Sunday, November 13, 2011

Travel in Shimane, Japan: The God Tree Sutaji(スタジイ)

The God Tree

 When one thinks of Japan, one of the first images to come to mind is of Japanese temples and shrines. These are often set in the mountains and surrounded by beautiful trees. Many of the older, larger trees in and around shrines are venerated as god trees. There is not a god living inside the tree. The tree itself is a god. They are marked by ceremonial ropes and regularly prayed to. The trees one most often sees are cedars. They grow tall, straight and true as an arrow. They stand as majestic sentinels surrounding the shrines.

The god tree Sutaji near Matsue however, is something all together different.

From the rather large parking area, the tree is not visible, but it overlooks a group of rice fields. In the distance, you can see a distinctive Torii gate set against a mountain which marks the entrance to a shrine. Everything is bright and sunny. You follow a small path between the rice fields and ascend a short flight of stairs. After passing through the Torii gate however, you are plunged into darkness. The air is cool and damp, the bright sun a fading memory. There is a clearing with woods in the background beyond. You turn and see the tree. It is quite impressive. The tree’s “trunk” base is 3 meters(10 feet)high and 11.4 meters(37 feet) wide and is surrounded by a wooden fence. There are 9 branch stems, one of which has long since died. The tree is some 20 meters (65 feet) high. Sutaji does not grow up so much as out. Its most impressive feature is its impossibly thick and heavy branches, each of which would make a respectable tree. They are so big in fact that many of them are supported by wooden beams. These immense branches span out in all directions like the tentacles of some uprooted monster. You soon realize the tree is all around you. Its entire surface is twisted and knarled. This is no cedar. Actually there is no convenient English name for what kind of tree it is. In Japanese it is a “shee” tree. The dictionary calls it a Pasania and is part of the beech family. It is sometimes referred to as a “stone oak” and has an acorn-like nut, but is actually an evergreen. It is approximately 300 years old, which is relatively young compared to other famous trees in Japan Other large Sutaji like trees peer at you from the surrounding woods.

 In the crook of one of the large branches you see a strange shape of woven reeds. This is the head of the serpent. There are ceremonial papers hanging that resemble teeth. There is a long woven rope that is wrapped around the base of the tree. Near the tree is a very small shrine called Shitabi Jinja. Every year on November 9th there is a harvest festival at the shrine. It is a time to give thanks to Sutaji for the harvest and pray for the following year. The villagers weave a 45 meter (147 feet) long snake rope from straw reeds and wrap it around the base. The decaying corpses of previous year’s snakes can be seen at the foot of the tree. I’m not exactly sure about the history or meaning behind the serpent, but it is probably associated with the story of Yamata no Orochi. This is one of the great stories of Japanese mythology. The hot headed god-hero Susanoo is expelled from heaven and lands in the province of Izumo. Izumo city is not far from Matsue and Izumo was the old name of the kingdom of this area. Susano is enshrined at Kumano Taisha, not far from Sutaji and is said to be the spot where Susano landed. In the story, Susano fights and defeats a huge eight-headed dragon (Orochi). The story is reminiscent of the battle between Hercules and the hydra. With its unusual shape, Sutaji conjures up images of the Orochi with 8 thick, snake like appendages coming out of one central base.

When visiting Sutaji or other great trees, it begs a chicken or the egg type question; which came first, the tree or the shrine. Ideally, one assumes that a presence was felt at the tree, it was somehow special and a shrine was built close by. One the other hand, it probably wouldn’t have been left alone to grow so big if it hadn’t been growing on holy ground in the first place. In the city, or going by the fields on a train, if you see a particularly large tree, you can bet it’s on the grounds of a shrine or temple.

I’m not an overly superstitious person and am a lover of nature and great trees, but there is something not quite right about the place. In my minds eye, Sutaji is not a benevolent god and I jokingly wonder if it is worshipped out of respect or fear. I’m sure that Sutaji is beloved by the local people; a matter of local pride. But for me, it’s just a little bit creepy, which makes it all the more interesting. I’d love to visit again.

Getting there

Matsue city is about 45 minutes west of yonago on the eastern side of Shimane prefecture. Shitabi Jinja and Sutaji are about 30 min. south of Matsue, off of route 432, in Yakumo-mura village. The parking lot opposite the shrine was built with busses in mind, so there may be bus service from Matsue station. It would make an interesting day trip if you were staying in Matsue; worth taking a look.

Japanese Links

Shimane Prefecture- Sutaji Sutaji

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