The 5 Great Sakura Trees of Japan

Take a special trip this spring to enjoy the beauty, splendor and history of some of Japan’s centuries-old cherry blossom trees.

Japanese have long been fascinated by the stunning wonder of sakura, or cherry blossoms. No tree is more representative of Japan’s love of hanami (flower viewing) than that Godai Zakura, or the Five Great Sakura. These five ancient trees were designated as tennen kinenbutsu (Natural Monuments) in 1922 due to its impressive age, unique botanical origin and amazing stature.

1. Usuzumi Zakura, Gifu Prefecture


Usuzumi Zakura, Gifu Prefecture Photo: WikiCommons/Alfas.Humangazer. CC BY-SA 3.0,

One of the original three large cherry blossom trees (alongside Jindai Zakura and Miharu Takizakura below) is the Usuzumi Zakura. This towering tree is located in Neodani, Usuzumi Park, near Gifu City. According to legend, this tree was hand-planted as a seedling long ago by Emperor Keitai in 467, making it over 1,500 years old.

Built to stand the test of time, the Usuzumi Zakura is a species of native Japanese cherry blossoms called the Edohigan. This wild variety is known for its slow growth but remarkably sturdy trunk and branches. Perhaps as a testament to its botanical advantage, this tree has survived a staggering number of natural disasters—most notably the 1959 Ise Bay typhoon, as well as termite damage and heavy snowfalls. In 1948 it was even declared dead by a tree expert before being lovingly tended and in full bloom the following spring.

His name, usuzumi, meaning light black or grayish ink, comes from the flowers’ distinctive pale, inky gray color as they fall to the ground. The Usuzumi Zakura also uniquely boasts two other colors: bright rosy-pink buds before fully blooming and the purest white petals when in full bloom.

For this sakura tree mankai (Full bloom) is usually April 10, but given recent warming trends it could be earlier this year.

2. Yamataka Jindai Zakura, Yamanashi Prefecture


Yamataka Jindai Zakura, Yamanashi Prefecture Photo: iStock/T-Tadanobu

The city of Hokuto in Yamanashi Prefecture not only has the oldest cherry blossom tree in Japan, but possibly the oldest in the world. The legendary Yamataka Jindai Zakura is also an Edohigan strain that resides on the grounds of Jissoji Temple. It is estimated to be 1,800 to 2,000 years old. The gnarled but popular trunk of this sakura is more than 10 meters in diameter: around six people can circle the base of the tree while holding hands! In 2001, the tree was found to be ailing and weakened, so wooden poles were installed to support its branches.

This cherry blossom has a unique history dating back to the famous stories of Takeru Yamato, popularly known as “Prince Ousu” who is said to have planted the tree when he visited the region in the first century. It is also said that the famous monk Nichiren (1222-1282), the founder of Nichiren Buddhism, came across the tree while traveling in the 13th century. According to historical writings, Nichiren found the tree on the brink of death and after praying for his recovery, the tree regained its strength and survived.

In November 2008, several Jindai Zakura seeds were launched into space and orbited the Earth on the International Space Station for eight months. On her return in 2009, only two seeds germinated, but one was planted on the Jissoji site, where it quickly grew and flowered – hence its name: uchuuzakura (Room Sakura).

3. Miharu Takizakura, Fukushima Prefecture


Miharu Takizakura, Fukushima Prefecture Photo: iStock/Thananat

Located in the city of Miharu in Fukushima Prefecture is the ancient and glorious Miharu Takizakura, widely regarded as Japan’s most beautiful sakura. This tree, whose poetic name means “Waterfall Cherry Blossom of Miharu,” is notable for its spectacularly wide and drooping branches covered in bright pink blooms from mid to late April. This Edohigan tree is over 1,000 years old, 13 meters tall and about 20 meters wide with a root circumference of 11 meters. A great experience to see.

For a particularly memorable excursion, be sure to visit Miharu Takizakura in the evening to take part Yozakura (Cherry blossoms at night) when the tree is fully lit. In addition to viewing the other beautiful cherry trees in the area, there are also several shrines, food stands, and souvenir shops to enjoy.

4. Ishito Kabazakura, Saitama Prefecture


Ishito Kabazakura, Saitama Prefecture Photo: WikimediaCommons/京浜にけ. CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Ishito Kabazakura has existed for over 800 years and lives in Kitamoto City, Saitama Prefecture. According to tradition, its origin lies in the life of the late Heian and early Kamakura military commander, Minamoto no Noriyori, who is said to have planted a seed from which the great tree germinated. The tree, which derives its name from Noriyori’s nickname “Kaba Kanjya,” stands on the grounds of the Tokoji Temple he founded.

As with the other cherry trees on this list, Ishito Kabazakura’s uniqueness earned it a spot on the Godai Zakura List. This tree is not just a natural hybrid of two other sakura varieties – Edohigan and yamazakura (mountain cherry) – it is also the only one that exists. Visitors should attend the Cherry Blossom Festival, held annually at Tokoji Temple in early April, to see its small, pale pink blossoms in full bloom.

5. Kariyado no Gebazakura, Shizuoka Prefecture


Kariyado no Gebazakura, Shizuoka Prefecture Photo: iStock/Goryu

Although Kariyado no Gebazakura is a variety of Yamazakura, the most common cherry blossom species in Japan, it is anything but typical. With a history stretching back over 800 years, this tree, located in the city of Fujinomiya in Shizuoka Prefecture, is said to have once been an incredible 30 meters tall! Over the centuries, a series of typhoons have struck its sturdy body, reducing the tree to just under half its height by its prime.

One of the oldest mentions of the tree comes from a story about Minamoto no Yorimoto, the first shogun of the Kamakura period (1185-1333) and brother of the aforementioned Minamoto no Noriyori. In 1193, the shogun organized Fuji no Makigari, a hunting festival at the foot of Mount Fuji to celebrate his political and military prowess. During the event, Minamoto no Yorimoto is said to have tied his horse to the large tree. Fast forward to the mid-19th century when Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu referred to the story of Minamoto no Yorimoto and the tree in a haiku:

Oh, how these wild cherry trees bind not only the horses together, but the hearts of those who see them!

Nowadays, visitors begin to gather at Kariyado no Gebazakura from mid-April, when the tree is usually in full bloom and awash with subtle, pink, five-petalled blooms.

Cherry blossoms are the symbol of spring in Japan, with an unsurpassed ephemeral beauty. The romance of sakura, long associated with the Japanese aesthetic sense, lies in part in the ephemeral nature of its flowers. While long-awaited, they only bloom briefly and are then quickly scattered, especially in the season’s annual wind and rain.

So make some travel plans this spring and try not to miss the unparalleled beauty of the Godai Zakura: the five great cherry blossom trees of Japan.

© Japan today

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