The Giant Trees of Tochigi: α8 Saigyo’s Wandering Willow

The Giant Trees of Tochigi: α8 Saigyo's Wandering Willow
The enclosure is made of special rocks from this region, Ashino basalt.

Number: α8
Name: Saigyo’s Wandering Willow (遊行柳)
Type: Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica)
Height: 10m
Trunk Circumference: 0.9m
Age: unknown
Location: 栃木県那須郡那須町芦野 (36° 59′ 44″N 140° 09′ 54″E)
Date of Visit: 2011-8-13

I realize it’s a bit of a stretch to include this in a “Giant” trees project, as it’s neither all that big, nor all that old. But it’s important, and it’s right beside a giant tree, so hey why not, right??

The Giant Trees of Tochigi: α8 Saigyo's Wandering Willow

When the poet and wandering monk Saigyo (西行, 1118-1190 CE) was on his travels in Northern Honshu, he stopped beneath a willow in this area and wrote a poem:


Alongside the path
Fresh water flows, and
In the willow’s shade
Just for a little while
Would I take my ease…

In Bunmei 3 (文明3年, 1471 CE), the 19th head of the Ji Sect of Buddhism (also known as the Yugyou — wandering — Sect) was a fellow named Sonkou (Saint Sonkou, if you want to be specific – 尊皓上人). At that time, as members of the sect had done ever since its inception some 200 years earlier, he was wandering throughout the land, preaching the power of the nembutsu (念仏), converting people to this flavour of Pure Land Buddhism.

When he chanced to rest beneath this willow, the spirit of the willow appeared to him in the guise of an old man. Sonkou told the spirit about the Amida Buddha, said ten nembutsu on his behalf, and gave him a slip of paper with the nembutsu on it, as was the practice of the Ji Sect. The old man thanked Sonkou, and disappeared. As it was late in the day, and the willow was as good a place as any to spend the night, Sonkou settled down to make camp.

When night fell, the spirit rematerialized and, to repay the kindness Sonkou had shown him, he told Sonkou the history of the tree and the area through the medium of interpretive dance before disappearing once again.

The Giant Trees of Tochigi: α8 Saigyo's Wandering Willow

In the spring of Genroku 2 (元禄2年, 1689 CE), the poet Basho was in the area, in the midst of his great wander that would give him the source material for The Narrow Road to the Deep North (おくのほそ道). Indeed, it has been said that Saigyo’s wanderings inspired Basho to his own. At any rate, after visiting The Killing Stone (殺生石, in present-day Nasu), he paid a visit to this willow. While sitting there, in the same place that Saigyo once did, he became lost in thought, and watched an entire rice field being planted. Thereupon, he wrote:


One field
did they plant.
I, under the willow.

The Giant Trees of Tochigi: α8 Saigyo's Wandering Willow
The marker denoting this as a natural monument of Nasu Town.

Still later, during his Basho-inspired wanderings of the north, Buson (与謝蕪村, 1716-1784 CE) was feeling melancholy about the state of poetry. In his age, he felt, there was no one of the calibre of Saigyo or Basho, and so he wrote:


Willow bare
clear stream dried up
rocks here and there

All three of these poems can be found carved in stones around the Willow, reminding us of its importance.

Of course, the Willow I saw was not the Willow under which Saigyo sat; it was not the willow whose spirit achieved Nirvana with Saint Sonkou’s help; it was not the willow Basho sat beneath as a rice field was planted and it was not the willow featured in Buson’s stark metaphor of mid-Edo poetry. This willow is not old enough. Successive generations of people have taken it upon themselves, however, to make sure that a willow is always growing here. Spiritually, if not materially, this willow and those willows are the same willow.

I try to show you my Japan. Won’t you show me your Japan?

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