THE JAPANESE HAVE lengthy commemorated the forest. The nation’s main faith is Buddhism, a sixth-century import from India by way of Korea, however its main indigenous perception system is Shintoism, codified across the similar time, and which could extra precisely be described as a philosophy, or perhaps a folklore, one that’s inextricable from the nation’s identification. Shintoism is usually known as a type of animism, and though that’s not inaccurate, it’s additionally not fairly true, both. Very reductively, Shintoism holds that sure issues — notably, timber, stones, rivers, locations and sure animals — are possessed of kami, or a divine essence. A lot as Hindus imagine that each one gods are god, Shintoists imagine that each one issues is likely to be godlike, or that many issues is likely to be. Though that isn’t fairly correct, both: One doesn’t select or not select to be a Shintoist in Japan — you simply are — and believing in kami doesn’t imply that you just won’t follow, say, Buddhism, as effectively. In Shintoism, the sacred and the pure are sometimes the identical.
To enter a forest, any forest, in Japan is to be reminded of this. Many wooded areas listed here are preceded by a torii, a Shinto gate formed just like the define of a door, which marks the dividing line between an extraordinary area and a sacred one. Contained in the forest, you will note timber and stones wrapped with a twisted rope, or shimenawa, dangling tassels and in addition folded white paper arrowheads, referred to as shide: Each are supposed to entice kami, and huge timber and remarkably formed rocks are significantly appropriate hosts. One of many causes Shintoism is so tough to explain is as a result of in it, it’s probably that God has no face, or eyes; the spirit just isn’t a mirrored image of us. It could not even be one thing dwelling. The sacred is seen, nevertheless it isn’t essentially relatable.
At Shiratani, there isn’t any torii, and there are not any shimenawa and no shide. In Japan, forests are the areas that almost all resemble European cathedrals, and there’s a basic wrongness, an eeriness, about Shiratani’s lack, the type of ghostliness one feels in a deconsecrated church. And but one additionally observes, with each step, proof of the human: The most well-liked (allegedly two-hour-long) path that cuts by way of the woods is a path of scarred and rutted stones, slippery with moss in order that your fingers scrabble over moist tree roots for buy, that was laid round 400 years in the past, again when the forest was usually plundered for timber to make shingles. It rains virtually every day on Yakushima, and within the forest, all the things is roofed with a perpetual slick of dew or rain; one thinks of these early vacationers, how they struggled up and down the hills of their straw sandals, cords of wooden strapped to their backs.
However together with the aggressive tree-ness of Shiratani, it was what was lacking that almost all jogged my memory of the forest of “Princess Mononoke.” Apart from the indicators of the sacred, I noticed, Shiratani additionally lacked flowers, and bugs, and most unsettlingly, birdsong. You would cease and pay attention and listen to solely that plink of water that Miyazaki had recreated, however nothing else. You would go searching you and see solely inexperienced, inexperienced, inexperienced. Farther north, the place the forest thinned, there have been macaques, imply little creatures with flushed faces and disconcertingly human noses that walked on all fours as a bear cub may, however right here, in its thickest part, there was nothing: The attention and ear searched and searched, however nothing was in a position to disrupt the dominance of the sugi themselves. It was as if the forest was so suffused with kami that there was no room for anything.
The enchanted forest in “Mononoke” is comparable, although with one large distinction — that forest is the area of the Forest Spirit, one of the crucial marvelous and horrifying creatures invented in animation. By day, it’s a huge, shaggy elk, its many horns blooming above its head like coral branches, its face resembling an historical Japanese carved masks, with disquietingly human eyes. When it walks, wildflowers sprout, develop and die from wherever its cloven hoofs land; with a delicate exhalation, it might probably kill or revive. However at dusk, the Forest Spirit’s neck stretches towards the sky, and because the god grows, ultimately looming above the treetops, it additionally turns into clear, a type of huge bipedal salamander, its again fringed with a frill of fins, stalking by way of the darkish.