The Tree Guardians of Kyoto

The Japanese monastic tradition of forest stewardship goes back centuries.

  • This is the entrance gate to Honen-in grounds.
    Photo by Flickr/Davidbaron
  • Japanese red maple tree during autumn in garden at Enkoji temple in Kyoto, Japan.
    Photo by Getty Images/jikgoe
  • This is a 500 year old campher tree in Kyoto.
    Photo by Getty Images/ TommL

The stone wall that runs along the lower boundary of Honen-in temple, on Kyoto’s hilly eastern edge, marks a striking boundary in this ancient center of Buddhist practice. To the right, a jumble of clay-tiled roofs, garden walls, and alleyways falls to the basin where the heart of the city sprawls grey and low. To the left, beyond the wall, a mass of wild camellias, bamboo fronds, oak trees, and pine boughs rises toward the summit of Mount Daimonji. From that green world floats birdsong and crow calls, the smell of new leaves, and the cool, moist air of the mountains. It is hard to imagine a more inviting sanctuary in the city.

I came to Honen-in on an April morning this year to ask its head monk, Shinsho Kajita, about the role his temple plays in preserving Kyoto’s trees. To many Japanese, the question would seem a strange one. It is Shinto shrines, not Buddhist temples, that are viewed as the guardians of wild sacred nature here; their grounds are often wooded, and in recent years they have been recognized as crucial islands of urban biodiversity. Buddhist temples, by contrast, are associated with manicured gardens and zealous gardener-monks who sweep away each leaf the moment it falls. Only occasionally have Japanese monks protested dams or other threats to the forest; for the most part, unlike their counterparts in Thailand and Cambodia, they are not known for environmental activism.

Yet Honen-in sits on 27 acres of deep, dark forest inhabited by badgers, bullfrogs, snow monkeys, and dozens of other creatures. One massive old muku tree beside the main temple is currently the shared living quarters of a flying squirrel, an Ural owl, and a migratory brown hawk-owl; another’s roots shelter a fox den. Honen, the founder of Pure Land Buddhism, chose this forest as a site for religious training eight hundred years ago because of the pure spring that flowed beneath its trees. Nearly five centuries later, a temple was built in his memory and the forest claimed as its grounds. It has remained a refuge ever since.

This, at least, was what my companion, Hiroyuki Watanabe, told me as we walked along that lush lower wall and then turned onto a path that cut diagonally inward toward the temple. Watanabe is perhaps the foremost expert on the city’s sacred groves. After spending his career as an ecology professor trekking through the forests of Southeast Asia, he retired and turned his attention homeward. In 2015 he published a book on the forests of Kyoto’s shrines and temples, and today he serves as vice president of Japan’s Society for the Study of Sacred Groves. He says that of the 234 officially recognized large and important trees in Kyoto, 110 are on temple grounds. In other words, Honen-in is far from unique.

“Buddha, of course, attained enlightenment sitting under a tree, and both Buddhism and Shintoism have a long tradition of religious training in forests,” Watanabe had told me the previous morning as we sat in the lobby of my hotel, planning our tour of temple trees. With long wispy hair brushed back from a tanned face and a biker bag slung over one shoulder, he looked younger than his 78 years and as eager as I was for an urban trek. He explained that many temples maintain groves of trees to create a quiet, peaceful atmosphere rather than for explicitly conservationist reasons. Still, they provide the accidental benefit of habitat for birds, insects, and rare old trees hard-pressed by urban development.


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