The ginkgo tree is the official tree of the Tokyo Metropolitan District, having been selected for that honor by popular vote in 1966. While these trees are ubiquitous across the city–the majority of the half million trees lining Tokyo streets are ginkgo trees–they are at their most stunning during the month of December, when their leaves turn a brilliant yellow. Generally, ginkgo leaves turn a little later than those of other deciduous trees, so they are the last autumn leaves, their fiery color warming our hearts even as the days grow colder.
It is said that the reasons for the ginkgo’s selection as the tree most representative of Tokyo are its longevity and its resilience.
One tree particularly famous for the latter is the so-called “Disaster Ginkgo”. Situated next to the moat just outside the northeast corner of the Imperial Palace grounds, this 150-year-old tree burned during the fires after the September 1, 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, but miraculously survived. It is battle-scarred and looking a bit peaked these days, possibility because the general area is currently undergoing renovation. And it seems to have dropped its leaves a bit early, with most of them landing in the moat.
Although Tokyo, as a city, dates back only 400 years, some of its most famous ginkgo trees are much older. These trees can be found on the grounds of temples, and sometimes even shrines.
One of the most famous of these venerable trees is on the grounds of Zenpukuji temple in Azabu. The tree is close to 1,000 years old, and, like the Disaster Ginkgo, it was badly burned once–during the American fire bombings of May 1945. But, like the Disaster Ginkgo, it survived and regrew.
A “brother” to the Zenpukuji tree stands on the grounds of Kofukuji temple about a 7 minute walk from Oimachi Station. More than 800 years old, the tree stands about 40 meters tall with a trunk circumference of about 7.2 meters. Unlike the Disaster Ginkgo, its leaves have yet to really turn. Perhaps it will be more spectacular in another week or two.
One of the most popular spots in Tokyo to enjoy the intensity of the ginkgos in their autumn splendor is the 300-meter-long avenue leading to the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery, which is lined with 146 Ginkgo trees. This spot is so popular that it hosts an annual Ginkgo festival–this year’s festival finished today, although clearly the changing leaves haven’t finished. (Special thanks to my friend, Shoko Sakata, for letting me use these pictures, which she took earlier today.)
Using the ginkgo tree to line a promenade to a central building is also popular with universities. Two universities in Tokyo well known for this are Tokyo University and Aoyama Gakuin University (where I studied in the late 1980s). Although the leaves have nearly all dropped from the trees at Aoyama Gakuin, Tokyo University’s ginkgo trees are still going strong.
Truly, this time of year, the ginkgo are so striking that they are everywhere you look.
But even when the ginkgo trees have lost their leaves, or during spring and summer when they are “merely” green, shade-giving trees, we can’t help but think of them as we move about the city, thanks to the fact that their leaf shape is also one of the symbols of Tokyo, so that it is used for the logo of the metropolitan subway system and as a decoration on various objects, even for something as mundane as the guardrails of the city’s streets.