THE JAPANESE HAVE long venerated the forest. The country’s primary religion is Buddhism, a sixth-century import from India via Korea, but its primary indigenous belief system is Shintoism, codified around the same time, and which might more accurately be described as a philosophy, or even a folklore, one that is inextricable from the country’s identity. Shintoism is commonly referred to as a form of animism, and although that’s not inaccurate, it’s also not quite true, either. Very reductively, Shintoism holds that certain things — notably, trees, stones, rivers, places and certain animals — are possessed of kami, or a divine essence. Much as Hindus believe that all gods are god, Shintoists believe that all things might be godlike, or that many things might be. Although that isn’t quite accurate, either: One doesn’t choose or not choose to be a Shintoist in Japan — you just are — and believing in kami doesn’t mean that you might not practice, say, Buddhism, as well. In Shintoism, the sacred and the natural are often the same.
To enter a forest, any forest, in Japan is to be reminded of this. Many wooded areas here are preceded by a torii, a Shinto gate shaped like the outline of a door, which marks the dividing line between an ordinary space and a sacred one. Inside the forest, you will see trees and stones wrapped with a twisted rope, or shimenawa, dangling tassels and also folded white paper arrowheads, called shide: Both are meant to attract kami, and large trees and remarkably shaped rocks are particularly suitable hosts. One of the reasons Shintoism is so difficult to describe is because in it, it is likely that God has no face, or eyes; the spirit is not a reflection of us. It may not even be something living. The sacred is visible, but it isn’t necessarily relatable.
At Shiratani, there is no torii, and there are no shimenawa and no shide. In Japan, forests are the spaces that most resemble European cathedrals, and there is a fundamental wrongness, an eeriness, about Shiratani’s lack, the kind of ghostliness one feels in a deconsecrated church. And yet one also observes, with every step, evidence of the human: The most popular (allegedly two-hour-long) path that cuts through the woods is a trail of scarred and rutted stones, slippery with moss so that your hands scrabble over wet tree roots for purchase, that was laid around 400 years ago, back when the forest was regularly plundered for timber to make shingles. It rains almost daily on Yakushima, and in the forest, everything is covered with a perpetual slick of dew or rain; one thinks of those early travelers, how they struggled up and down the hills in their straw sandals, cords of wood strapped to their backs.
But along with the aggressive tree-ness of Shiratani, it was what was missing that most reminded me of the forest of “Princess Mononoke.” Aside from the signs of the sacred, I realized, Shiratani also lacked flowers, and insects, and most unsettlingly, birdsong. You could stop and listen and hear only that plink of water that Miyazaki had recreated, but nothing else. You could look around you and see only green, green, green. Farther north, where the forest thinned, there were macaques, mean little creatures with flushed faces and disconcertingly human noses that walked on all fours as a bear cub might, but here, in its thickest section, there was nothing: The eye and ear searched and searched, but nothing was able to disrupt the dominance of the sugi themselves. It was as if the forest was so suffused with kami that there was no room for anything else.
The enchanted forest in “Mononoke” is similar, though with one big difference — that forest is the domain of the Forest Spirit, one of the most marvelous and frightening creatures invented in animation. By day, it is a massive, shaggy elk, its many horns blooming above its head like coral branches, its face resembling an ancient Japanese carved mask, with disquietingly human eyes. When it walks, wildflowers sprout, grow and die from wherever its cloven hoofs land; with a soft exhalation, it can kill or revive. But at nightfall, the Forest Spirit’s neck stretches toward the sky, and as the god grows, eventually looming above the treetops, it also becomes transparent, a kind of massive bipedal salamander, its back fringed with a frill of fins, stalking through the dark.