A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

Gonzui Trees Create a Red, October Canopy at the site of this area`s first Buddhist Temple (and other places around Tsukuba)

The fruit of the GONZUI tree

The fruit of the GONZUI tree break open in October revealing a black seed. The cracked these heart-red fruit are often heart-shaped as well. For this reason tree fanciers in North America have come to call this tree (scientific name: euscaphis japonica) the Korean loveberry tree.

By Avi Landau

Though it is hard to do walking amidst what is now only wild brush, a few vegetable fields and a dark, silent woods, I try to conjure up in my mind what it was like more than a thousands years ago in this area- a Buddhist temple with a village nearby. The sounds of chanting monks, the beating of gongs and drums, the smell of burning incense, and perhaps the acrid smell of the funeral pyre.

A cherry-colored canopy

A cherry-colored canopy

It was on this diluvial plateau, which had been created still thousands of years earlier by the incessant pounding of the sea (which 5,000 years ago had come all the way up to near what is now Tsukuba Center), on this relatively dry highland between the Sakura and Hanamuro Rivers (though not very high at all- at about 20 meters higher the lush valley to its east and west) that the first Buddhist temple in the Tsukuba area was built. This was in the year 741 AD, in the same year that under the orders of the Emperor Shomu official Buddhist temples had been established in each of the provincial capitals. These were called Kokubunji and the one built in Hitachi Province (which made up most of what is now Ibaraki Prefecture) was in the provincial capital of Fuchu (present day Ishioka).

A view of the wilds upon which a temple, the first one established in the Tsukuba area (in 741) once stood

A view of the wilds upon which a temple, the first one established in the Tsukuba area (in 741) once stood

This all happened about one hundred years after Fuchu (Ishioka) had been offically declared the provincial capital (KOKUFU), and the eastern part of what is now Tsukuba City divided into three counties (GUN): Ko-chi, Tsukuba, and Shita(This happened in 646 AD).

(It must be remembered that this happened after hundreds of years of colonization and settlement by troops sent by the Yamato Court based in Western Japan)

The spot I was walking, now part of Higashioka in Tsukuba was once the center of Ko-chi County. There was a large government office and storehouse nearby (next to the site of the present Sakura Junior High School) and when the temple went up the first Buddhist rites ever, were held in the area of what is now Tsukuba City. The cremation of the ruling class ( the commoners were almost certainly not yet Buddhist), marked the end of the Kofun Period (the Age of Tumuli) in which men of power and influence had been buried in large burial mounds.

The leaves and bark of the GONZUI tree

The leaves and bark of the GONZUI tree. The bark is said to resemble the pattern of the side of the GONZUI fish (plotosus japonicus- the Japanese eel catfish)

But alas, all things must pass- and nothing above the ground remains of the old Ko-chi government offices or the temple remain (though you can find roof tiles, funerary jars and an impressive foundation stone at the Sakura History Museum).

It is also ironic that this area, once the political center of the area now remains completely undeveloped- veritably wild- for the very reason that the site is of archaeological value for the ruins of its one-time greatness.

GONZUI fruit

GONZUI fruit

Anyway, these were the things going through my head as I walked over the site where the old temple, now know as the Kokonoe Haiji, once stood.

And then, I saw a canopy – cranberry red, dancing high up in the trees. A closer look revealed that the flesh of these berries had split open and black seeds dangled out in front of them.

And though there are many trees and bushes in Japan which bear red berries, these characteristics make these trees very distinctive- the Japanese call it GONZUI, which is the same name as a certain fish.

It is said that the tree`s name actually derives from the fish- either because the bark of the tree resembles the patterns on the fish, or because like the fish, this tree is useless to man (though the tree has because a popular decorative plant both in Japan and abroad.


Korean heartberries

Korean heartberries

It is not easy to explain how to get to the site of the Kokonoe Haiji. Despite the fact that the Japanese have long been abandoning tradition for convenience, the very convenient custom of NAMING STREETS AND ROADS has not yet caught on here.

But if you`d like to see some GONZUI, head to the Tsukuba Botanical Garden. The numerous GONZUI they have there will be bearing their distinctive fruit through mid November.


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