Pilgrimage to the Giant Camphor Tree
Kinomiya-jinja is a Shinto shrine located in the upper part of Atami, in the north-east of Izu peninsula. Visitors come for its majestic, two-thousand years old sacred camphor tree named Ookusu. Popular among inhabitants and sightseers, the rather small place is frequently crowded on the weekends.
Kinomiya shrine has been thriving since the Edo period (1603-1868) and the legend surrounding the camphor tree settled around 1859. Five trees were to be cut down as payment for legal fees in a fishing right case. Comes the turn of the one that would become Ookusu, and a white haired old man appears and breaks the woodcutter’s saw. People logically thought it was a divine message and decided to preserve the tree forever, which is now more than 2,000 years old and designated National Treasure.
The sacred being of evergreen leaves has impressive dimensions: almost twenty four meters large and about twenty-six meters high. Pilgrims conscientiously walk around the trunk while gently stroking the majestic roots. This ritual is said to grant an additional year to the life of the one performing it. A symbol of longevity and eternal youth, Ookusu camphor tree also lends its help to people who want to quit smoking or drinking alcohol and wish for it in front of the sacred tree. A great yearly festival is held every May 5th, to offer prayers and thanks to the tree.
Kinomiya-jinja itself is not exceptional, but it has some beautiful traits and is well-maintained. It concentrates several picturesque sceneries of traditional Japan, such as as little red torii ⛩️ gates alley, a nice line of bamboos and a small pond swarming with koi carps. It is also a classical setting for Shinto-style wedding celebrations.
However, the heavy touristic and consumerist orientation of the shrine’s grounds may seem like a major drawback. For example, several posts, of which one was put right in the middle of the main path, were placed to allow for selfies. This creates a strange scenery of people lining up to take a pose all in front of the same background. Moreover, the shrine has set up its own cafeteria! Another way of associating leisure and spirituality for the religious officials, who have found a good way to make the most of the visitors’ flow.
Those looking for holiness and nature should avoid the place on the weekends and prefer going early in the morning, as soon as opening, when people are still scarce. The charming potential of Kinomiya-jinja is then appearing, especially for amateurs of Ghibli’s animated movies, as the camphor is the iconic tree of the famous My Neighbor Totoro.