神 Is Not God, 鎮守の杜 Is (Not) Nature?

Another intellectually engaging day has passed! It was very long (spent over 12 hours away from our Airbnb), but the experience was unforgettable and without a doubt worth it.

Japanese people are fluid with religion (is there a Japanese sense of religion?). Selinger 先生の友だちは Notoさんです。She was so nice and informative! She presented on Shinto and introduced us to important aspects of Meiji Shrine. We learned that it is normalized for Japanese people (in general) to follow multiple religions. Noto-san gave an example that it’s not unusual for someone here to go to a Shinto Shrine as a newborn, have a wedding at a Christian church, celebrate Christmas, visit family graves at “Obon” Buddhism festival, and hold their funeral at a Buddhist temple. I found it interesting that in one of the statistic tables she showed us Shinto was listed as a religious organization. The reading we had to do for today made several attempts to define Shinto, but I don’t think it’s too important to try to define what exactly Shinto is because it doesn’t seem productive to waffle around (lol because I am a person who waffles around too much). Perhaps this is because I am neither a scholar in religion nor have any interest in being one… I want to just let it exist and take it in respectfully (is this too passive though?). She talked about kami (神) and emphasized its importance as god-like but not the Western idea of a god. People can be 神 (e.g. Selinger 先生, Christmas 先生, and Aridome 先生). There was a quote that explained 神 as “possessing the quality of excellence and virtue.” In discussion later we talked about the important points of who is defining 神 and what their motivation is. Not really sure about the answer to the first question, but perhaps their motivation is to separate it from foreign ideas and make something uniquely Japanese. Anyway, I wanted to also point out that Noto-san taught us the importance of purifying yourself before visiting 神. Again, the notion of purity in Japan returns! We got to experience an amazing Shinto ceremony (lol we got our prayer read! unfortunately I only heard the アジアけんきゅう line because of my under-developed 日本語 skills). There was an offering in the form of song and dance, which was great to watch. I was self-conscious as to what times we had to bow and what times we could watch, so I hope following along what the person beside me was doing went okay. At the end, we each got a little gift and a sip of さけ. I was not expecting that… ahhh お酒が好きじゃないですよ (not just さけ specifically)… although, I will say it was warm and not a horribly unpleasant experience… anyway, I asked what the point of it was and Noto-san said it basically purifies the body. The さけ we drank was an offering to the 神 and then given to us to drink.

Can a human-constructed forest left “untouched” be classified as natural? According to the Kanji, no. The forest surrounding Meiji Shrine is referred to as 鎮守の杜 (chinju no mori), which is different from the kanji used for similar sacred forests (鎮守の森, also chinju no mori). This is because 鎮守の杜 is “man-made,” as the area it resides in was once a wasteland then through the planting of trees by humans, made to be a forest. The path in which humans take in the forest is highly regulated and protected so that it can be, for the most part, untouched by humans. Yay for the reoccurrence of the Japanese importance of purity! Tanaka-san, a highly knowledge and approachable man who helps maintain 鎮守の杜, answered our questions while showing us around (shoutout to Julian since he asked great questions). We entered quite a few prohibited-to-the-public areas, which made us feel super special and grateful to Tanaka-san (and Noto-san for arranging this!). Wow, the trees were just so impressive and surreal. I honestly thought the greenery should be photographed as an Apple desktop wallpaper. きれいな杜。I can’t wait to see Anna-san pictures!

I’m trying to improve my Japanese, so I will try to jot down new things I’ve learnt. Here are some words I have learned so far: しけ (humid), ながでずがり (the flowing style that the buildings in Meiji had), しつも (question), いこ (casual form of “let’s go”), and 食べほうだい (all you can eat). I’ve definitely become more interested in and motivated to learn the Japanese language since arriving in Japan. I can see myself taking classes/studying after Bowdoin, and I know this won’t be my last time here.

