The sakaki (cleyera japonica) is an evergreen tree that belongs to the cleyera species of the theaceae family. The sakaki is of paramount importance in Shinto rituals, and is frequently used as a ritual offering at both household Shinto altars and Shinto shrines.
The tree has thick, oval-shaped alternate leaves that have a smooth, leather-like surface and no serrated edges. Small and white flowers blossom in June. It bears small black sap fruits around November.
The hisakaki (eurya japonica) can be a substitute for the cleyera japonica.
The hamahisakaki (eurya emarginata), which is closely related to the eurya japonica, grows wild on the coast and is often planted along streets. Its leaves are round and clearly different from the leaves of the sakaki and the hisakaki. It flowers in winter and smells like the hisakaki.
Sakaki branches are also offered on household altars and replaced twice a month, on the first and fifteenth of every month (up thru the Edo period, they were replaced on the first and fifteenth of each month according to the old lunar calendar).
Sakaki began to be used in Shinto rituals because since ancient times people believed that gods sometimes choose to dwell in plants, and what's more, branches with pointed leaves (like the sakaki branch) are considered yorishiro (objects that represent the gods). Branches from evergreens like young pines and michelia compressa were also used until recently, when the sakaki and hisakaki grew in popularity thanks to the fact that they are the most commonly occuring planets with the sort of pointed leaves appropriate to be yorishiro.
The name "sakaki" (lit. "border tree") is thought to be referring to the notion of the tree as standing on the border between the gods and humankind. Some suggest that the name comes from 'proliferating trees' because it is an evergreen tree and proliferates, but many scholars consider it as far-fetched and disagree.
The sakaki is commonly found in household gardens in rural areas. It is also a popular choice for home gardening because it is an evergreen.
To avoid confusion of pronunciations between 'sakaki' and 'hisakaki,' some call the sakaki 'hon-sakaki' and the hisakaki 'shashaki,' 'shakaki,' 'Shitakusa,' 'bishako,' or 'hotokesan shiba' depending on the region.
Because the sakaki tree grows mostly only in the southern Kanto where the climate is relatively mild, a hisakaki of a related species (but different genus) is substituted for the sakaki in areas further north.
Some suggest that the hisakaki comes from 'hime sakaki' literally meaning 'princess sakaki' because it is small; other suggest it originates from the meaning of 'non sakaki.'
The hisakaki is a plant that can be offered to household Buddhist altars. It blooms flowers in early spring that have a distinct smell.
The leaf edges helps tell the sakaki from the hisakaki. The hisakaki has smaller and toothed (with rough edges) leaves, whereas the sakaki has slick-surfaced leaves with no rough edges. The sakaki can also be identified by its claw-like shoot apices (winter buds).
In recent years, the vast majority of sakaki or hisakaki branches sold in stores in Japan for use on Shinto altars are from trees grown in China and are imported by Japanese companies.