Fans of David Mitchell’s wonderful novels—Ghostwritten, number9dream, Cloud Atlas, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet—may remember his recurring references to camphor trees; great spreading camphor trees that serve as a unifying motif as well as a source of spiritual power and continuity within the stories.
Until I came to live in Japan last month, I did not know what a camphor tree was. I had heard of camphor; I knew it was once used (perhaps still is used?) to make mothballs. But on my previous visits to Japan, I had never specifically noticed these trees or learned to recognise them.
The picture above shows the shrine behind our house, 八坂神社 yasaka jinja, which has 6 big old camphor trees. (You can see the upstairs balcony at the rear of our house, if you know where to look. Does having these camphor trees behind our house mean I’m living in a David Mitchell novel? I hope not.)
Two of these trees are over 400 years old and are considered to be “historic trees” by Sakai city. One of them has a god, or kami, living in it.
This sign explains about the kami who resides in the tree:
From memory of Yuko’s explanation, the sign says this kami, 楠魂彦姫の大神—kusutama hiko-hime no ookami—has both male and female characteristics, and therefore is consulted on matters of relationships and marriage. Also, the sign explains that the kami originally resided in a different camphor tree to the north-west of the torii gate of the shrine, but moved to this tree. Then as now, the kami was consulted by the people.
Sometimes you see a person engaging the spirit of a sacred tree. They approach the tree, clap their hands together twice, and then lean towards the tree and stand for a while with their hands pressed against the bark. Having watched these people and become curious, I have tried it myself. People laugh at tree-huggers, but there is no denying the sense of power and calm that comes from touching a great old tree.
Now that I’ve learned to recognise camphor trees, I see them all around; not only in the grounds of shrines (such as Kanaoka shrine, above) but also in our local park. The stippled bark is very recognisable, as is the overall form of the tree, with long, long boughs spreading horizontally high above the ground. But the most distinctive feature is the smell of the leaves. Crush a camphor leaf in your hand, and the perfume is released, a high, powerful, head-clearing, exhilarating smell, with something of the same character as eucalyptus oil or fresh cedar wood, but different from both.
Note on the word of the day:
クスノキ kusu no ki is the Japanese name of the camphor tree, Cinnamomum camphora, native to Japan, China and Taiwan. I could have written the word using the kanji 楠, but decided to stick to katakana for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I would have felt like a bit of a cheat because I don’t know the kanji. And secondly, I think most Japanese people would write it in katakana because they don’t know the kanji either. But I could be wrong about that. You can see the kanji 楠 in the picture of the sign, above (the very first character in the rightmost column), and you can also see the little furigana characters く ku すsu written beside it to tell the reader how to pronounce it. So I don’t know.
Anyway, according to Wikipedia, camphor is a white crystalline substance used in medicine, incense, as a culinary spice and as insect repellent.