This isn’t totally related to the theme of this post, but we went to a Hawaiian-themed Korean barbecue place for dinner. I have to say that it was a weird experience because I did not feel like I was in Japan; at times I actually forgot that I should be practicing my Japanese. During this trip, I have been very aware that I’m in Japan, so attempting Japanese seemed like what I should be doing, but at this restaurant speaking English seemed more like what I should be doing. (I wish I could comment about cultural appropriation, but I don’t feel like I can express my thoughts intelligently or effectively. And despite the two semesters of anthropology courses I’ve taken, I just don’t think I have enough background to really define cultural appropriation or speak on behalf of Hawaiian culture. I will just say that the restaurant being Hawaiian-themed was not the most comfortable experience).

Mistaking the Mori for the Ki

As promised, here’s a more or less exact transcription of my notes from my discussion (read as: barrage of questions) with Tanaka-san and also just general observation. In other words, mistaking the forest for the trees:

  1. Were animal species also brought to Meiji Shrine just as the trees were, or did these communities colonize and develop on their own?
    • Mostly native species; predominantly insects, birds, and arachnids.
    • Microorganisms at the foot of trees, but few mammals
    • Species surveyed every 50 years
  2. What kinds of microhabitats and microecosystems make up the larger forest ecosystem?
    • Forest
    • Open fields
    • Streams
    • Ponds
  3. Is the Meiji Shrine Forest community/ecosystem relatively isolated or does emigration and immigration occur? Are there any edge effects, considering the forest is something of an “island” in the middle of urban Tokyo?
    • Only mammals (and presumably birds) really travel in and out of the forest
    • Tannuki (raccoons) and masked palm civet can survive in urban setting
    • Genetic isolation? Genetic diversity?
  4. How did the firebombings of Tokyo during WWII impact the forest? Did it burn down at all?
    • Forest did not burn down at all, due to the high humidity and water content (whereas Meiji Shrine burned)
  5. What kind of trophic structure and complexity does the forest support? Are there many organisms occupying niches of the same trophic level or do you get upper trophic levels?
    • Falcons and snakes seem to occupy the upper trophic levels and consume pigeons, field mice, and wild ducks
    • Falcons considered an umbrella species
    • No large carnivorous mammals (raccoons, for instance, omnivorous)
    • Visited falcon nest (おおたかのす; ootaka no su)
  6. Given that the forest is relatively isolated and there is little migration between the forest and either urban or other ecosystems, do you think there could be evolution or speciation? Even on a local scale?
    • To Tanaka-san’s knowledge, there hasn’t been any speciation (note to self: probably because 100 years is quite short in evolutionary time), but he thinks that my intuition on that matter would be correct (i.e. relatively isolation and low external gene flow could lead to diversification and/or speciation with substantial time)
    • Perhaps localized genetic diversity/differentiation compared to nearby or similar Japan forest ecosystems?

Some general notes:

  • Gyoen Garden:
    • 150 species of iris; maintained original lines (no successful cross-pollination; picked up any fallen bulbs)
    • Iris = はなしょうぶ (hanashoubu)
  • Insects Taxa:
    • Coleoptera (beetles)
    • Water striders
    • Lepidoptera
    • Hymenoptera (specifically ants; bees and wasps?)
  • Pond ==> stagnant?
    • No fish, cloudy, still water
    • Water striders and water lilies ==> tolerant species?
    • Due to lotic water that isn’t interfered with by humans?
  • Birds:
    • Crows, pigeons, ducks, falcons…others?
  • Deciduous oak vs evergreen oak (かしkashi)
    • Quercus spp. (e.g. Quercus serrata)
  • Vegetation from Edo era (section of forest; “summer mansion forest”)
    • Dominant: こなら (konara) = Quercus serrata
  • Tanaka-san did overseas restoration work in Bali mangrove forests, damaged by fish harvest (aquaculture that cleared mangroves?)

To close, I think there’s a lot of background information and ecology that I’m going to look up and explore on my own. Honestly, this was a seriously cool trip and discussion that I wasn’t really expecting out of a visit to Meiji Shrine. That is to say, I wasn’t expecting this kind of ecological discussion.

