Lion's Head Maple The Sacred
Lion's Head Maple

"In evening twilight
I ascend Mount Kugami.
Voices of bellowing deer
Are muted by carpets of
Maple leaves that have
Fallen quietly."

-Ryokan Taigu


Our Lion's Head Maple is by the mail box near the back gate. It is shown above in a May (2002) photo in its spring & summer green. The second photo from early November (2004) shows the amazing colors it is only beginning to be revealed. For additional colorful leaf portraits, see the Lion's Head in Autumn Portraits Page, as one autumn photo can barely begin to convey the rich array of colors it goes through.

When the first photo was taken, the little tree stood six feet tall & almost as wide, but only about two feet deep. It has grown a very few inches each year & is presently about seven feet tall. Despite a slight amount of pruning to keep it from getting too wide, by 2004 it began to obscure the nearby mailbox, so that substitute drivers on our mail route sometimes fail to find the box.

Lion's Head MapleThe tree was trained in a compressed manner so that it works well up close to the fence. Six feet high is an adult tree, as it is a dwarf or at least semi-dwarf. It will reach twelve feet a long time from now. Bonsai artists are drawn to its thick short stubby limbs & the ease by which it is further reduced in size.

The bark ages a very pretty shade of yellow, brightest in winter, so that it is quite a plus for the winter garden (see the Lion's-head page of the winter bark gallery).

The leaves are small, deeply cut & curled, forming dense tufts along twisted branches. The foliage is bright green or yellow-green in spring & summer, turning orange & rust-red very late in autumn or early winter. In a good year when the weather hits it the right way, the autumn golds & reds of the leaves are extremely vibrant, & it becomes obvious why it was given the name "Lion's Head" seeming to have a fierce lion's fiery mane.

Its cultivar name is "Shishigashira" which means "Lion's Mane" or "Lion Mask." It is pronounced She-She-GAH-she-rah. It is not only the name of this cultivar of Japanese maple, but is also a name of the Oranda Lion's-head Goldfish developed in Buddhist temple pools, & of a variety of camellia that blooms the same time that the maples are turning brilliant colors.

Miniature shishigashira lion masks made of laquered wood are a traditional gift upon the birth of a son, bestowing good health & fortune on the child. So too a Lion's Head Maple is said to protect the garden, much as statues of the ferocious Fu dog & Shishi lion seen at entrances of Buddhist temple gardens are there to protect all who stroll those garden paths.

GongenShishigashira is identified with Gongen, a Shinto mountain god who brings rain, & who came to be considered an incarnation of Lord Buddha who met with the Shinto deities on mountain tops & taught them how they no less than mortals were trapped on the Wheel of Existence, & must like all sentient beings seek the road to divine perfection.

Shishigashira masks are worn at festivals by performers of the Shishimai ("lion dance," also called Gongenmai, "Gongen's dance"), or worn to play the character of Gongen in Noh drama. Gongen has additionally the form of a fierce demon, having rule of lightning of thunder. A little Gongen statue is shown here at the left.

Gongen is loved in many places in Japan today, including in Arashiyama, Kyoto, where the annual Maple Festival is held in honor of Gongen. This festival is in mid-November when maples in the many shrines are in full autumn color.

Gongen's lion-head has fangs that can destroy all illnesses & evil. This is why whenever the Shishimai is performed, the hinged jaws of the shishigashira are caused to clack & clatter up & down ferociously. Whoever observes the sacred lion dance is protected from evil or will become powerful in battle.

But Gongen is not only stormy & violent on his mountaintop. He is capable of bestowing great wisdom. Bonzes & bikunis (monks & nuns) climb rugged mountains to meditate among the maples or the cedars, or even to recite sutras while standing in the freezing waters of a waterfall, in this manner seeking enlightenment with Gongen's blessings.


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