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[Hidden Wonders of Japan] The First ‘Totoro’ is a 1000 Year Old Tree in Yamagata Prefecture



In the cool night air there is not a streetlight in sight, and the only dim illumination comes from the sky full of stars twinkling above. As I raise my eyes to the constellations on high, a cedar tree stands proud in front of me, and it has a peculiar shape.


We are currently in the north of Yamagata Prefecture, in a small village called Sakegawa. The proud cedar is held dear and considered a sacred tree by the local population. However, recently it has been gaining attention because of its particular shape, which resembles the main character in “My Neighbor Totoro” (Studio Ghibli, 1988).


The tree is near a hamlet called Kosugi, which literally means “small cedar.” To say “large cedar”, you would say “Osugi”, and in a play on words, people in the region call this special tree the “Osugi of Kosugi.”


The cedar is said to be very ancient, going back about a thousand years. There is even a mention of this tree specimen in an ancient document of the Shinjo Domain, which ruled the region in the Edo period (1603-1868). It is said that members of the clan survived a snowstorm under the cover of the majestic tree.



Around 30 years ago, Japan Railways (JR group) featured the location on a poster, calling it “The Totoro Tree”, which created the first impetus for tourists to come and visit the tree. And they gladly visited in droves. To protect the tree and its roots, the locals built wooden walkways around the site.


After a period when the tree was treated for slight decay, it has flourished and grown further. It has even branched off into a new third section which sticks out on top. 


However, stand in the right places and the tree still looks uncannily like the famous cat character which has since become the logo of the film production company.


Yohei Kurozaka, 32, used to climb and play on the tree when a child. Now he is part of the village’s promotion center, and explained the community’s perspective to us: “There are those who say that to make the tree look more like Totoro, we should chop the third branch that peaks at the top. But it’s a sacred tree, so we can’t touch it. Compared to old times, Totoro has certainly gained some weight though!”



It appears that even with all its history, this sacred tree keeps growing and changing. Even if Totoro’s profile disappears from the night landscape, we shouldn’t be too disappointed. There is still the beautiful starry sky above.


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(Click here to read the related article in Japanese)  


Author: Mizuho Miyazaki