Tag Archives: tree spirits

Okinawa: from its longevity secrets to mischievous tree trolls

Some weeks ago I visited Okinawa, the subtropical island of Japan which is famous to count the most centenarians per capita in whole the world.

Why do people get so old? – the diet

I noticed indeed that the citizens seem to be more relaxed and really enjoy the good life (and all the American influenced food and drinks unfortunately too). I enjoyed myself with getting massages, walking and wandering around and joining Japanese ladies from my guest house to dive into Okinawa’s soba and beer. These Japanese bonvivants introduced me to the expression shiawase butori, which means happily plump

At some point we were not that far from Ogimi, which is famous for the high amount of 100 year old people in the world. According to some experts it is because of a certain diet… which is not the food that you find in many restaurants in current Okinawa. That Blue Seal ice-cream will not make you 100 year old. I think that the American occupation since the Second World War until some decades ago broke some healthy lifestyle aspects of Okinawa. However, I found also sometimes places where they serve the healthy traditional Okinawa food:

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Why do people get so old? – ikigai

I think it is more than just the right diet. It is a combination of their lifestyle, in combination with the weather, the fact that medical world progressed,

the fact that Japan’s economy progressed, maybe because there are so many turtles in Okinawa, the symbol for longevity and wealth…

and  the fact that they keep working because they found/know their ikigai. 

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If you want to know more, some people wrote books or internet blogs about it,
probably also in your mother tongue too. I will illustrate what ikigai can mean.

 

This old man’s calling and ikigai

One morning, my friendl and I experienced a outrigger sailing cano adventure, organized by Tom, in the turquoise blue waters of Okinawa, a subtropical island of Japan. After a typhoon damaged the boat, Tom decided it was time to repair and fix his cano after 7 years for six months. When I found him through AirBnb experience, I read he would offer experiences from May onwards. It was end of April when my friend and I were in Okinawa. You do not get things if you keep silent, so I wrote him and that motivated him to get the last things done. We had to wait for the weather, if there was enough wind etc, but it all worked out for us. Just before the trip, he thanked us for motivating him to finish this earlier. 

 
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One thing about outrigger sailing canoes: these boats do not have a rudder, so you need a pedal to steer the boat. 
 
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He made the cano himself and it took him 18 months (he did not work full time) and used a manual for outrigger canoes. His cano is also bigger. He used cedar wood, which is a very present tree in Japan. He used the Polynesian placemats that his father gave him once as a present … because for what else to use them? 
 
While the sea breeze played with our hair and I felt the sun tickling my face, he explained my friend and me how he and his wife got in Okinawa. After living for 28 years in Yokohama region, his wife and he felt it was time to move to a space where they wanted to live until the end. It has to be close at the ocean and it has to be warm. They thought about many options like the Philippines and Indonesia but could not figure it out in the next months. They needed a place where they also could start a business and learning a language to do business takes too much time. 
 
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During a church mass, while they were singing, he thought to move to Chiba close to Tokyo which has an ocean but was cold. 
Suddenly a voice told him to consider Okinawa. He never has been there but this voice felt very powerful. After the mass he told his wife about this mystical experience and she also said a voice has told her to also move to Okinawa. They checked out the place and knew this God chosen place was gonna be their new home. They live and work here happily (but not happily plump) for already 8-9 years. 

Why do people get so old? – Moai

I had already read about the moai, or strong relationships between them, as I joined a small PhD team research about social acceptance of internal immigrants in the rural mountainous villages in the north of Nagoya. In Okinawa, they say it is stronger. It was maybe not surprising that my friend and I got promptly invited by this bunch of men, who were mostly employees of Orion, the local beer factory, to join their food festivity (to celebrate the start of Golden Week, we assume). They seemed fun and it was outside, so …  why not?

But what are moais?

Moais came to existence in more difficult times, when farmers helped each other by exchanging information  about the best cultivation practicies or also to help each other when the harvest failed. The members of a moai gave monthly a fixed membership fee to a shared pot, which sponsored the meetings and the meals. To have a feeling to belong somewhere and support each other gives some security and contributes to stay longer young.

Last, but not least, Okinawa has tree trolls!

My inner child always comes alive when I find nice folk stories, myths and fables about trolls and fairies.
 
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They live in banyan trees, also called the tree of happiness, or the tree that walks, because the aerial root grows into a trunk and gradually moves itself from 

its original position over a long period of time. These trees were planted for windbreaks (there are big typhoons here) and residential use. But yes some people burn incense and pray under the tree, because they believe in the tree spirits.

Listening to these stories, it reminds you that cherishing your the inner child also keeps you long forever:

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This is what I found on-line about the tree trolls of Okinawa:

Mischievous by nature, kijimuna are known to play tricks on humans; one of the most common involves laying on the chest of human during sleep, making them immobile and unable to breathe (kanashibari; sleep demons associated with sleep paralysis are common among Japanese yōkai). Kijimuna, much like other yōkai, are often associated with mysterious fires and have been seen covered in ghostly flames running along beaches or riverbanks. If one were to wake up and discover a paper lantern missing, it’s quite possible a kijimuna hijacked it in the middle of the night and ran off. Kijimuna hate octopus above all else. So keeping an octopus around is the best way to ward off any potential attacks or hijinks from a bored kijimuna on the prowl. 

 

Despite such devious tricks, kijimuna are generally good at heart and also known to befriend humans. Such friendships, however, are relatively short-lived due to the puckish and jealous nature of kijimuna. Known to be excellent fishermen, if a kijimuna really likes a human they’ll give fishing tips and perhaps even offer the bodies of the fish they’ve caught—after eating out the fish’s eyeballs, of course. Yet, if a human doesn’t offer gratitude and gifts in exchange for a kijimuna’s kindness, the kijimuna will soon lash out, behaving in a childish manner and bring the friendship to an abrupt end. 

