By Kazuhiro Katayama / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterAIRA, Kagoshima — Do you know how large Japan’s biggest tree is, and where it stands?
The largest circumference for a Japanese tree is 24.22 meters, according to a survey by the Environment Ministry. It belongs to Kamou no Okusu, a huge camphor tree on the premises of Kamou Hachiman Jinja shrine in Aira, a city in central Kagoshima Prefecture.
Signs about the tree proudly stand in many parts of Aira. Those who visit the shrine to see it say the tree seems like a small building.
Rugged, complex patterns can be seen on the trunk, and the tree’s roots resemble the toes of Godzilla. Local residents say there is a large hollow space inside.
Birds rest on the tree’s branches, which spread out in all different directions. The trunk is covered in thick ferns and moss — making the huge tree, estimated to be 1,500 years old — look like an independent ecosystem.
Yuseiji temple chief priest Ataka Fujitani, 56, recalled his childhood, saying: “There were no fences around the tree, so this was a playground that was part of our daily lives. We could climb on it and enter through the hole in the tree.” Fujitani participates in activities for a nonprofit organization that aims to vitalize the local community.
The huge camphor tree has been a symbol of the city for a long time.
But there is another famous site in the Kamou district of Aira — a group of samurai residences featuring a line of stone walls and gates specific to such homes.
Headed for defeat in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, warriors primarily from western Japan attacked the enemy in an action known as Shimazu no Nokiguchi, and some managed to escape amid great loss of life. Many warriors from the Kamou and Chosa districts, which are now in the city of Aira, participated in Shimazu no Nokiguchi.
“They were brave warriors called ‘Kamouheko,’” said Masaharu Tachibanaki, 71, an adviser of Aira Rekishi Volunteer Kyokai, an association of volunteers for handing down the history of Aira.
Shimazu Yoshihiro, the 17th lord of the Shimazu feudal clan who commanded the Kamouheko warriors in the Battle of Sekigahara, lived in today’s Aira for more than 20 years at the end of his life. Historic sites related to the warlord can still be seen in many places in the city. Shimazu Yoshihiro is enshrined at Kuwashihokojinja shrine in the Kajiki district.
The residences and buildings where Shimazu Yoshihiro lived no longer have their original form. For example, the former Hiramatsujo castle is now Shigetomi Elementary School, and the warlord’s one-time official residence is now Kajiki High School.
“In Satsuma [the ancient name of Kagoshima Prefecture], there are many schools and administrative offices that used to be samurai residences,” said Shuichi Takenoshita, 69, the head of the volunteer association.
During the Edo period (1603-1867), the Satsuma feudal clan divided its domain into more than 100 districts to employ its unique Tojo governing system. Under the system, samurai warriors were stationed at bases in each of the districts as local rulers.
After the Meiji era (1868-1912), the administrative zoning was maintained, and so the headquarters of today’s administrative entities are located in the same areas.
A brave horse
There is a unique grave in the Chosa district, “the grave of a horse that [Shimazu] Yoshihiro loved and took to battle more than 20 times,” Takenoshita said. “The horse knelt and ducked low to protect Yoshihiro from enemy lances, so it was called Hizatsuki Kurige (Kneeling brown-hair).”
Other historic sites include the ruins of kilns where Korean potters produced tea sets after they were brought to Japan following the Japanese invasions of Korea by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and a well from which water was pumped for tea ceremonies.
Such historic sites remain in the city, perhaps because people in Aira have valued the legacy and memories of Shimazu Yoshihiro.
The camphor tree has been there for a remarkably long time, and the elementary school is surrounded by stone walls dating back to the Edo period. These elements may not be eye-catching, but they make the city a place where history blends with residents’ daily lives.
Monuments commemorate wars
A number of monuments in Aira commemorate the wars since the Meiji era. Although similar monuments are located in other places, those in Aira contain strongly worded statements.
For example, a monument in the Kamou district to soldiers who died in the Seinan War says, “They were so heroic that even demons weep,” while a monument for soldiers who died in the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War says, “Loyal, brave, righteous and furious.”
The city also contains Yamada no Gaisenmon, a triumphal gate made of stone for soldiers who came back from the Russo-Japanese War. Visitors have said these monuments illustrate residents’ respect for the spirit they inherited from the samurai warriors of the Satsuma clan.
A 1 hour 40 minute flight from Haneda Airport in Tokyo to Kagoshima Airport, and a 35 minute bus ride from the airport to Chosa Station.