Scattered across the landscape of Japan are Shinto shrines of various shapes and sizes.  In many of the larger shrines you’ll find one or more especially old trees known as Goshinboku which means “sacred tree.”

Sacred trees are usually massive in size and centuries old with some reportedly over 1,000 years old.  You can usually tell them from the shimenawa wrapped around their trunks. A shimenawa is an extremely thick rope which encloses something holy and wards off evil from outside.

These age-old trees are beautiful specimens of nature’s strength and longevity and add an extra level of serenity to their shrines.  However, in the past month someone or some group has been killing off these sacred trees of shrines in 5 separate prefectures in Japan’s mid-west.

The So-Kawachi Daimei Shrine in Ehime Prefecture sits in the tiny remote village of Namegawa nestled in the mountainous outskirts of Toon (T-OH-N) city.  It is home to a pair of sacred hinoki (Japanese cypress) trees each over 500 years old.

In September 2012, strange holes were found around the base of their trunks and substantial withering was taking place throughout the trees. A subsequent police investigation found traces of chemical used an “arboricide” or tree poison.

After long consideration the shrine determined that the considerably weakened trees posed a risk of collapse and needed to be cut down on 26 December.

The day before, the head priest and townspeople held a ritual to pray for the safe removal of the trees.  The priest gave a Shinto prayer known as a norito to thank the trees for their protection of the shrine from the elements for so many years.

“For many years these trees and I have watched over this shrine. With the trees gone, there is only emptiness” said the head priest in a eulogy fused with frustration over someone deliberately killing these landmarks of his shrine.

He then faced the trees one last time and gave an offering of rice and salt so that their souls may be calmed.  The following day, after half a millennium, the two trees came down.

As a result of this incident the Japanese Forestry Agency conducted an emergency survey for sacred trees that died by human hands.  What they found was a string of sacred tree poisonings across several prefectures west of Aichi.

Kochi Prefecture was hit the hardest with seven sacred trees killed off at shrines located in sparsely populated areas. Tokushima saw three trees die and Wakayama and Aichi prefectures each had one death.  Including the twin trees in Ehime Prefecture, the toll comes to 14.

In each case, holes were drilled into the trunks at a depth of about 4cm and a tree killing chemical was injected.  The chemical could then travel up the trees’ xylem which act like veins and delivers the poison throughout the plant.

Authorities speculate that the trees were poisoned and killed in an effort to get their “sacred” lumber that would fetch an extremely high price as a building material.

The Forestry Agency sent out warnings to all local law enforcement in an effort to better coordinate and track the tree killer or killers.

Considering the punishment for stealing ten yen from a temple, there’s likely a hefty punishment for destroying ancient holy trees at shrines in Japan. Even if whoever killed the trees isn’t caught, they’re definitely racking up bachiatari (bad karma) by the truck load.

Source: NHK, 47 News via My Game News Flash (Japanese)
Image: Chris Gladis – Wikipedia

Site of the twin sacred tree victims in Ehime Prefecture.