I was expecting this place to be more expansive, considering it’s supposed to be one of the three best pine groves in Japan. I was ready to see rows of pine trees stretching out with no end in sight.
I had walked all the way from Tsuruga Station to behold the famous scenery of the Kehi Pine Grove, but having finally arrived, I have to admit I was disappointed.
What a disappointment.
It immediately struck me as a disheveled place. Instead of feeling expansive, I was kind of getting irritated. This was no pine grove, no matter how you looked at it. They had billed it as this beautiful white stretch of sand dotted with pine trees—but it was anything but. Granted, I thought, I probably shouldn’t judge the whole thing from the entrance. Better have a look around…
As I wandered around the place taking it all in, I started heading slowly towards the shoreline. The view here was certainly far better than the impression you got at the entrance. It still looked scruffy though. The only place you could see the sand clearly was just along the beach. Inside the grove, there were fallen pine needles and weeds everywhere. And all the trees looked so weak and unsteady. Hardly any of them had that classic pine shape you see in the old Japanese paintings.
Seriously? This is in the top three? I thought.
I didn’t even feel like taking pictures. Instead, I let out a sigh of disappointment. Just then, an old man holding a bamboo rake approached me, his face bright with a smile.
“Hello there!” he called out. “Welcome to the pine grove.”
“Ah…” I managed a kind of half-chuckle.
Surely the old man could see my utter disappointment. Without warning, he simply asked me point-blank. “Disappointed?”
“…well, when you put it that way, sir…” I stammered.
“I’m not surprised,” he chuckled.
Narrowing his eyes as he looked around the dark pine grove, the old man suddenly launched into a disturbing tale.
“Most of the trees here are just about dead,” he began.
What? I wasn’t expecting that.
“At one time,” he went on, “this grove stretched out as far as the eye could see. But parts were cleared out, replaced by other trees, and so on. Now, this is all that’s left.”
I just listened, dumbfounded.
“And that’s not all,” he added. “Long ago, pine groves used to be production sites. The pine needles and branches that people collected here could be used for fuel or fertilizer. But does anybody really need them today?”
“I guess not…” I mumbled.
“No. Nobody uses dead leaves and branches. The more they pile up the richer and thicker the soil gets. Pine trees can’t survive without lean soil. So eventually, they die off.”
The old man pointed out a group of lush, round trees growing by the entrance.
“Once broadleaves like those start to come in, the pines can’t compete,” he told me.
I waited for him to go on.
“There’s more,” he said.
He next pointed out some spindly pines, wavering unsteadily like pencils stood on end.
“Those are Japanese red pines planted after the war. They’re not the black pines you typically see along the coast. But they waited too long before pruning them, and the trees started dropping their lower branches on their own. This made them top-heavy, prone to snapping and toppling in the wind. And pines are supposed to be one of the most wind-resistant trees.”
The old man continued to point out different trees. Beyond the red pines was one whose needles had turned completely brown.
“Then, on top of everything, we’ve got pine wilt,” he explained. “We lose more than a few trees to that every year.”
“Aren’t they doing anything about it?” I asked.
“Of course they are,” he replied. “The forest service sprays pesticides, plus they cut down infected trees and carry them out of the forest. But you can’t stop it.”
“This isn’t the only place there are pine trees. Once pine wilt appears somewhere else, the insects carry it over here. It can happen any time.”
This sounded bad.
“They’re getting attacked from all directions. It's like they have fatal disease and the doctors have only given them so long to live.”
I had no idea. Strangely, though, the old man’s face was a picture of smiling kindness—despite the fact that he was describing what seemed to be a hopeless situation.
“Is…” I began hesitantly, “is there any hope?”
“No,” he said simply.
I fell silent.
“It’s just not something I can do alone,” he said.
The old man slowly spread his arms wide, as if embracing the pine grove in a giant hug.
“I was born here, grew up here,” he told me. “The pine grove is my own backyard. It’s a part of who I am. My pride and joy.”
“You’re kidding!” I exclaimed, impressed.
The old man laughed. “And I’m not the only Tsuruga resident who thinks that way,” he added.
He handed me his bamboo rake.
“The trees aren’t going to get any healthier unless we rake out these pine needles,” he told me. “Even if we no longer have any use for them, we can’t just let them sit there if we want the pines to survive. Go ahead,” he told me, “have a go at it.”
You got it! I thought. Rolling up my sleeves, I put the rake he gave me in the fallen pine needles and… ugh! No way! They were so… heavy!
The old man burst into laughter. “Not so easy, is it?” he exclaimed. “You’re gonna be sore tomorrow.”
“It’s this difficult?” I asked him.
“Yep,” came the simple reply. “There’s no way for me to do it alone, no matter how hard I try.”
He took the rake back from my hands and started to look around the grove again.
“We’ve got to stop the pine wilt,” he said, “grow new pine trees, and replace the weak ones. Get rid of the broadleaf trees and weeds that find their way in here. Rake up the pine needles, get them out of here along with the branches… If we want this pine grove to be healthy again, a lot of people are going to have to contribute their knowledge and effort. It’ll take money too. Even then, there’s no guarantee we can save it.”
The situation sounded pretty bleak.
“You can search Japan high and low,” the old man said, “but you won’t find another pine grove that hasn’t been tended by human hands. The Kehi Pine Grove is the pride of our hometown, and if we want to preserve it for generations to come…”
Thwack! The old man thrust the rake down into the forest floor and began scraping towards himself.
“We’ve just got to commit to it,” he said as he worked, “if we’re serious about leaving the forest to our children and grandchildren.”
A breeze came in off the ocean with a quiet whoosh. I detected the faint smell of pine resin.
“Wind through the pines is lovely,” he remarked, looking up at the green needles overhead and sniffing the air.
“They’ve recently launched a revitalization project for the pine grove,” he told me. “Now that they’re tending to the trees, they look a little different each year. For you, seeing it halfway through the process, it probably looks quite different than what you pictured a pine grove to be. But…” he trailed off.
“It will get better,” he declared. “No—” he rephrased, “we’ll make it better.”
Nimbly shouldering his bamboo rake, the old man smiled as he walked away.
“Come back and see us sometime,” was the last thing he said.
Snap! Without thinking, I had taken a photo. Not of the pine grove, but of the old man’s back as he stepped proudly into the trees.