Tokyo, despite its urbanity, is home to awe-inspiring, living green fossils. Some of these giants are over a thousand years old, and are not just symbols of the city’s history but also a reminder of the cyclical beauty and resilience of nature in the face of Japan’s urbanization, modernization, and even war. Trees and nature are central to Shintoism—once a tree reaches its 100th birthday, it can be inhabited by kodama. These tree spirits can be quite literally a blessing or a curse, depending on how they’ve been treated. Cut down a kodama’s tree and you’ll bring about misfortune, but protect these sacred lifeforms and you’ll be rewarded. Follow this guide to explore Tokyo through its roots.
Ginkgo Tree at Meiji Shrine
One of the ginkgo trees at Meiji Shrine is estimated to be over 1,200 years old. This means you’re looking at something that has witnessed the establishment of Kamakura Shogunate in 1185, the arrival of Portuguese and Spanish traders in 1543, the Great Edo Earthquake in 1703, the Meiji Restoration in 1868, and both the Pacific War and allied bombing of Tokyo in 1945.
Considered a sacred symbol of the Meiji era, legend has it that this tree was planted by Emperor Meiji himself, and today it brings good luck and prosperity to those who visit it. Despite its beautiful, golden fans in autumn, the tree releases a strong and pungent smell around this time due to a chemical called ginkgolic acid. While it might sound like an ingredient for the next Korean skincare trend, it’s certainly not pleasant, and its scent is often compared to that of rancid butter.
Wisteria Tree at Kameido Tenjin Shrine
Over at Koto-ku, an ancient Wisteria sprawls outside Kameido Tenjin Shrine. At the ripe old age of over 150 years, its amethyst blooms are still dripping from the tree’s bonsai-like branches each spring thanks to decades of careful pruning. It’s one of the most famous wisteria-viewing spots in Japan—another impressive specimen being at Ashikaga Flower Park in Tochigi prefecture.
Demon Slayer fans might recognize it as a sign of safety from dangerous oni (demons), but the tree is traditionally known as a symbol of love. As such, it’s a popular spot for couples to take wedding photos.
Pine Tree at the Imperial Palace East Gardens
Towering above the historic walls of the former Edo Castle, it’s easy to see why this species of tree is considered a symbol of longevity and resilience. Reaching its branches towards the sky in a bold display of “been there, done that” confidence, this pine feels tenfold wiser than its mere Christmas tree and car air freshener cousins.
The arboreal wonder is surrounded by a moat and is only visible during specific days of the year when the inner gardens of the palace are opened to the public—making it one for only the most dedicated of tree-huggers to behold.
Cedar Tree on Mt. Takao
If the Imperial Pine seems too tricky to get a glimpse of, would you be willing to hike up a mountain instead? (Yes, you’re allowed to cheat and take the chair lift if you want). Just past the monkey park on Route 1 of Takao’s lush hiking trails is a humongous cedar with roots that wind around its base like the legs of an octopus. Aptly named Takosugi (octopus cedar), it stretches 37 meters up and out of the forest canopy, only outshone in size by its mountainside neighbor Meshimori.
As it’s a spiritual tree, it proudly sports its shimenawa (Shinto rope) and decades of palms seeking good fortune have smoothed the bark of the roots. To protect this living giant, a fence has now been constructed around it, but you can touch the stone octopus monument beside it instead. It’s not as satisfying as touching something that witnessed both World Wars and the construction of every single skyscraper in Tokyo, but it’s still pretty good. Though the tree looks wise and majestic, hay fever sufferers beware as it drops pollen as quickly as Netflix drops new true crime documentaries.
Ginkgo of Zenpukuji
Though this elderly arboreal might appear in the winter months as distinctly unalive as its graveyard neighbors, its gnarled branches explode outward like a giant green firework of foliage in the warmer months. During autumn, it bursts into a sunshine-yellow cloud. Often referred to as the upside-down ginkgo biloba because its branches look like its roots, it stands at around nine meters high and is estimated to be about 700 years old.
It has been designated as a national natural monument and is the only living species in the division Ginkgophyta—all other members of which are extinct, making it, along with its sibling at Meiji Shrine, the Jurassic Park of trees.
The Japanese Black Pine at The Institute for Nature Study
“The feudal estate of the Matsudaira samurai clan” is a much cooler delivery address to put on your Amazon parcels, the plot this pine calls home was renamed the Institute for Nature Study in 1962. An awe-inspiring tower of black bark and lustrous green needles, you’ll usually spot people bowing before this pine as a sign of respect. And for good reason—it’s a living link to an emblematic era of Japanese culture, a symbol of cultural continuity. Time and time again it has proved its “never say die” spirit, surviving the Great Fire of Meireki in 1657, which burned 70 percent of the city, multiple major earthquakes between 1703 and 1923, and relentless firebombing during World War II.
Zelkova and Magnolia at Shinjuku Gyoen
While not as ardently resilient as some of Tokyo’s other living fossils, two trees are quietly persevering in the gardens of Shinjuku Gyoen thanks to generations of gentle care. A 150-year-old magnolia curls its branches upward in the Japanese-style garden of the park. Its velvety cream flowers bloom in the spring and pull the attention of the hanami (cherry blossom viewing) hordes. The 400-year-old zelkova tree nearby in the grounds is now wrapped in a protective coat that looks charmingly like a gilet you’d find in UNIQLO. New branches of life poke through the trunk, proving that even through the toughest of times, life can always circle back.