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Newton's apple fell all the way to Japan

Either I've acclimatized or this summer in Tokyo has really been rather pleasant. We haven't had any mōshobi (猛暑日) yet, as we call an extremely hot day of 35+ degrees, but let's not get too cheerful too soon: it's only mid-August.

It's important to note that I've specified "in Tokyo". I've experienced summer temperatures in Saitama, Gunma, Niigata, Yamanashi and Kyoto, and it's horrendous. It beggars belief. It's not so much the heat as the humidity that's a killer. Your body is permanently damp because your perspiration can't evaporate because the very air itself is already sweating. There ain't nowhere for one extra drop of liquid to go, so it summarily accepts permanent residency on your body. That's when natsubate (夏ばて), summer fatigue, strikes. It's characterized by lethargy, insomnia and lack of appetite.

What has this to do with Newton's apple, you ask? Patience. We'll get there.

This isn't Newton's apple tree, but it's leading us in the right direction. It's a lane in Koishikawa Botanical Gardens.

I haven't developed natsubate yet. I'm a) an African and b) an extremely bloody-minded person. The more Tokyo residents complain about the heat, the more determined I get to survive this summer in the African way, in other words, no air conditioning and no compromise. Life continues. Just do it.

I stubbornly decided to put my money where my mouth was and on a nice day – it was 30 degrees with 90% humidity – I walked from Kuramae to Koishikawa Botanical Gardens (小石川植物園 Koishikawa Shokubutsuen). My smartphone navigation told me it was a distance of 5 km. I calculated it would take me about an hour at an easy pace, plus another 10 to 15 minutes to get lost.

I started walking at 9:30 am. I didn't have a hat, but wore sunglasses. I had a fairly heavy camera in a backpack, but didn't carry any water with me. I wore sunscreen and three layers of insect repellent, because I knew I'd eventually walk in a thickly forested area. I arrived at the botanical garden at 11 after a bit of a detour via Myōgadani. I was sweating but happy and not remotely tired.

Koishikawa Botanical Gardens (don't confuse it with Koishikawa Kōrakuen) is a massive park in the heart of Bunkyō-ku that belongs to the University of Tokyo and is mainly used for plant research. It's a living museum of 4 000 species that's left in a natural state, and it's so big that you can walk around for hours without seeing another soul. It's spectacular but crowded in autumn; hot and green and deserted in summer. My only companions were a smallish herd of seniors who were travelling together and meticulously checking names off a long list of trees.

The whole park is lovely, but I have to highlight three famous occupants.

Firstly, Newton's apple tree! Sir Isaac Newton is credited with formulating the law of gravity after he saw an apple fall from a tree. This apple tree in Koishikawa Botanical Gardens is a graft from the original tree in Newton's garden. It was given to Dr Yuji Shibata of the Japan Academy by Sir Gordon Sutherland, director of the National Physical Laboratory of the United Kingdom in 1964. Now here's the interesting bit: when the tree arrived at Haneda Airport, plant quarantine inspectors found that it was infected with apple chlorotic leafspot virus. "Incinerate!" they thundered. Dr Shibata intervened, and persuaded them to allow the tree to be planted in an isolated environment at Koishikawa Botanical Gardens. The tree recovered, is still growing and still producing apples.

Newton's apple tree


Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Secondly, a vine that originated from the plant that Gregor Mendel used to study genetics. It was donated to Manabu Miyoshi, the gardens' second curator, by a monastery in Bruno in the Czech Republic in 1914.

Mendel's vine

A photo of its grapes, added just for Tall Gary.

Finally, as the climax, I offer you … the sperm tree!

I have to confess that I don’t quite geddit, but apparently it was a Very Big Deal when it was discovered that the ginkgo biloba has "motile spermatozoids in gymnosperms". I think that means the little critters swim, just like their human counterparts.

Anyway, a technician called Sakugoro Hirase, who was employed at the Imperial University in Tokyo (which was renamed the University of Tokyo), found the sperm in 1894 after peering into this female tree's private parts after she had canoodled with an unknown male. You can read the full story here.

The famous ginkgo in Koishikawa Botanical Gardens

Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Contrary to what your eyes tell you, this is a female tree. The funny dangling bits are called burls or aerial roots. Once they touch the ground, they form real roots. (They're called chichi or nipples in Japanese.)

The other occupants in this park are not flora, but fauna of the icky type. I recommend a visit very strongly, but I have to warn you that you should be heat-resistant and fairly blasé about insects if you want to enjoy the park in summer. It's big, hot and humid with many stagnant ponds and thickly wooded areas, in other words, bug heaven.

I'd soaked myself in insect spray and it helped up to a point. I'm afraid Japanese insect repellent is like Japanese deodorant: it just isn't powerful enough for a barbarian from Africa. I used to have a magic potion from South Africa called Tabard, but stocks will remain depleted until a return to the motherland. So I walked in a cloud of mosquitoes and blundered through countless spider webs. I have a video that illustrates what happens when I crash into a thick spider's web while single-mindedly pursuing kitsune (mythical foxes), but I'm saving that for a next post about … never mind … you'll see.



I spent about 90 minutes in the park and then walked back, in other words, on that particular day I covered roughly 12 km and walked fairly non-stop for about 5 hours. (This is nothing! I know a Malaysian blogger who runs marathons in this kind of heat.) I drank a total of 750 ml of water and had one ice cream. I didn't get sunburn, I didn't faint, I never opened a parasol. The only damage was five mosquito bites, one spider (I think) bite, scratched arms, a limp coiffure and sodden clothes.

Did I look pretty? Heck, no! Did I enjoy it? Oh, yes! Did I switch on the air con when I got home? No. I had a cold bath and then sat in front of a fan, observing the impressively huge bump of the spider (I think) bite.

More to follow.

PS: Thanks to Orchid, who reminded me that I should revisit this park.

This is the entrance to the park, but you don't buy tickets here. You buy it ...

... at this shop across the street. No, I don't know why, but why not? 

These beautiful cycads made me think I was back in Africa.

I thought this was the most magnificent tree in the park: a massive camphor tree (クスノキ kusunoki).

Here you can see the ginkgo and the camphor together.

This used to be the Medical School of the Imperial University. It dates from 1876.

No particular reason for this photo, except that it's a weird white tree, so I identified with it.

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