Mistaking the Ki for the Mori

I’ll start off with a quick translation, courtesy of Selinger-sensei’s friend Noto-san. 木(Ki) as you might guess from the idiom means “tree” and 森 (mori) means “forest” and is composed of three “tree” radicals. But, according to Noto-san, in the context of Shinto Shrines (神道神社; Shinto Jinja) and 鎮守の杜 (chinju no mori; forest of shrine), mori uses this kanji: 杜, combining the familiar “tree” radical (木) with the “earth” or “ground” radical (土) and implying “sacred ground.” Very interesting!


We began the day with Shinto and Shinto Shrines 101, a discussion and lecture led by Noto-san. We learned about the basic principles of Shinto and how kami can be found everywhere. According to Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), “whatever seemed strikingly impressive, possessed the quality of excellence and virtue, and inspired a feeling of awe was called kami.” Noto-san joked that Selinger-sensei’s skill in and dedication to language study for her might be worthy of being called kami. I’ll quickly run down the basic components of a Shinto Shrine:

  1. Torii Gate (note, serious wordplay incoming: written as 鳥居, torii, using the kanji for “bird” and “stay,” it was originally written as 通り入る, tooriiru, using the kanji for “way” and “enter”…wordplay is wonderful)
  2. Name of shrine on a stone pillar
  3. Lanterns (とうろう)
  4. Kagura Shinto Dance and Music Hall
  5. Temizu Water Purification Place
  6. Komainu Stone Guardian Dogs
  7. Treasure House
  8. Hall of Worship
  9. Main Hall (Goshintai, or container for kami, enshrined)
  10. Sacred Tree

After the discussion, we were in for a serious treat: we visited Meiji Jingu Shrine and witnessed a full Shinto ceremony service/ceremony. Although my feet may or may not have fallen asleep with major pins and needles, it was a really interesting experience. Many of the ritual actions are associated with purification and dispelling evil spirits, and there was even a Kagura dance as well. I, myself, am not particularly religious or spiritual, but even so it was definitely a cool, moving experience.


So, you may be wondering (or not) at this point: “why the idiom for the title?” What might “mistaking the forest for the trees” (note to self: ask Aridome-sensei and Selinger-sensei how that might be translated into Japanese) have to do with Meiji Jingu Shrine? The simple, uninformative answer is that I am an ecologist and Meiji Jingu Shrine is surrounded by a forest. Let me explain: although was most certainly centered around the shrine and Shinto, I think probably the most fascinating and wonderful part of this whole trip is that each individual component can be approached from multiple angles, owing to our own individual interests. So for instance, I was absolutely fascinated to learn and talk about Meiji Shrine’s forest as an ecosystem with Tanaka-san, one of the forest caretakers. And evidently, Tanaka-san picked up on that enthusiasm and facination; our forest tour was originally only supposed to be a half hour, but was extended to an hour and a half as I just kept asking question after question. みんなさんごめん!でも、すごくおもしろかった!(Minna-san gomen! Demo, sugoku omoshirokatta! Apologies everyone, but it was extremely interesting!)

The Meiji Shrine Forest is actually not a “natural” forest but rather a manmade one. That is, in 1920, scientists planted a specific composition of conifers, evergreen broadleaf, and deciduous broadleaf trees imported from all over Japan and even overseas, knowing and projecting how that specific composition would change through ecological succession into the forest that it is today, 100 years later (i.e. stage 3 of 4 in the plan). The forest has largely been left untouched this entire time, even withstanding the Tokyo firebombings in WWII. And, as the canopy became more dense, the forest changed the microclimate of that area from a dry and barren to humid and cool. Even if it was “artificially planted,” I would argue that the forest, left to its own devices all these years, is most certainly a natural ecosystem.  Going back to the idiom, though, ecologists, I think, pride themselves on viewing the big picture, while at the same time focusing on the interactions and connections between organisms and their environment. So I think we at times mistake the forest for the trees and get lost in the details, but at other times we mistake the trees for the forest and take a broader picture. Speaking of the broader picture, these certainly are not my full and complete thoughts and notes from my discussion (translation courtesy of Selinger-sensei) with Tanaka-san; so, this entry is “mistaking the trees for the forest” and capturing the big ideas from the day. As I’m sure any of my peers or the sensei’s can attest, I was furiously scribbling down notes and observing the forest and asking Tanaka-san questions, so I think it’d be a shame not to document it, if people would be interested in reading.

