This story is a 2020 Flow Tales prize winner, and was produced with support from Spaces of Culture.
Though Sumiyoshi is home to the fishers and guardians of the sea, these fishermen each and all, tell you that they don’t fish by looking at the ocean. “A healthy sea can not exist without a healthy forest,” they say. The fishermen of Sumiyoshi start their work first, in the forested hillsides.
Large urban forests might seem impractical in Sumiyoshi’s seaside streets, yet somehow old trees are many. These trees are found variously in the small parks occurring every few blocks, or in the temples punctuating the urban landscape, or in the middle of streets, where traffic has been diverted to give space for a centuries-old camphor to grow. Nearly every city block in Sumiyoshi prominently features at least a few large, old trees.
So too, do the numerous shrines in the city host tree elders. In these sacred spaces, trees are honored like royalty, with entire complexes dedicated to nature, bright torii gates leading to five-hundred-year-old trees, and regular visitors who stand in awe and pray to these tree elders.
“Bow. Two claps. Pray to the Tree spirit.”
A foreign visitor entering the elder tree shrine is always instructed like this by the locals. Here, it becomes apparent to the visitor, that the citizens and trees share some kind of meaningful relationship. In this way Sumiyoshi citizens, seamen though they are, also play the role of guardians and stewards of the urban forests.
In the oldest parts of Sumiyoshi are the elder trees, which they say, allow humans to connect to something older and grander than themselves. On some days, this happens through tradition and ceremony, on other days, it happens simply by walking through a shrine on the way to the market, bowing, and clapping twice.
Some call this superstition, or an antiquated thought. For the citizens of Sumiyoshi and places like it however, it is the essence of life and work, to know how the forest, the field, the town and its people, are all intertwined with the sea.
Patrick M. Lydon is an American ecological writer and lens-based artist living in Japan. He is founder of City as Nature, and arts editor at The Nature of Cities (New York). @pmlydon