The Giant Trees of Tochigi: #42 The Giant Hackberry of Munakata Shrine

The Giant Hackberry of Munakata Shrine
This is the tree which I had come to see. Huge, vigorous, majestic. Unfortunately, I arrived a decade too late. (photo from 関東の神社めぐり プチ神楽殿)

Number: 42
Name: The Giant Hackberry of Munakata Shrine (胸形神社のエノキ)
Type: Japanese Hackberry (Celtis sinensis var. japonica)
Height: 23m in 1994, 18m in 2007, considerably shorter now.
Trunk Circumference: 5.7m
Age: >300 years
Location: 栃木県小山市寒川 (36° 16′ 41″N 139° 43′ 31″E)
Date of Visit: 2012-7-28

#42 The Giant Hackberry of Munakata Shrine
This is what greeted me. What had happened?

Below the left bank of the Uzuma River (巴波川), there lies Munakata Shrine.

Enshrined here are Tagorihime-no-Mikoto (田心姫命), Ichikishimahime-no-Mikoto (市杵島姫命), and Tagitsuhime-no-Mikoto (多岐津姫命), three goddesses born from Susanoo’s sword and known collectively as the Three Goddesses of Munakata (宗像三女神). These are the same goddesses enshrined at Munakata Grand Shrine (宗像大社), though that Munakata (宗像) and this Munakata (胸形) are written differently.

#42 The Giant Hackberry of Munakata Shrine
The other trees here seem to be in fine condition, so what happened to the hackberry?

The Three Goddesses of Munakata are, essentially, ocean goddesses. So, I wonder how it came to be that there is a Munakata Shrine here, so far from the sea? That being said, Munakata Grand Shrine is head of 6000 Munakata Shrines in the country, so it is unlikely that this is the only inland one. I can only guess, but I assume that the Uzuma River was prone to flooding, and if these three goddesses offer protection from the vagaries of the sea, surely they are powerful enough to protect people from a bit of a stream.

Or so they may have thought. Despite this, in Showa 16 (昭和16年, 1941CE), the main temple was washed away in a flood. The flood also washed away much of the soil around the roots of this hackberry, though the health of the tree was not significantly impacted at that time.

#42 The Giant Hackberry of Munakata Shrine
The inside is entirely hollowed out. Mesh has been erected to prevent children from playing inside it and maybe getting stuck or hurt. You can see the very strong shoots that have sprouted and grown these last five years though.

The tree in question lies to the left of the torii. It seems that as early as Heisei 6 (平成6年, 1994 CE) the tree was suffering from a variety of maladies, and the appropriate countermeasures were taken. They must have been at least partly effective because the picture at the very top dates from, I believe, Heisei 17 (平成17年, 2005 CE), and it appears to be quite healthy there. Alas, by Heisei 19 (平成19年, 2007 CE) many of the branches had died and been cut off so they wouldn’t present a falling danger.

#42 The Giant Hackberry of Munakata Shrine
Though the main trunk is completely dead, its roots must have been very strong to have supported the growth of so many shoots so quickly — shoots that can provide this thick foliage.

Now, the tree that was once described as the largest hackberry in Tochigi is dead. The places where branches were cut off are covered in metal caps, and the bark has come off in many places and you can see woodworm holes everywhere, and in the bottom you can see that the entire main trunk has been hollowed out. This is a dead tree, and that’s sad.

#42 The Giant Hackberry of Munakata Shrine
A portrait of the once and future largest hackberry in Tochigi.

But it’s not entirely dead. Perhaps the roots remained strong, or perhaps in its final years the tree had some particularly healthy seed dropped nearby. Whatever the case, this tree is slowly but surely regrowing, as can be seen from the many tall shoots. These shoots weren’t here in 2007, and it’s a remarkable amount of new growth in just five years. Though the hackberry I came to see is but a dead shadow of its former self, it lives on through the new shoots it has started to grow. Perhaps in 300 years, it will once again be the biggest hackberry in Tochigi.