Japanese Students Send Letters on Tree Leaves and Actually Get Them Delivered

“Thank you, always <3 I love you. Let’s stay together, now and forever,” one leaf letter read.
June 9, 2021, 8:02am
leaf
Japanese mail carriers apparently did not mind delivering letters written on leaves. Photos: Courtesy of the Tarayou Tree Project (left); Hajime Ishikawa

A group of university students in Tokyo has been writing letters on tree leaves and managing to get them delivered by the country’s renowned postal service with nothing more than a stamp.

The students at Keio University have been mailing leaves of Ilex latifolia, a species of holly native to Japan and China, since April as part of a class project that spans science and history.

Maho Omura, a first-year student in the group, came across the leaf of Ilex latifolia, also known as tarayou. Letters written on tarayou leaves go as far back as the Heian period (794-1185) and are believed to be the first postcards in Japan.

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This leaf reads: "Thank you, always <3 I love you. Let's stay together, now and forever." Photo: Courtesy of the Tarayou Tree Project

Unlike most other tree leaves, the back of a tarayou leaf can be scratched to leave permanent black etchings. Once scratched, the surface of the leaf undergoes a Maillard reaction, the same chemical process that gives a steak or a loaf of bread its brown crust.

“People said it looks like something from My Neighbor Totoro,” Mio Hirose, one of the students behind the project, told VICE World News, referring to the popular 1988 Japanese animated fantasy film.

Since launching what they call the Tarayou Tree Project, the students have sent more than 50 leaf letters all over Tokyo, even as far as Osaka some 300 miles away.

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The project has captured the attention of Japanese social media, with many expressing surprise that the leaves, mailed without any envelopes, managed to reach their recipients.

“The post office employee who sent this leaf is amazing,” one Twitter user said.

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A tarayou leaf, signed and stamped with love. Photo: Courtesy of Tarayou Leaf Project

Japan’s postal service is ranked fifth in the world by the Universal Postal Union based on factors such as reliability and reach.

The students are all classmates from a class called Introduction to Student Built Campus, which encourages students to embark on creative projects that foster a sense of community.

Originally, the students were interested in a service offered by the Japan Post Service called “Future Mail,” which allows people to send letters that will be delivered up to 10 years later. 

“We thought it’d be nice for college seniors and juniors to be connected, and we thought one of the ways relationships could exist past the boundaries of time would be through letters,” Risa Kitamura, a third-year student, told VICE World News. 

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The university students collecting leaves for their project. Photo: Courtesy of Tarayou Leaf Project

But the group felt simply sending letters on paper lacked pizzazz. Further research led them to writing the letters on tarayou leaves.

To send a leaf letter, students use a needle to etch the name and address of the recipient and then dry it in a microwave oven—gently. The group recommends increments of 10 seconds at 600 watts to avoid burning the leaf.

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After that, all the leaf needs is a standard stamp and it’s on its way.

But Kitamura said she had been warned not to send the leaves without first putting it in an envelope. 

“Some people on Twitter told us we need to at least put it in plastic film, because the size of each leaf doesn’t meet the minimum size requirements of mail,” she said. 

The minimum size for a postcard is 9 centimeters by 14 centimeters, and it must weigh at least 2 grams, according to the Japan Postal Service.

Evidently, that didn’t stop mail carriers from delivering most of the dozens of leaves the students put in the mailbox.

Follow Hanako Montgomery on Twitter and Instagram.