 

Like many of the numerous yōkai in Japanese folklore, kijimuna are an essential part of the Okinawan lifestyle. Tales of kijimuna have been passed on from generation to generation for centuries. Nearly every Okinawan young and old can happily rattle off a kijimuna folktale from memory. Images of kijimuna can be found all over the island (check, I have a whole bunch of photos of them now) and have even invaded popular culture in the form of anime and manga characters. So they next time you come across a hyperactive, orange-haired fairy with with an oversized head and hands, you’ll know it’s a kijimuna.

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Postcard which I purchased in the museum about Bokunen Naka, a famous woodblock print artist from this region. 

I have a feeling I might return to Okinawa, or for sure to the other southern islands of Japan ;). I am very intrigued by  Yakushima, the mystical island that inspired Ghibli Stidio makers for princess Mononoke, counts many thousand year old trees and had good hikes.

Why do Thai Tree Spirits like Red Fanta ?

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Some time ago, when the animals were still talking, I lived in Thailand. Ok, it was only 1.5 year ago that I left Thailand for Japan. I was blessed to became a friend of a Thai young woman who likes to travel, knows a lot about Thai customs and traditions and is also into sustainability. Recently we were texting over Instagram about Loy Krathong festival (celebrated on November 23rd, during full moon) which is traditionally a festival to pay respect to the goddess of rivers. Thai people would put “krathong” or containers in the rivers, which were made from natural materials. But unfortunately many people use non-natural materials like styrofoam and it became more, as my friend called it, a river polluting instead of river celebrating festival.

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It reminds me a bit to the Japanese anime “Spirited Away” which is also about polluted rivers and nature, which are represented by spirits that got cleaned in the bath house. Japanese culture and Thai culture are partly about spirits of ancestors or of an ancient soul. In Japan, you have shintoism and buddhism, and it is difficult for me to know often which practices comes from shintoism, or which from buddhism. In Japan, people go to shinto shrines for celebrations around life and transitions in life, but they have buddhist funerals. It also does not help that Thai and Japanese buddhism are totally different. Japanese buddhist priests can marry. In Thailand, they cannot.

In Thailand, you also find everywhere also small spirit houses everywhere. This could be connected with buddhism-hinduism since when Thai put a new spirit house, they have to ask a buddhist monk to do a special ceremony. These spirit houses are for the spirits who take care of the area. Thai Buddhists believe that there are different classes of spirits or angels: some lives on earth, some in a tree, some in the air, but not in every tree there is a spirit. In Thailand, the spirit is not connected to a certain tree. There was a story where people were stopped to cut a tree, because a monk heard the spirit asking for few days time to find another tree as new residence. In Japan, the tree is not seen as the (temporary) residence of the spirit, but the spirit is the soul of the tree, not of a dead ancestor or angel.

The Asian tree spirits especially fascinate me a lot. Especially the banana, fig , ta-khian and banyan trees are inhabited by trees. Ta-Nee is the famous spirit associated with the banana tree. Many big trees have spirits inside, my Thai friend told me.

My friends in Thailand introduced me to Thai horror, which are mostly ghost stories, and some are about tree spirits. But it was also weird that there was also some humor in it. What can it be about? If you cut down a tree without its permission, the tree spirit would haunt you. An example is “Takien” (trailer with English subtitles)

 

One day, this friend and I decided to climb 3790 steps to Wat Khao Wong Pra Chan. This picture is taken at the beginning. I was very intrigued by this, and she explained me that when Thai people know the gender (or sex) of the spirits they would hang clothes for them. They say the spirit inhabits a Ta-khian tree and sometimes appears as a beautiful young woman wearing traditional Thai attire, usually in reddish or brownish colours, contrasting with Nang Tani who wears a green dress. Northern Thai use also dress trees to ordinate that there is someone there. When a tree is ordinated, no one dares to cut or destroy it. While trees in Japan are marked with sacred ropes with paper folded in a zig-zag way, some sacred trees in Thailand are marked by statues. Also when you looked carefully to some banyan trees at my previous campus, you would find holy statues. A professor who studies the stop of belief in nature spirits as early warning signals of environmental degradation in local villages in east-Thailand pointed me to these statues, and I had one of the best conversations on that campus.

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Please also take note of the drinks in front the spirit house. It seems that the spirits like red Fanta. According to one of my Thai friends, it is because it is a more innocent version of blood, and their beloved previous king loved red Fanta too, but that is maybe an urban legend. My friend and I discussed that people copy from the past or their elderly. Thai people would say “Tum Tam Tam Kan Ma”. Adults love to tell the children that when they ask for the reason. It means “follow what elders did” … but actually, my Thai friend (she is very wise) told me it does not resonate with the Buddhist idea of Kalamasutta; the Buddha named ten specific sources whose knowledge should not be immediately viewed as truthful without further investigation. As you see, Thai norms are sometimes against the Buddha’s thought.

So do not be surprised that  you can find red Fanta at the feet of statues, especially from kings, but nobody seems to know really why. Once, in the big airport of Thailand, people started to put red Fanta at the feet of these guardians, and the airport staff got very confused. Red Fanta bottles were removed. The airport announced “please don’t do this”. My Thai friend reacted: “Very Thai. I have to say that.”

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What do  you know about Thai Tree spirits?

Ps special thanks to my wise Thai friends S. and P. who gave additional information and feedback on my first versions.