergreen trees all over the world. In Japan, matsu is a symbol of courage, endurance and longevity. Pine trees seem to grow anywhere -- even on the rocky islands of Matsushima!

A traditional decoration for the New Year in Japan is ‘kadomatsu’, which contains the branches of matsu (a pine tree) and take (bamboo) - the symbol of eternal youth and strength. Bamboo groves are very beautiful and some of them are quite famous, such as Arashiyama Bamboo Forest in Kyoto and the Kairakuen bamboo grove.

Another evergreen tree being worshiped in Japan is cedar, or sugi. Those huge trees can often be found in Shinto shrines, with sugi lining the ways to some important places -- for instance, the Zuihoden Mausoleum of Date Masamune in Sendai and the grave of Tokugawa Ieyasu in Nikko. Sugi is a symbol of power and longevity that now refers more to the memory of once powerful samurai clans.

Sakura is probably one of the most famous and favorite trees of Japan and is widely recognized as a symbol of the Japanese spirit. However, autumn is celebrated in Japan as much as spring and during those months come momiji, or Japanese maple and uchou, commonly known as the ginkgo tree. The season of red leaves is called koyo in Japanese and those red colors are usually courtesy of momiji. The golden-yellow hues of uchou are generally seen after the reds of momiji. Of course, that feast of colors is easy to notice in Japan, with their special aesthetics and love for natural beauty.

All the trees mentioned above can be seen on kamons. At Suwa Taisha in Nagano Prefecture I noticed images of kaji, or a mulberry tree, which symbolizes health and prudence.