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The biggest ginkgo in Tokyo

It's perhaps the oldest living thing in Tokyo – a hoary old-timer that's survived seven centuries as well as an American incendiary bomb. It's called the Sakasa-ichō (逆さイチョウ), or upside-down ginkgo, and it's the largest of its kind in Tokyo. Its trunk is 10,4 m in diameter and it's 20 m tall. No wonder it's been declared a Natural Monument.

It stands in Azabu at Zenpuku-ji (善福寺), one of the oldest temples in Tokyo. (Sensō-ji in Asakusa is the oldest.) Zenpuku-ji was founded in 924 by Kōbō Daishi, founder of the Shingon school of Buddhism; but in 1232 its abbot was influenced by the teachings of Shinran, the founder of the Jōdō Shinshū school, and converted to the latter.

The biggest ginkgo in Tokyo. Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Here's a hopelessly over-simplified explanation of the two schools of thought: Shingon is an esoteric sect; Jōdō is considered an "Easy Path because one is not compelled to perform many difficult practices in order to attain higher mental states". Jōdō is the biggest sect in contemporary Japan.

Anyway, after Shinran finished teaching the abbot the doctrines of his sect, he prepared to leave. First, though, he planted his walking stick, which was made of ginkgo wood, in the temple's grounds. He promised that the stick would grow into a tree, and lo and behold, it did.

It's still there, 750 years later.

The main trunk is formed by a fusion of multiple trunks, some of which have broken off. New trunks are still developing, both from the base of the tree and the trunk itself. The tree's main branches are covered in so-called chichi-ichō (乳銀杏) or hanging breasts, downward-growing shoots that are typical of ancient ginkgos throughout Asia. Sakasa's shoots are up to 2 m in length and 40 cm in diameter. (I think that would be an F-cup.)

Downward-growing shoots

The tree, despite its boobs, is a male tree. It's old and has many scars; it's split in different parts; you can still see burn marks from WWII, when a bomb damaged the tree; and bamboo is growing from the trunk. It spreads its branches over a cemetery and serves as beacon for anybody trying to find the temple amongst Azabu's expat palaces.

More temple facts

Zenpuku-ji temporarily served as home to Townsend Harris, the first American ambassador to Japan, in 1859. The temple was chosen due to its high ceilings which accommodated the height of the ambassador.

Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901), one of Japan's great modernizers and the founder of Keio University, is buried here. I couldn't find his grave, but then again, I wasn't exactly looking. My attention was occupied by a giant that's battered but unbowed: massive, solemn, majestic … utterly gorgeous.

Entrance to Zenpuku-ji, with the ginkgo on the left and Moto-Azabu Forest Hills Tower behind the temple

The ginkgo from the graveyard, with a statue of Shinran on the left

Ginkgo in the middle, Tokyo Tower on the right

The graveyard has other magnificent trees. (That's not the upside-down ginkgo.)

Zenpuku-ji

Detail of wooden carving on temple

Detail on the temple. See the ginkgo leaves?

I have no idea what the apparently turbo-driven turtle is. Anybody?

Onigawara or ogre tile

Onigawara or ogre tile

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