This spring, take a special trip to enjoy the beauty, splendor and history of some of Japan’s centuries-old cherry blossom trees.
Japanese people have long been fascinated with the breathtaking wonder of sakura, or cherry blossoms. No trees are more representative of Japan’s love for hanami (flower viewing) than the Godai Zakura, or the The Five Great Sakura. These five ancient trees were designated as tennen kinenbutsu (natural monuments) in 1922 due to their impressive age, unique botanical origin and astounding stature.
1. Usuzumi Zakura, Gifu Prefecture
One of the original Three Great Cherry Blossom Trees (alongside the Jindai Zakura and Miharu Takizakura below) is the Usuzumi Zakura. This towering tree is located in Neodani, Usuzumi Park, near Gifu City. Legend has it that this tree was hand-planted as a seedling long ago by Emperor Keitai in 467, making it over 1,500-years old.
Built to stand the test of time, the Usuzumi Zakura is a type of indigenous Japanese cherry blossom called an Edohigan. This wild variety is known for its slow growth, but remarkably robust trunk and branches. Perhaps as a testament to its botanical advantage, this tree has weathered an astonishing amount of natural disasters — most notably the 1959 Ise Bay Typhoon, as well as termite damage and heavy snowfalls. In 1948, it was even declared dead by a tree expert before being lovingly tended to and bursting into bloom the following spring.
Its name, usuzumi, meaning light black or grayish ink, comes from the distinctively pale, inky gray color of the blooms as they fall to the ground. The Usuzumi Zakura also uniquely boasts two other colors: light, rosy pink buds before it fully blossoms and the purest of white petals when in full bloom.
For this sakura tree, mankai (full bloom) is usually April 10, but given recent warming tendencies, it could be earlier this year.
- Map: Usuzumi Zakura
2. Yamataka Jindai Zakura, Yamanashi Prefecture
Hokuto City in Yamanashi Prefecture is home to not only the oldest cherry blossom tree in Japan, but possibly the oldest in the world. The legendary Yamataka Jindai Zakura, is also an Edohigan variety, which sits on the premises of Jissoji temple. It’s estimated to be between 1,800- to 2,000-years old. This sakura’s gnarled yet beloved trunk is more than 10-meters in diameter: roughly six people can encircle the base of the tree while holding hands! In 2001, it was revealed that the tree was ailing and weakening, so wooden poles were installed to support its branches.
This cherry blossom has a unique history that stems back to the famous tales of Takeru Yamato, popularly known as “Prince Ousu,” who supposedly planted the tree while he was visiting the region during the first century. It is also said that the renowned monk Nichiren (1222-1282), the founder of Nichiren Buddhism, came across the tree while traveling in the 13th century. According to historical writings, Nichiren found the tree on the verge of death and after he prayed for its recovery, the tree regained its vigor and survived.
In November 2008, several seeds taken from the Jindai Zakura were sent into space and orbited Earth for eight months on the International Space Station. Upon their return in 2009, only two seeds germinated, but one was planted on the grounds of Jissoji where it grew and bloomed quickly — giving rise to its name: uchuuzakura (space sakura).
3. Miharu Takizakura, Fukushima Prefecture
Located in Miharu City in Fukushima Prefecture is the ancient and glorious Miharu Takizakura, commonly regarded as Japan’s single most beautiful sakura. This tree, whose poetic name means “waterfall cherry blossom of Miharu,” is characterized by its spectacularly broad and weeping branches that hang heavy with light pink blooms from mid-to-late April. This Edohigan tree is over 1,000-years old, 13-meters high and spreads roughly 20-meters across with a root circumference of 11 meters. An awesome experience to behold.
For an especially memorable trip, be sure to visit Miharu Takizakura during the evening to take part in yozakura (cherry blossoms at night) when the tree is fully illuminated. Along with viewing the other gorgeous cherry trees in the vicinity, there are also several shrines, food stalls and souvenir shops to enjoy, as well.
- Map: Miharu Takizakura
4. Ishito Kabazakura, Saitama Prefecture
Standing for over 800 years and counting, the Ishito Kabazakura resides in Kitamoto City, Saitama Prefecture. According to lore, its origins lay in the life of late Heian and early Kamakura period military commander, Minamoto no Noriyori, who was said to have planted a seed from which the great tree sprouted. The tree, which derives its name from Noriyori’s nickname “Kaba Kanjya,” stands on the grounds of Tokoji, a temple that he founded.
As with the other cherry trees on this list, Ishito Kabazakura’s uniqueness earned it placement on the Godai Zakura list. This tree is not only a natural hybrid of two other varieties of sakura — Edohigan and yamazakura (mountain cherry) — it is also the only one in existence. Visitors should check out the cherry blossom festival held annually in early April at Tokoji temple to see its small, pale pink flowers in full bloom.
- Map: Ishito Kabazakura
5. Kariyado no Gebazakura, Shizuoka Prefecture
Although the Kariyado no Gebazakura is a variety of yamazakura, the most common type of cherry blossom in Japan, it is far from typical. With a history stretching back over 800 years, this tree, located in Shizuoka Prefecture’s Fujinomiya City, once stood at an unbelievable over 30-meters tall according to legend! Over the centuries, a number of typhoons have battered its resilient body, reducing the tree to a little less than half its height at its prime.
One of the oldest mentions of the tree comes from a story featuring Minamoto no Yorimoto, the first shogun of the Kamakura period (1185-1333) and brother of Minamoto no Noriyori mentioned above. In 1193, the shogun organized Fuji no Makigari, a hunting festival held at the base of Mount Fuji, intending to celebrate his political and military prowess. During the event, Minamoto no Yorimoto allegedly tied his horse to the great tree. Fast forward to the middle of the 19th century when Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu referenced the story of Minamoto no Yorimoto and the tree in a haiku:
Oh, how these wild cherry trees not only hold the horses together, but also the hearts of those who see them!
These days, visitors continue to gather at Kariyado no Gebazakura from mid-April when the tree is typically in full bloom and awash in subtle, pink, five-petaled blossoms.
Cherry blossoms are the symbol of springtime in Japan, with an unmatched ephemeral beauty. Long linked to the Japanese sense of aesthetics, the romance of sakura partly lies in the fleetingness of its blossoms. While they are long awaited, they blossom only briefly and are then scattered quickly, especially in the annual wind and rain of the season.
So, this spring, make some travel plans and try not to miss out on the unmatched beauty of the Godai Zakura: the Five Great Cherry Blossom Trees of Japan.© Japan Today
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Amazingly beautiful nature masterpieces these centenary trees. Spring in Japan is impressive, a pleasant gift to our eyes and soul. Cherry blossom spectacle.
Moderator: Thanks for pointing that out. It has been corrected.
Seen a couple of 1,000 year trees. Amazing length of time. My father's favorite for his wood sculpture.
I don't see anything attractive about all those poles holding up the branches. Nothing natural about that.
Cherry blossom is beautiful no matter the age of a tree. All those pieces of wood supporting a tree detracts from it beauty. Let nature take it's course and replant several tree to replace it.
I have noticed in Japan that it's quite normal to support and prop up old trees when I see tree's like this it is not natural and spoils the overall effect. If you want old tree's plant Yew that live for thousands of years or even European or Mediterranean oak
Without the poles, the weight of the branches would break off.
My oh my, not very appealing with all those support sticks. There’s a big nature/natural tree near my old apartment that looks better than all these.
They'd look much less appealing if they took them away.