The Itoigawa Shimpaku is a unique variety of Chinese juniper (Juniperus chinensis). Chinese juniper can be found throughout Eastern Asia from the Russian Far East to as far as south as Myanmar and Taiwan.
In Japan, a unique variant of the Chinese juniper adapted to growth in deep, rocky mountains. Academically called miyama byakushin (literally ‘deep mountain juniper’), its dense, bright foliage and elegant form have made it popular among bonsai artists who gave it the nickname shimpaku which means ‘true juniper.’
Crossing through the heart of the Itoigawa UNESCO Global Geopark is the Itoigawa-Shizuoka Tectonic Line, a massive fault lined on either side with tall, rugged limestone and volcanic mountains. On the steep rocky cliffs of mountains like Myojo, Amakazari, Kurohime and the Umidani Gorge, grows a special variety of shimpaku: the Itoigawa Shimpaku.
Since its discovery in 1910, the Itoigawa Shimpaku has been beloved by bonsai collectors for its dainty, tightly-bunched leaves and sharply curved trunk woven with beautiful shari and jin. It is so prized that many enthusiasts call it “the King of Bonsai.”
Natural habitats of the Itoigawa Shimpaku
The leaves of the Itoigawa Shimpaku are packed tightly together and are a distinctively bright yellow green color.
Many trees are hard to use in miniature bonsai because the leaves grow too far away from the branches, but the Itoigawa Shimpaku’s neatly bunched leaves make it easy to make beautifully balanced miniature bonsai.
The leaves of the Itoigawa Shimpaku are
exceptionally small and tightly clumped together.
Itoigawa Shimpaku growing in their native environments develop extremely hardy trunks, adorned with striking ribbons of deadwood (shari) and small, dead branches (jin). These are prized by bonsai collectors for their milky white color which contrasts beautifully with the brown bark and green leaves.
In bonsai, deadwood on the trunk of the tree is
called‘shari,’ while branches of deadwood are called ‘jin.’
Mt. Ishizuchi (1,982 m)
The shimpaku was first discovered in Ehime Prefecture, Shikoku Island, on Western Japan’s highest mountain, Mt. Ishizuchi (1,982 m).
The Chinese juniper (called ibuki in Japanese) was once very popular, but after the shimpaku was discovered it quickly became the most popular variety of juniper in bonsai. Because it is found in deep, mountainous regions, it was given the name miyamabyakushin which means ‘deep mountain juniper,’ but today it is better known by its nickname ‘shimpaku,’ which means ‘true juniper.’
After its discovery, collectors flocked to Mt. Ishizuchi and by 1907 the tree had almost completely vanished and it was thought to be extinct forever.
Mt. Kurohime and Mt. Myojo
In 1910, bonsai collector Suzuki Tahei was traveling by steamer from Hokkaido to his native Ehime Prefecture. As the boat stopped off the coast of Itoigawa, Tahei saw Mt. Kurohime towering over the Itoigawa region. The tall, rocky mountain reminded him of Mt. Ishizuchi and he began to wonder if perhaps there were shimpaku growing there as well. He decided to disembark in Itoigawa and see for himself. Tahei followed the Oumi River up into the mountains and, near the small village of Shimizukura (now part of Itoigawa’s Hashidate District), he discovered shimpaku on the limestone face of Mt. Kurohime.
The shimpaku he discovered here were similar to those in Shikoku, but hardier and they created even more beautiful bonsai, so they soon became known as a new variety, the “Itoigawa Shimpaku.”
Climbers on the face of Mt. Myojo
After his discovery, Tahei moved to Shimizukura Village to collect and sell the trees he had found. In 1912, even more shimpaku were discovered on Mt. Myojo, so he moved to what is now Itoigawa’s Kotaki District and, with the help of friends and family, he exported the Itoigawa Shimpaku across Japan.
By the 1930s, the Itoigawa Shimpaku had become a national phenomenon among bonsai collectors. While interest waned during the events of the Second World War, the postwar economic boom starting in the 1950s (the so-called “Japanese Economic Miracle”) saw the Itoigawa Shimpaku once again become a highly desired status symbol among collectors and the increasingly wealthy middle class. The demand for Itoigawa Shimpaku was at an all-time high.
During this time, famous trees like Jū’un and Hi’ryū were discovered and sold to collectors across the country and by the 1970s, almost all of the large specimens had been harvested and the Itoigawa Shimpaku had nearly vanished from the wild.
Rampant collection has nearly exhausted the mountains of Itoigawa Shimpaku trees, with only a few specimens left of significant age. While there are still some bonsai artists in Itoigawa who are interested in preserving the Itoigawa Shimpaku, they are struggling to find successors to continue their work. Likewise, the remote communities which traditionally managed and guarded the forests and mountains where the Itoigawa Shimpaku grows are aging and depopulating at an alarming rate as young people move to the lower valleys or distant cities in search of work. Immediate action is needed if this cultural heritage is to be saved for future generations.
In March 2020, the Itoigawa Geopark Council cooperated with local bonsai artists, community organizations and other stakeholders to start the Itoigawa Shimpaku Project. Our stated goal is to “Ensure that the Itoigawa Shimpaku will be enjoyed for the next 300 years through three pillars of “conservation and preservation,” “educational tourism development” and “community engagement.”
The word ‘shimpaku’ is written in Japanese as ‘真柏.’ In this word, the character ‘真’ (shin) means ‘truth’ and the character ‘柏’ (haku) means ‘cypress’ or ‘juniper.’ However, in modern Japanese the character ‘柏’ is more commonly read ’kashiwa’ and refers to the Japanese Emperor Oak.
It’s not certain when this change in meaning happened, but the name of the shimpaku comes from the original meaning of the characters. When it was discovered, the shimpaku was considered to be so beautiful among peers that it was called the ‘true juniper.’
Japanese Emperor Oak
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