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Saturday, May 29, 2010

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Exploring the Inland Sea for the tree of knowledge


During the nice spring weather, I like to explore the Seto Inland Sea by boat. I have been wanting to visit a certain island in the Shiwaku Island chain in Kagawa Prefecture for some time now.

The island, called Shishijima, has less than 40 people living on it. I was interested in meeting the island's oldest resident, who is so old that he is bent over and has to use crutches as his limbs would otherwise drag on the ground.

He is wise, withered and wrinkled but also said to be a bit of a shady character. He is so old, he has been designated a Natural Monument. He is Ookusu, a giant camphor tree who is over 1,200 years old. That makes his birth date somewhere around 800 AD. Or should I say his "germination date?"

When I arrived on Shishi Island, I had to climb a few hills to find Ookusu, nestled in a valley on the back side of the island. There were signs pointing the way, so I could hardly get lost. For such a small island, he seemed to have lots of visitors.

When I finally came upon Ookusu in the forest, I hugged his 12.2 meter trunk as if we were old friends. When I saw his old nubby limbs, some of which had been cut off and others that had been repaired, I knew what I would look like at 90.

I sat down on one of his large, thick limbs lying close to the ground and asked him if he wouldn't mind telling me about his life. He said he would be happy to oblige but that if I wanted to ask questions, I would have to ask in a very loud voice because his hearing wasn't very good.

"When I was a sapling," he started, "Kobo Daishi was spreading Shingon Buddhism in Japan. You know he was born just across the water from me in Shikoku. At that time, the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage was laid down all across Shikoku and I could see the pilgrims in their white robes on the mainland from here."

"What a lovely childhood!" I said.

"Yes, that was a wonderful time in history. But later on, when I was still in my juvenile phase, I experienced the Genpei War, which as you know, took place here in the Seto Inland Sea. I'll never forget April 25, 1185, the end of the war, when all the dead bodies of the warriors floated past these islands. It went on for days.

"Then, in middle age, came the Onin Wars (1467—1477), and the entire Sengoku Period until 1590. That was a terrible period of constant war. As a pensioner I experienced World War II, which was the loudest and most destructive. Many of my younger relatives died in that war."

"A pensioner?" I interrupted. "You mean you receive a pension from the government?"

"Oh yes," he said, "but not in the form of money. Us trees don't need money so they give us status instead. I have the status of a Kagawa Prefectural Natural Monument. So no one can touch me. I can live quite comfortably on this pension.

"But the trees on Yakushima, some many thousands of years old, have better pensions. They are part of a UNESCO site, which is the best pension a tree can hope for."

"It's incredible that here, on Shishi Island, part of the Seto Nakai National Park, you are one of the few old trees to survive," I said.

"Yes, many trees have either died of disease, been cut down or have been victims of war. I've been lucky. I've even survived the concrete period!"

"You're such a big, impressive tree," I said, hoping to encourage him to hold out another 1,000 years or so.

"I feel old, sapped of energy. Do you know how much height I've lost? I'm only 40 meters tall now. I've lost 5 meters over the past 100 years or so. I was a victim of a landslide that buried my trunk in five meters of earth."

"So that's why some of your branches are lying on the ground. It must be a lot easier to rest your limbs like this. What are those crutches under some of your branches?"

"The local island people have propped them up for me. I fancy myself the world's largest bonsai tree."

There was a moment of silence as I thought about all the history Ookusu had seen and experienced.

Then I heard some creaking sounds and I realized he was snoring. The quiet Inland Sea breeze flowing through his leaves must have lured him to sleep. I kissed his bark and walked silently away, knowing that I would come back again to visit. I had so many more questions to ask.

But next time, I'll bring us a pot of coffee.



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