クスノキ kusu no ki—camphor tree

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 kusu 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.

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11 thoughts on “クスノキ kusu no ki—camphor tree

  1. absolutely fascinating. how lucky you are to be with someone to tell you the stories of these trees and interpret the markings for you — otherwise, you would be living beside a god-filled tree without knowing it! why these two trees and no others?

    1. Hi Orlaith, you are right that I am very lucky to have Yuko to help interpret the culture for me. My experience is much richer thanks to her explanation and insight. Of course, I was wondering along the same lines – why does the god live in this particular tree and not the others – why did he move from one tree to another – and above all how do they (the people who put up the sign) know? All very mysterious.

      Thanks for reading!

      Dara

  2. Very informative. I am a Japanese American living in Hawaii and my surname is Kusumoto. I am always curious about the camphor tree for that reason, but these are by far the best photos I have seen and some of the best info. Never knew they were so large and quite beautiful. I cant speak Japanese but I know the Kanji and it was fun to see in a real-life sign. This page had quite an impact on me. Nice blog overall too. Thank you!

  3. Hi Casey, thanks so much for your kind words about my blog and for taking the time to comment! Your comment prompted me to look back over this blog post that I wrote over a year ago, on the other side of the world. The photos and the words brought back memories that made me smile.

    You may be interested to know that there was a great Japanese samurai leader named Kusunoki (camphor tree) whose castle was in the mountains not far from where we lived.

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