The Magic of Wish Trees
John Shors describes how, from Japan to Scotland to your own backyard, trees can help people turn their wishes into reality.
Almost twenty years ago, after graduating from college, my best friend and I decided to travel to Kyoto, Japan, to teach English. We had heard that foreign teachers were in high demand and, seeking an adventure, we headed off to a country that neither of us had experienced. We couldn’t speak Japanese, didn’t have jobs, and had very little money.
I ended up living in Japan for about three years. Ultimately, I saved up enough money that I was able to then backpack around Asia for another year. These travels have become the catalyst for my novels in that I was strongly influenced by the places and people and cultures I came in contact with.
My most recent novel, The Wishing Trees, was inspired by my time in Japan. I lived near an ancient temple complex, and often walked through its grounds and reflected on my life and my future. Beside a koi-filled pond rose an old cherry tree that the Japanese considered a “wish tree.” Throughout the year, the tree was inundated by thousands of paper wishes that people had tied to the tree. The wishes could be directed toward one’s god or gods or ancestors.
I discovered Wish Trees all over Japan. Some were massive and ancient. Others were young and practically bent over by the weight of all the paper wishes. From the distance, the wishes resembled white flowers. From a few feet away, it was possible to read some of the wishes without touching them. People asked for health, for peace, for a better job. The trees were treated with great reverence. Gardeners used bamboo poles to brace heavy branches against the wind, and the ground beneath the trees was constantly swept clean of debris. Meanwhile, month after month, year after year, the wishes fluttered, and hopefully, were fulfilled.
I always enjoyed the notion of one’s ancestor or god seeing a wish tied to a tree and making that wish come true. The concept was elegant, mystical, and deeply spiritual. After I left Japan, I researched Wish Trees and was surprised to discover that different cultures from around the world had similar versions to what was done in Japan. In Scotland, for centuries people have hammered coins into the trunks of hawthorn trees, made a wish, and then watched that coin as the years passed. In Hong Kong people used to write down a wish on a piece of paper, tie that paper to an orange, and then throw the device into a wish tree in hopes of their wish becoming entangled on a high branch.