祓い and 腹いっぱい

Today marked another incredible learning experience. Up until now, we have been fortunate to meet with experts in the specific area of research we are pursuing on each given day, and today was no exception. We began the day by travelling to Gakushuin, the university attended by many members of the royal family including Emperor Akihito, where we met Selinger-sensei’s college friend Noto-san. Noto-san holds a PhD in Shinto studies, and her father and sister are Shinto priests (with her father being one of the highest ranking priests in Japan). She grew up in Ishikawa Prefecture, where she spent a great deal of time at her home shrine until she moved to Tokyo at eighteen. It was heart-warming and inspiring to see them reconnect as old friends and scholars, and I found myself imagining that we students could find ourselves in similar positions one day as well.

During the lecture Noto-san taught us about various elements of Shinto, ranging from the etymological origins of Shinto-related kanji to the architectural layout of shrines and the symbolic significance of this layout. She overlooked no detail, patiently explaining the hierarchy of hakama colors donned by Shinto priests and the significance of various Shinto rituals. She set a particular focus on Meiji Shrine, which was especially relevant given the fact that we travelled there immediately after the lecture (and a quick lunch in Gakushuin’s dining hall).

Upon arrival at Meiji Shrine, I found the forest surrounding the shrine more breathtaking than I had anticipated. Despite only being one hundred years old, it felt truly eternal and abundant with life (the constant mosquito bites certainly contributed to this feeling). We had the opportunity to receive a guided tour from Meiji Shrine’s resident forestry expert, and the combination of his expertise with the knowledge of Noto-san and the rest of our group energized the tour and created a fast-paced learning environment.

By the end of the day, I was exhausted and doing my best not to fall asleep on the train ride home. This feeling was definitely exacerbated by our delicious yakiniku dinner and the environment engendered by the (over)eager tabehoudai attitude taken by Nan-chan and Christmas-sensei, but overall it was an amazing day. Looking forward to another one tomorrow.

表参道:Meiji Jingu

Side note: I am writing this post early in the morning the next day because last night  I went to straight to bed due to a food induced coma…食べホ代はとても良かったです。ごちそうさまでした

Noto-san’s brief introductory lecture on shinto was easy to understand an extremely helpful for an outsider very much like ourselves. Living in the United States for most of my life, I struggle with the idea of Kami (神), which in English we roughly translate as god. Noto-San used a quote from Motoori Norinaga that explains what Kami is:

“Whatever seemed strikingly impressive, possessed the quality of excellence and virtue and inspired a feeling of awe…” that is Kami.

In ancient Shinto, these kami were associated with nature, such as mountains, waterfalls, great stones, etc. It is all about recognizing and worshipping the immense power of nature.

However, people who demonstrate the “quality of excellence and virtue” can also be kami, so that is why there are people from history that are enshrined.

We learned about the basic components of the shinto shrine through lecture but it was a whole different experience being able to see the shrine.  When we got to the shrine I was so impressed at the size of the main Tori-gate, my mouth literally fell open. (:O) After passing through the Sake offerings we were deep into the Chinju no mori (鎮守の杜) which is specifically a “man-made forest” to protect and invite the kami in.

Meiji Jingu: Sake Barrels
Meiji Jingu

At the end of Meiji Jingu tour, I found little treasures: Bonsai Trees!!! I really enjoy admiring these tiny yet majestic trees. These Bonsai Trees are offerings to the shrine. Some of these trees were incredibly old (over eighty years) and they were all unique.

Bonsai tree (Meiji Jingu)
Bonsai Tree (Meiji Jingu)