Japan’s Ancient Giants of the Forest

Cloaked in White: Three Japanese Old-Growth Trees in Winter


A blanket of snow provides an enchanting backdrop to admire the slumbering forms of towering old-growth trees. Below we visit three of these impressive giants at the height of winter.

When winter descends, trees must gird against both the cold and snow. Evergreens are generally more resilient to the season’s frigid temperatures than many of their deciduous cousins. This produces a gradual northward shift in dominance among the tree population of Japan’s forests from leafed to needled species. The most serious risk to trees, though, comes from heavy snowfalls that can snap limbs and even topple sturdy plants.

Kyoju, or old-growth trees, have weathered countless visits by old man winter, proving their hardiness against the cold climate. The deep snows of the Hokuriku and Tōhoku regions—Japan’s famed “snow country”—lock many of the grandest specimens away until the spring melt. But for people who are willing to brave the elements, a winter trek can provide a spectacular opportunity to view these giants in a mystic world of white.

The Old Man of Mount Haguro (Yamagata Prefecture)

Variety: Sugi (Japanese cedar) (Cryptomeria japonica)
Location: Dewa Sanzan Shrine, Aza-tōge 7, Tōge, Haguro, Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture, 997-0211
Trunk circumference: 8.3 m; height: 48.3 m; age: 1,000 years
Designated a national natural monument
Size: ★★★
Vigor: ★★★★
Shape: ★★★★
Crown spread: ★★★
Grandeur: ★★★★★

This venerable sugi, or Japanese cedar, stands along the main path leading up sacred Mount Haguro in Yamagata Prefecture. The trail, a designated special natural monument and one of the most recognized scenes in Japan, stretches roughly two kilometers and features a 2,446-step stone staircase bordered by hundreds of ancient sugi. The area has been frequented for centuries by pilgrims, and recently has also seen a notable uptick in visitors attracted by its spiritual atmosphere.

The aged cedar looks over a famous five-story pagoda, a national treasure allegedly built by the celebrated tenth-century warrior Taira no Masakado. It has a robust root system and is noticeably larger than its surrounding companions.

Records from the Edo period (1603–1868) show that from ancient times there were two kyoju at the spot, a “grandmother” and “grandfather” sugi. However, a typhoon in 1902 knocked one of the cedars down, causing, reports claim, the remaining tree to weep over its lost partner for three days and nights.

The old sugi and other cedars along the path up Mount Haguro are stunning at any time of the year, but winter provides a distinctly serene atmosphere for viewing. Visitors will also want to look out for a sake bottle, sake cup, and other items carved into the stone stairway snaking up the mountain. It is said that sleuths who find all the figures, 30 in all, will have their prayers answered.

The Koyasu Ginkgo (Aomori Prefecture)

Variety: Ichō (ginkgo) (Ginkgo biloba)
Location: 19 Ichōnoki, Shichinohe, Kamikita-gun, Aomori Prefecture, 039-2561
Trunk circumference: 12.1 m; height: 25 m; age: 700 years
Designated a prefectural natural monument
Size: ★★★★
Vigor: ★★★★★
Shape: ★★★★★
Crown spread: ★★★★
Grandeur: ★★★★

The Koyasu ginkgo watches over the rural community of Shichinohe in Aomori Prefecture. The gnarled kyoju is testament to the hardiness of ichō, a species commonly planted for shade along busy roadways.

The tree acquired its distinguished look due to an ancient lighting strike or other calamity that snapped its trunk in two. The new growth that sprouted from the wounded bole eventually became a robust limb with its own system of roots and branches. Over time, an impressive collection of aerial roots, some more than a meter long, also formed, producing an intricate tangle of wood and bark.

The grand tree stands at the center of a spacious park, and visitors can admire the ginkgo from every angle. In spring and summer, the tree’s verdant crown is an impressive sight, though autumn and winter are when the kyoju is most spectacular. In late November the tree’s foliage changes to gold, transforming into a gilded carpet as the leaves slowly fall to the ground. In winter, with its vegetation gone, it offers an unobstructed view of its full, knotted form.

In every season, though, the beauty of the Koyasu ginkgo, with its undulated creases in its bark and broad crown spread, continues to draw visitors from around the country.

The Lord of Takamori (Kumamoto Prefecture)

Variety: Sugi (Japanese cedar) (Cryptomeria japonica)
Location: 3341-1 Takamori, Takamori, Aso-gun, Kumamoto Prefecture, 869-1602
Trunk circumference: 10.46 m; height: 38 m; age: 400 years
Designated a municipal natural monument
Size: ★★★
Vigor: ★★★★★
Shape: ★★★★★
Crown spread: ★★★★
Grandeur: ★★★★★

This spectacular pair of Japanese cedars looks over tracks of rich pasture land along the southeastern rim of Mount Aso’s expansive caldera in Kumamoto Prefecture. To reach it visitors must pass through a gate, there to keep the ranch’s bovine inhabitants from wandering away, and traverse road and field to the edge of a tiny wood.

The kyoju are associated with the feudal lord Takamori Korenao and his retainer Mimori Nōin, who, defeated in battle, are said to have committed suicide and were buried under the trees. This tragic incident and the peculiar shape of the cedars have led some visitors to remark about a strange feeling at the site, and many people stay only a short time.

The eastward-facing sugi (at the right in the photos) is considered female because of the elegant bend of its multiple trunks. The tree to the west, with its sturdy bole and long, twisting limbs, is deemed to be male. Many people see the dynamic splay of the latter kyoju’s branches, some jutting into the ground to form new trees, as being guided by the vengeful spirit of Takamori.

Whether resentful ghosts are the cause or not, the vastly different forms of the two trees suggest some transformative event in the distant past. What that might have been, though, is not known.

Although not located in a part of Japan known for its harsh winters, Mount Aso still sees a considerable amount of snowfall high up on its rim. If visits are timed correctly, a coating of white can provide a moving setting to view the dual cedars. Visitors should remember to bundle up, though, and be prepared for sudden, strange blasts of cold.

(Originally published in Japanese on January 23, 2017. Photos and text by Takahashi Hiroshi.)

ecology nature photography Yamagata Dewa Sanzan