Kuma Words 15

Kuma Words 15

In the mountains of Kawakami village in Nara Prefecture, I participated in the “ritual” felling of Yoshino cedar trees (height 50m) which were planted 280 years ago. I heard that such a scale of logging hadn’t been conducted in more than a decade.

I was surprised that the people of the mountain referred to the felling of these large trees simply as “thinning”. Traditionally, seedlings of Yoshino Cedar are planted at a surprising density of 1,000 trees per square meter and on a very steep slope. This high density of planting along with frequent thinning creates an amazingly beautiful and straight grain in the wood of these trees. As well, the threshold between the summer (light) grain and winter (dark) grain allows moisture to pass freely and maximizes respiration, making the wood very well suited for sake barrels. The technology of sake brewery was born and developed in Nara, and thanks to this cedar barrel, a unique collaboration between nature and humans began.

Sen no Rikyu, the founder and master of the Japanese tea ceremony, was aware of the subtlety of the grain of Yoshino cedars. Rikyu designed chopsticks called ranchu-bashi (made of cedar) which has sharpened tips on both ends. When inviting his guests, Rikyu would send someone to Yoshino to obtain this delicate tree. At the national stadium, now under construction, Yoshino cedar will also be applied in key areas of the interior. I imagine that Sen no Rikyu would understand the reason.

The timber-felling which I witnessed was mythically wondrous. To be present at the falling of such massive trees which lived over 280 years was extremely shocking and overwhelming. The people from this area even set up a temporary alter in front of the forest for prayer. A 6mm steel cable was tied high around the trees and it didn’t take even ten minutes until they were pulled down with a special chain saw (blade length of 130cm) to complete the work. They first cut out a triangle on the side of trunk, such that the trees fall perpendicular to the slope, rather than down into the valley. There is a special method in Yoshino called hagarashi (drying the leaves), which dries the fallen trees in place for six months to one year in order to acquire the cedar’s light and bright coloring. I learned that every point in the process of cultivation – from the dense planting, logging to drying – was a collaboration between the nature and humans.

When the big trees finally fell, the earth shook, causing a low vibration to echo through the mountains. My body trembled in resonance, and I was left in tears.