The Giant Trees of Tochigi: #38 The Giant Ginkgo of Shiroyama Park

#38 The Giant Ginkgo of Shiroyama Park
Through the woods, across a bridge across a dry, vegetation-infested moat, and up a gangway through the old castle walls, and straight ahead, the tree that is my destination.

Number: 38
Name: The Giant Ginkgo of Shiroyama Park (城山公園のいちょう)
Type: Ginkgo biloba
Height: 15m
Trunk Circumference: 6.2m
Age: unknown
Location: 栃木県小山市本郷町 (36° 19′ 09″N 139° 47′ 59″E)
Date of Visit: 2012-7-28

First, I should probably note that this tree has an official English name, that being “The Big Ginkgo Tree of Gion Castle Site”. But meeeeh.

#38 The Giant Ginkgo of Shiroyama Park
It certainly is a big’un.

On a piece of high ground on the left bank of the Omoi River (思川), the remains of Gion Castle (祇園城) stand. These days, part of the castle ruins have been made into a park and thrown open to the people. There are many flat open areas punctuated by dry moats with bridges crossing them. It’s a nice place to go for a walk. I arrived just after noon on one of the hottest and most humid days of the year (heat index: 45C), and so there were only a few people at the park.

#38 The Giant Ginkgo of Shiroyama Park
To me, ginkgo leaves always look primitive, immature. Compared to a large architectural leaf like an acer may have, ginkgo leaves just sort of hang about as unformed leftover scraps. It matches with the general aesthetic of “Imma gonna grow all over the place and be all untidy and you’re gonna love me anyway” that ginkgos have.

It is said that, at the fall of Gion Castle, when the princess threw herself into a dry well to kill herself rather than be taken, her soul transformed into this ginkgo. That is why, so the story goes, this tree does not fruit. Of course, people in the past didn’t realize that ginkgo are dioecious, and this is a male tree and that is why it doesn’t fruit.

#38 The Giant Ginkgo of Shiroyama Park
Straining upwards.

Stories involving tragic deaths that explain why male ginkgos don’t bear fruit, or why ginkgos have pendulous aerial roots and look creepy are plentiful here. I’m reminded of a story about The Giant Ginkgo of Hida Kokubunji, in Gifu. In the Tempyou Era (天平, 729-749CE), when the seven-storey pagoda was being built, the head carpenter accidentally cut the pillars too short. He was distraught over his mistake, but his daughter (I think, Yaegiku) suggested the addition of blocks at the top of each pillar to correct their length. Thanks to this idea, the pagoda was completed successfully.

#38 The Giant Ginkgo of Shiroyama Park
This is how summer should be.

But as the reputation of the magnificent pagoda, and the head carpenter rose, he felt he had to protect the secret of his mistake. To this end, he killed his daughter so she couldn’t blab. He buried her on the temple grounds. It is said that the soul of the girl, whose life had been cut short, flowed into the ginkgo and thereby she achieved a life much longer than that of her father. There too, though the stories say that the soul of a girl resides in the tree, the tree itself is male.