“That tree’s not there because Japanese people love nature or eco or want green or anything,” said my colleague, who has been working in Boston for years. We stood on the Kayashima station platform on the Keihan line, the green trains that run between Osaka and Kyoto. We looked across at the tree branching up through the platform roof, and the extra dome over the escalator, presumably protecting people from tree droppings. “Japanese people don’t think that way,” he said.
“Really?” I was a little incredulous, thinking of all the Japanese people I know who take pleasure in a quiet moment with autumn leaves and cherry blossoms and the rippling sound of a stream over rocks. But he was Japanese himself, so who was I to argue?
He practically stomped his foot in disgust. “It’s just fear. Fear and superstition. Twice when they tried to cut it down to build the station someone died. So they decided that it was a dangerous, powerful spirit, that the gods wanted it to live. They gave up and built the station around it. That’s how Japanese people think.”
Yesterday I was riding on the Keihan line and decided to check out the tree.
Sure enough, the station is built around it.
Here’s what the plaque reads (my rough translation):
Kayashima’s Big Kusu Tree
This big kusu tree (camphor) is about 20 meters tall, and its trunk is about 7 meters around. It’s estimated to be 700 years old, and it’s been known to all locals since olden times as the Big Kusu Tree of Kayashima.
In November of Showa 47 (1972), to increase transportation capacity, construction had started on an elevated four-track line (高架複々線) between the Doi and Neyagawa signal stations, when it was decided to respond to the feelings of respect all the local people had for the kusu tree, and to keep the tree for posterity while still building the new Kayashima station. Nowhere else in the country will you find such an example as you see before you of a tree piercing through a station platform and roof, being carefully nutured for posterity as this kusu tree is, so that its distinctive fragrance and rich greenery can luxuriate and always bring serenity to people.
At the base of the tree, just as you exit the station, is the Kawashima Shrine, restored in Showa 55 (1980) so that the locals could become familiar with it along with the sacred kusu tree.
Keihan Electric Railway Co., Ltd.
Certainly that’s the cleaned up version of the story. That part about “responding to the feelings of respect of the locals” sounds a little glossed over. Especially considering it was 1972. Still, my colleague’s version seems harsh.
I went out of the station and to a regular station road…
…and then around to the tree’s base. There was the Shinto shrine.
A friendly welcoming statue.
The place to purify your hands before praying.
Instructions for praying.
And the fence of sacred plaques and donations surrounding the tree itself.
The huge trunk wears a sacred shimenawa (注連縄) rope strung with shime strips, the symbols of purity. The shimenawa both declares the presence of a deity and wards off its curse.
700 years old.
As I climbed back to the station platform, the sun sank between the tracks, a swollen blood red eye staining the humid sky. Its orange light settled onto the concrete of the platform and into the kusu leaves with a dull, weary glow. If there is a malignant spirit here, I thought, it is old and tired. It is an ancient, brutish beast that we humanity have trapped and shackled, isolating it in an ocean of concrete. We dress it like a doll and suck its power from it one prayer at a time.
But maybe that was its trickster spirit playing with my mind.
I would very much like to climb that tree.