Trees and flowers may attract your attention, especially when they are not familiar to you and you cannot identify them. A little knowledge of the flora and vegetation of Japan will help you understand plant life you may encounter here.

The Japanese archipelago extends north and south, from latitude 45 degrees N down to 24 degrees N, and therefore average annual temperatures vary greatly within its range, between 8 degrees and 20 degrees Centigrade (46-68 degrees F.). In the northern island of Hokkaido, plants of the cirum-arctic origin occur, while in the southern islands show features of tropical vegetation. The annual precipitation is on the average about 1600mm(64 inches). Warm temperate forests in Kii region in western Japan often receive over 4000 mm (130 inches) of rain every year. Because of this high rate of precipitation, Japan is largely covered with dense stands of vegetation.

Tree ferns in Iriomote-jima Island.
Ferns bear no flowers. Most Japanese native ferns live quietly on the forest floor in the shadow of tall trees.
Only a few species grow tall like trees.

a magnolia in the montane zone, Magnolia salicifolia

a dwarfed azalea in the sub-alpine zone,Vaccinium vitis-idaea

Let's look at pine trees you may often see in Japanese style gardens

Matsu (pine)

the genus pinus, the pine family

Pine trees are very often found in Japanese paintings and woodblock prints. Beautifully trimmed pine trees are an essential part of a traditional Japanese garden. They are probably one of the most popular coniferous species in this country. Pine has been considered as a sacred tree to which the Shinto god descends, and it is still customary to put kado-matsu (pine at the gate), a New Year decoration, at the entrance of a house to ward off evils and invite good luck. There are local legends handed down from ancient times about a heavenly maiden's robe hung on a pine branch. This indicates that pine (or matsu in Japanese) is not only very widely distributed but also very closely tied to our culture.

The pine family(Pinaceae) is the largest family of gymnosperm which includes 200 species spreading among 11 genera. The genus pinus, comprising 100 species, has a wide range of distribution in the northern hemisphere. Kuromatsu (black pine) and Akamatsu (red pine) are representative of the seven pine species that occur in Japan.

Common Name Scientific Name Maximum Height Geographical Distribution

Pinus thunbergii var. thunbergii   

40m (120ft.)

Honshu,Shikoku, and Kyushu islands, Korea. Occurs in coastal areas



30m (90ft.)

Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu islands and other regions of East Asia. Occurs from foothills up to 2,000 m elevation.

Kuromatsu (left) and Akamatsu (right)

Fossils of their ancestoral relatives are traced back to the Cretaceous (90 to 65 million years ago). Both kuro-matsu and aka-matsu are extensively distributed throughout Japan. At least in eastern Japan, kuro-matsu is generally found in the coastal areas, while aka-matsu is at higher (usually 700-900 m or 2300 to 3000 ft.) elevations. Neither kuro-matsu nor aka-matsu is a dominant member of a climax plant community in the natural succession of vegetation. As pioneer tree species these shade intolerant trees proliferate at an eary stage of succession among shrubs and herbaceous species before other tree species appear. As time passes, they are replaced by shade tolerant climax species. Therefore many of the current pine-dominated forests are often results of human disturbances; pines can persist in the forest only when herbs and shrubs and other understory plants are removed periodically to prevent further change in species composition of the community. Then why have pine forests been maintained? Because resin and carbon abundantly contained in pine have long been very useful botanical recources for human activity and pine forests with ample supplies of firewood and building material have been heavily ustilizerd and well kept since ancient times.

How to distinguish one from the other: the difference in the color of the trunk is apparent; the trunk of kuro-matsu is dark gray and that of aka-matsu is reddish brown as their names indicate. They also have many similarities: their barks have similar scale-like patterns and their needles are both two in a bundle.

Hai-matsu (Japanese stone pine) Pinus pumila
If you are a hiker, the chances are that you will see hai-matsu around the timber line, which is at about 2200 m (6600 ft) - 2500 m (7500 ft.) above sea level in central Japan (at lower elevations in northern Japan and at higher elevations in southern Japan). Unlike other pine species, it prostrates on the ground to endure harsh climatic conditions of high mountains. And the cones remain closed even at matuarity. Hai-matsu occurs extensively in northeastern Asia, extending its range as far north as the Arctic Circle in eastern Siberia. Outside Japan it does not always occur at high elevations. In the geological past, when there was a general cooling trend over much of the earth's surface, Japan was no exception, and Hai-matsu took refuge at lower altitudes or latitudes. When it be
gan to be warm again after the retreat of the last glacier, this pine species ascended the mountain slopes to seek a cooler climate. Today below its colonies live many other species of trees and it is confined to the upper reaches of the mountains. Naturally hai-matsu is not found on the slopes of recently erupted volcanoes, sucn as mt Fuji. Instead of hai-matsu, larch, Larix kaempferi, occurs on Mt Fuji. Larch is a deciduous conifer which also can cope with severe climatic conditions.

Second, let's look at another genus of the pine family.

Karamatsu (larch) the genus larix, pine family
Larch is a deciduous member of the pine family. There are about ten species of larch distributed in the northern hemisphere. In Japan occurs only one species, Larix leptolepis or Karamatsu in Japanese. This deciduous pine is found in the montane zone, often. on rocky or sandy soils, or disturbed sites where it can enjoy sufficient sunlight. Maximum height: 20 m. Individuals growing in the upper reaches of the montane zone or in the subalpine zone are stunted. Needles are about 2 - 3 cm long; 20 - 30 needles in a bundle. Extensively planted across the country.

Larches on the slopes of Mt. Fuji

Sugi (Cryptomeria japonica), belonging to the family Taxodiaceae (the Redwood family), is widely planted but it is as a matter of fact a relict which once flourished but its distribution is quite limited today. This coniferous species favors mild climates and occurs at low elevations. Since ancient times we have used it for building houses, temples and shrines.

Above: Sugi is planted all over Japan, but in the wild it rarely grows in pure stands. Here are some individuals of Sugi intermixed with deciduous broad-leaved trees (in Akita prefecture).

Sugi (left) and Coast Redwood (right)

To see details of this plant, go to Plants of Japan <Illustrations>

To the top of the page

Home/Recommended Walks and Hikes/Plant Life in Japan/
Useful Tickets and Passes