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.
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.
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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