For the last year I crossed Tokyo’s Azabu Ward at least two times a day, but often didn’t leave the underground. It changed, when I read the story about a “Great Survivor” in a local newspaper. Using long break between classes at university I decided to pay him a visit. I was simply amazed by what I saw.
Tokyo oldest ginkgo tree
Zenpuku-ji Buddhist temple in Azabu Ward, Tokyo, was established in 824, almost 1200 years ago. Since last 800 years its premises (to be precise: its cemetery) is a home of the “oldest living thing in Tokyo” – the oldest ginkgo tree. Despite the long life and its miracle survival of the Second World War’s air raids the tree grows naturally until now without any help by human and any “life-prolonging” treatment.
Ginkgo trees (Ginkgo biloba, also known as “maidenhair trees”) are well know for their longevity. They were one of the first leafy trees which appeared on the planet Earth – parts of ginkgo were found in fossils dating back 270 million years! Ginkgo trees are either male or female, and their distinctive fan-shaped leaves change from light green to bright yellow in autumn. This ginkgo tree is a “male-type” (it doesn’t produce seeds), which makes it the oldest man in Tokyo 😉
The name “ginkgo” is believed to be a misspelling of the Japanese gin kyo – “silver apricot”. In fact ginkgo is written in Japanese with the use of kanji 銀杏 (銀 – silver, 杏 – apricot), but the reading of this characters is different – ichō.
The local legend says that the tree didn’t grow from the seed. It used to be a travel cane that noble Buddhist monk Shinran stuck in the ground of the Zenpuku-ji temple. For this reason some people call it “Cane Ginkgo Tree”.
Upside-Down Gingko (逆さ銀杏, Sakasa Icho) is an official name of the tree. The name comes from the mysterious shape of the branches growing downward (“aerial roots”, also called “roots like women’s breasts”). It is common for extremely old trees to grow stalactite-shaped branches. I happened to see similar stalactite branches when I visited Icod de los Vinos on Tenerife Island. There’s a tree called Dracena Millenaria (El Drago, Dragon Tree), which is said to be one thousand years old (that’s why it is called “millenaria”).
A few years ago, when a fire prevention water tank was set up at Zenpuku-ji, it was discovered that the underground roots of the tree reaches a depth of 10 meters.
A witness to history
The tree was designated as a “Natural Monument of Historic Site and Place of Scenic Beauty” already 90 years ago (in 1926). Unfortunately the Second World War didn’t help to preserve the beauty of already 750 years old tree, burning everything to the ground. In 1945 Tokyo was heavily damaged during the American air raids. The Great Yamanote Air Raid campaign, which started on May 25, burned down most of the urban area of middle and West part of Tokyo. The fire in the Azabu Ward destroyed almost eight thousands wooden houses. And yet, similarly to the Phoenix trees from Hiroshima, the tree started to grow again, growing countless branches form its half-lost upper trunk. The bunts can be still seen on the east side of the tree. They look like a carbonized scars – wounds of war that will never heal.
Since a few years ago Sakasa Icho has a new “friend”. Another plant – a small palm is growing on its trunk.
Did you know that ginkgo leaf is an official symbol of the capital of Japan? The shape of the ginkgo leaf resembles the letter “T” for “Tokyo”. 20 years ago the Tokyo Metropolitan Office designated the ginkgo as the official metropolitan tree. Ginkgo trees are commonly found along Tokyo’s streets and avenues. The best places in Tokyo to see the ginkgo yellow autumn foliage are Icho Namiki (Ginkgo Avenue), located on Aoyama Street on the south side of Jingu Gaien Park and Showa Kinen Park (Memorial Park), 10 minutes walk from the Tachikawa station.
Azabusan Zenpuku-ji Temple
Zenpuku-ji (善福寺) is one of the oldest Tokyo Buddhist temples, after Asakusa. On the temple’s premises you can find also a monument to the Townsend Harris, the first United States Consul General to Japan. He is credited as the diplomat who first opened Japan to foreign trade and culture.
Azabusan Zenpuku-ji Temple, where is it?
Text based on the Azabu Community Information Paper vol. 32, September 2015
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