Photo: George Lloyd

A visit to Zenpukuji Temple in Azabu to see the oldest tree in Tokyo

By George Lloyd, grape Japan

The Giant Gingko Tree at Zenpukuji temple is said to be the oldest tree in Tokyo. Although it is only 20 meters in height, which is nothing special for a gingko tree, it is almost 10 meters in circumference, which makes it a true giant.

The history of the Giant Gingko Tree is bound up with that of Zenpukuji. The temple was founded in 824 by Kobo Daishi, founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. In 1232, Saint Ryokai, the abbot of the temple, switched allegiance and became a follower of Shinran Shonin, the founder of the rival Jodo Shinshu sect.

Photo: George Lloyd

According to legend, one day, as Shinran Shonin was leaving the temple after teaching Saint Ryokai the tenets of his sect, he stamped his staff on the ground to demonstrate how followers of other sects faced spiritual annihilation unless they started reading their prayers according to his formula.

As if touched by a source from above, Shinran Shonin’s staff suddenly began to sprout buds and sent out branches. Roots grew from the other end of his staff and sunk themselves into the soil, and in no time at all it had become a stately gingko tree.

In recognition of its preternatural girth, the Japanese government designated the Giant Gingko Tree at Zenpukuji a Natural Monument in 1926.

Towards the end of World War II, an incendiary bomb exploded nearby, rending the trunk of the tree in two and burning its branches. Yet somehow it survived and is today a healthy reminder of old Edo in modern Tokyo.

Zenpukuji temple also has a temporal claim to fame. After the conclusion of the Treaty and Amity between the United States and Japan in June 1858, Zenpukuji was the site of the first American legation. You can see a stone plaque with a likeness of its first minister, Townsend Harris, in the temple grounds.

Photo: George Lloyd

In those early days, the American Legation was confined to the temple’s adjoining drawing room. When it was attacked and burned to the ground by angry samurai from the Mito domain, the Americans were forced to move into the main part of the temple, where they stayed until they moved to the Tsukiji Settlement, the Meiji government’s special zone for foreigners, in 1875.

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© grape Japan

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Nearby Zojoji is almost as famous - the first tree planted in Japan by a (former) American President - Ulysses S. Grant in 1879.

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***Worth reading Townsend Harris's description of how he got there.

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Came across a cherry tree in the Japanese Alps which was more than 1000 years old and bloomed twice a year.

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If you have a passion for trees, you may also want to check out 'Yoko no Matsu', the Black Pine at Zenyō-ji Temple in Higashi Koiwa, Edogawa City. Head to Koiwa station on the Chūō-Sōbu Line (or Edogawa Station on the Keisei Main Line) and then walk, bus or taxi. The temple is in a quiet residential area. Like all temples it is used for prayers by the locals and although the Pine is a National Natural Property, I was the only tourist when I went. It is a remarkable tree and a very peaceful place to commune with nature.

Google Maps: 善養寺影向のマツ

The area either side of the Edo River in this area is very pleasant. From the Temple, walk to Edogawa Station and travel one stop to Kōnodai Station. Then take a walk along the riverside path to Satomi Park. The Rose Garden there featured in the Jdrama 'Kekkon Shinai' ('Wonderful Single Life'). From the path you can see the SkyTree in the distance. If the weather is just right, sunshine glinting on the river and a light, fresh breeze, it is a very refreshing walk.

Please check any local covid restrictions before undertaking any tourism at the moment.

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