By Kevin Short / Special to the Japan News My research in spiritual ecology often brings me to sacred irrigation ponds. Called tameike in Japanese, these man-made ponds are originally designed to catch and hold water for use in rice paddies. Typically a small island in the pond contains a shrine venerating the local Suijin or Water Spirit.
Tameike ponds are considered to be sacred space, and are usually strictly protected. They provide excellent living habitat for a variety of aquatic plants, insects, small crustaceans, fish and frogs; and are favorite hunting grounds for herons, egrets, kingfishers and weasels.
A key to understanding sacred pond ecosystems is the Japanese alder or hannoki (Alnus japonica). These trees are adapted to wet, spongy ground, and grow well around the pond edge. At this time of year the alders are unmistakable. They have lost their leaves but the branches are packed with little cones and flowers just now coming into bloom.
Alders have separate male and female flowers. Their male flowers form on long, pendulant structures, known as catkins, that hang down in bunches from the tips of the branches. The female flowers are gathered together in reddish-brown cone-like structures that sit on the branch below the male flowers.
These are wind-pollinated flowers. When ready the male flowers open up and release enormous loads of yellow pollen, which is carried on the wind to the female flowers of another plant. If properly pollinated the female flowers will grow into little woody cones, called strobiles, which will ripen the following autumn.
The crumbling remains of last year’s strobiles can still be seen on the branches. Inside each cone are several dozen round, flat seeds. As the cones break up the seeds are released and drop to the ground. Japanese alder seeds are unusual in that they have no wings or thin membranes to help them fly away on the wind. In fact these seeds are designed to disperse on water. They float readily and can survive long periods in the water. The seeds are washed around the edge of the pond and then downstream through the ditches.
The most popular Suijin Water Spirit is a Buddhist goddess known as Benzaiten. She is also the patron saint of musicians and performers, and is even counted as one of the Shichifukujin or “ Seven Lucky Gods ” prayed to during the New Year period.
Benzaiten is served by snakes as her familiar spirits. At some ponds she lives in the form of a huge dragon, but can shapeshift into human guise when the need arrives. Her specialty is a beautiful woman. Even today you occasionally hear of a taxi cab driver who picks up a glamorous woman, dressed elegantly but sometimes in outdated fashion. He takes the woman to a secluded spot by an old tameike pond. Worried about letting a lady out in such a place, the driver glances in his mirror to make sure she is okay. To his surprise he sees her walk over and disappear into the pond!
Observing alder trees fruiting and blooming around a pond ruled by a glamorous dragon lady water goddess with snake familiars! What more could a mystic naturalist ask for.