Inokashira Park is lined with trees, many of which lean precariously into the lake, dipping their branches in the water as if to catch their reflection among the ripples. The trees are celebrated, featured in postcards of the lake and described in writings about the park. Apparently they create different effects each season – full green leaves in the summer; bright burning colors in the fall; bare, bony outlines in winter and the promise of buds and much loved cherry blossoms in the spring.
They are beautiful, and clearly well loved – many of the older trees are propped up with supports to keep them from collapsing entirely into the lake, and delicate parts of trunks are wrapped in cloths and tatami for protection.
There is one section of the path around the lake that has been blocked, with orange cones to prevent pedestrians from walking through, since before we arrived in Japan. In the middle of this section was a particularly old tree, no longer stretching into the pond but fully wallowing in it, bent over so low with age that passersby could not walk beneath it. This tree was propped up on supports in the water, and covered in blankets to try to preserve it.
Today, on my morning run, I realized the path was clear and passable – and the tree, its fight lost, had been cut into pieces waiting removal. It seemed so sad, I stopped for a moment mid-run to gaze at it, and saw others doing the same.
Around lunchtime, I came back to the park to more properly pay my respects to the beautiful old tree (i.e. when I was not wearing sweaty running clothes). The park was bustling with people – nothing like the Fall Day Festival, but a larger number of people than those who are there early morning. Most people seemed to be catching a bit of natural beauty in the middle of their work day – people were eating lunch, chatting with each other, texting, and one man was doing a large watercolor of the parkscape. (Another man, across the lake, was playing a mandolin-looking thing and doing what sounded somewhat like yodeling or singing a Hindu devotional song – I realize those two things are very different, by the way, but he was very far away! – but I suppose he is another story altogether.)
As people walked past the remains of the tree, they all slowed down, looking at it, and they seemed truly sorry and sad to see the tree had been cut down (at least, that is how I interpreted their faces).
After spending some time with the tree remains, I went to the Shinto shrine on the lake to further pay my respects. Although I have now been to several Shinto shrines, this is the first time I did more than just observe the beautiful shrines and the natural settings in which they are always housed. This time, I made an offering at the main part of the tiny shrine, pulled the rope bell hanging in front of the case housing the kami (often translated as deity or god, which works well in this case, since the shrine is dedicated to Inari) and clapped, to call the kami to the spot. Inari, the kami of fertility, rice, agriculture and foxes, might not be the natural choice for bidding a tree farewell, but it’s also not a long shot, either (really, it seems no Shinto kami would be, as part of the Shinto worldview seems to include the idea of spirits residing in all things). Plus, I figured the shrine in the same park as the tree was the most appropriate place. So I made up my own little prayer of gratitude for the tree that was and the trees that are, and hoped Inari understands English.
I think the tree was a cherry blossom tree, as there are many circling the lake. Cherry blossom trees are especially well loved in Japan, and apparently, for the few days they are in bloom in the spring, people often host “viewing parties” under the trees, celebrating the splash of their vibrant yet peaceful beauty. Even in the US, four years of living in Washington DC taught me to look forward to the reports that the cherry blossom trees were in bloom, and, along with everyone else in the city – probably in the whole beltway – I would make my way to the Jefferson Memorial to see these stunning petals turn the Tidal Basin many shades of pink, a sure sign that spring was finally here.
In keeping with Buddhist principles, celebrating the few days the trees are in bloom each year reminds people to be truly present and mindful in each moment as it occurs. In part, this makes this tree’s final demise seem even sadder, but in many ways, even more fitting. The very ephemeral nature of the flowers also reminds us of the Buddhist concept of impermanence: everything is always changing, and grasping for permanence only leads to suffering. So while it is sad to see this old, wonderful tree go, I suppose it is also a further reminder not just of the fleeting nature of things, but of the need to be ever mindful and present in all of our moments.