Trees in Japanese Folklore

Trees play an important role in both Japanese folklore and culture. The concept of shinrin yoko, or forest bathing, has become well known outside of Japan at a time when there is an increased awareness of the benefits of spending time in nature. In Shinto, there is a belief that all things contain a spirit. This is why shrines are often found in forests, and ancient trees are particularly revered. Trees are marked with shimenawa (special straw ropes) that are used in sacred places in Japan.

The Studio Ghibli film 'Totoro' depicts the scene above where the family bow to show respect to the spirit of the tree (which may or may not be Totoro). Groves of ancient sacred trees are believed by some to be portals to Yomi, the land of the dead. It is these Shinto beliefs that underpin much of Japanese folklore and tales about yokai, some of which I will share in this post.
In Japanese folklore, kodama are the spirits of trees, similar to dryads of Greek mythology. While they are attached to specific trees, they can also move freely through forests and can appear as glowing orbs of light. They are believed to maintain the balance of nature. However, if a tree dies so too does the kodama attached to it as one cannot survive without the other. They're famously depicted by Hayao Miyazaki in the Ghibli film 'Princess Mononoke' (image below).


Cherry blossoms, known in Japan as sakura, represent springtime and symbolise fleeting beauty and the shortness of life. Festivals to celebrate these flowers occur in spring and are known as hanami. Sakura were a favourite subject for Edo era ukiyo-e prints.

'Cherry Blossoms at Heian Jingu Shrine' - Kasamatsu Shiro, 1937
Wisteria (or fuji) are purple flowers and are a popular symbol of spring in Japan. Their images are often used on kimonos. Apparently, in the past commoners were forbidden from wearing the colour purple as wisteria was associated with nobility.

Yokai Trees 
In Japanese folklore there is a tree known as ninmenju. It has flowers that look like human heads. If you laugh at the tree the heads will laugh back. However, if you make them laugh too much, they will wilt and fall off before bearing their face-shaped fruit.

Jubokko are trees found on battlefields in Japan. It is believed that because they absorb the blood of slaughtered bodies through their roots, they transform into yokai. They then snatch passers by, pierce their skin and drain every last drop of their blood.

Tsubaki Trees
In Japanese folklore when the tsubaki tree (Japanese camilia) reaches old age (usually about 100 years old) it develops a spirit and becomes a yokai. It is then able to detach from the host tree and use its mysterious powers to bewitch humans.
'Camellia at Ueno' - Hiroshige
In folklore, the tsubaki is associated with death and old age because rather than dropping its flowers gradually, they all drop at once. As a result, it is considered taboo to give camelia flowers as gifts to anyone sick or in hospital.

Hoko are nature spirits inhabiting 1000 year old trees. They look like black dogs with no tail and a human-ish face. There are tales of woodcutters chopping into trees with an axe and blood to oozing out due to the hoko living within.

Toriyama Sekien

Bashonosei are spirits of Japanase banana trees, native to Okinawa. They take delight in startling people by appearing as a human face amongst the leaves. Sometimes they're more sinister and impregnate girls with demon babies.
Konjaku Hyakki Shui - Toriyama Sekien

Supernatural Phenomena Relating to Trees

Tengu Daoshi
Tengu daoshi is a supernatural phenomenon in Japanese folklore believed to be caused by yokai known as tengu. It occurs when the sound of a large tree falling can be heard in the forest and yet no sign of a fallen tree can be found. It is often accompanied by a strong gust of wind and the sound of someone calling 'ikuzo' which is like the English 'timber' to indicate a tree is about to fall. It is believed to be the tengu playing tricks. You can read more about tengu in my post here.
In Japanese folklore the akateko is a yokai that takes the form of a red, disembodied child's hand. The akateko will drop from the branches of a tree to 'surprise' those below.

Bratzoid on Deviant Art