It’s no small wonder that trees have such an important role in Japanese culture. Even in the heavily industrialized country that it’s become, forests still cover more than two thirds of Japan’s land area. Early on in the modern era, the Japanese government began a program to protect its natural treasures. There is no better example of Japan’s commitment to saving their natural monuments than the incredible story of Ogawachi no sugi, or Ogawa’s Cedar.
‘Ogawachi no sugi’ – Ogawa’s Sacred Cedar
Ogawachi no sugi (小川内の 杉) is one of Japan’s many ancient trees, estimated to be between 700 and 800 years old. It consists of two enormous trunks and one smaller (but still huge) trunk, joined at the root. The base of the tree is more than 13 meters (42 feet), and the tallest trunk is more than 40 meters (130 feet) tall. The three trunks are often compared to a family (two parents and a child), earning it the nicknames ‘parent and child cedar’ (親子杉 oyakosugi) and ‘couple’s cedar’ (夫婦杉 meotosugi).
The tree is located near the border of Fukuoka and Saga, in a valley near the Oyama Shrine. It was made an official Natural Monument by the Japanese government in 1956. This brought with it certain recognition, as well as protection that in some cases extends much further than imaginable.
A brief history of Japan’s ‘cultural property’
Natural Monuments are part of Japan’s ‘cultural property’, which includes everything from art and architecture to landscapes and individual plants and animals. The program was started early on in the Meiji era, which kicked off in 1868. It was a time of great change, when Japan shifted from feudalism (the shogunate) to a western style government and industry. But change is never easy, and in the rush to modernization, many cultural items were lost or destroyed.
Fortunately, scholars quickly realized the value of these cultural treasures, and starting in 1871, the new government began to set aside funding for the restoration of shrines and temples. The first major expansion to the law took place in 1897, providing the foundation for the current laws. At the time, only seven other countries around the world had similar laws.
Later these laws were extended to preserve and catalog the artifacts inside the protected buildings. As industrialization began to have an effect on the environment, lawmakers further expanded the law to include landscapes and natural monuments in 1919.
By then, the modernization craze had begun to die down, and people experienced a renewed interest in protecting their cultural heritage. In many ways, this dichotomy remains deeply ingrained in Japanese culture today. While novel products and technologies are incredibly popular, there is a virtually universal desire to respect and preserve collective Japanese heritage.
The 780 million yen rescue mission
Commitment to the conservation of natural monuments came to the test a few years ago, when a new dam construction threatened to flood the area that Ogawa’s Cedar had inhabited for more than 7 centuries. Water levels were expected to reach almost all the way to the top of the tallest trunk.
The shrine accompanying Ogawachi no sugi was relocated in 2008, a relatively simple process since Shinto shrines are rebuilt every few decades as tradition. A new location was chosen, and a new shrine was built.
But for the sacred cedar tree, a much more complicated plan was required. Rather than simply sacrifice the tree in the name of progress, residents voted to protect it by any means necessary. A plan to move the enormous tree more than 220 meters up the side of the valley was formulated, at a cost of 780 million yen (7 million USD). It was ambitious and risky, so just in case three of the tree’s offspring were cultivated on the new grounds of the shrine.
The plan started in February of 2016. The first step was digging out a 10 square meter plot around the tree, carefully protecting the interconnected roots of the three trunk titan. This plot was then raised into the air in a steel frame, and prepared for the next phase.
With the tree safely jacked up on a platform, it was slowly pulled along a rail up the slope with enormous cables to its new home at the top of the hill. The entire process took more than 10 hours, but ultimately was a complete success. It was likely one of the largest structures ever made for the conservation of a single tree.
Over a year later, the tree appears to be taking to its new home, although still encased in the steel frame for safety. It is constantly doused with water to encourage a healthy recovery, and is carefully looked after by trained professionals. Its former home is now flooded with water, but thanks to the combined efforts of thousands of people, Ogawachi no sugi will live on for future generations.
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