It’s still early and I leave Tokyo before sunrise. I take the long tunnel and the Aqua-Line bridge to the other side of Tokyo Bay, then follow a small mountain road that loses me somewhere in the heart of Chiba prefecture. The only clue is there. My GPS coordinates point to the other side of the river, so I park the car and head down to the water.
I expected there to be a bridge, a trail, or at least no actual river, but the only solution is to wade over. So I take off my shoes, socks, pants, as if it were summer. It's not very deep, but it’s slippery underfoot and the water is freezing.
On the other side I look left, right: disappointingly there's nothing! You’d have to climb up the steep mountainside to reach the trees above, as these are where the coordinates lead. Hesitatingly, as it seems impossible for the tree to be growing up there, I start to climb.
The tree cover seemed very dense from below but I discover a forest dotted with pines clearly intended for commercial use, as they're all straight and aligned. I search in vain around the GPS signals but what stands out most is this pile of dead trees. I'm looking for a tree, but is it really that one? It was part of an ancient village with stone walls, but I don’t see any ruins here.
I walk around the forest in all directions, then climbing further up I come across a group of monkeys, a little lake … but nothing else. About to give up, I spot this little bridge. It can’t be there for no reason can it, right? ?
I cross over and find myself on what looks like an old path. The scenery changes, the forest brightens. I'm being taken along a birch-lined track covered with leaves. Everything smells distinctly autumnal.
A 90 degree turn and again, the scene changes. The sunrise, the play of light and shadow are magnificent. My excitement is intense because I know that, inevitably, something has to be at the end of the track.
Here we are! This old cemetery belonged to the village of Oihara (黄和). There are a dozen family graves, now abandoned. The little village, lost in the middle of the forest, must have been quite lively!
I take a look at Google Maps – it's incredible, Oihara really was lost in the middle of nowhere, in the forest and in the mountains. But where on earth is this village? I look around: there had been a huge landslide and there no longer seems to be a direct connection to the village.
Down, up again and … here I am at the entrance! And lurking in the background …
like a demonic hand springing from the ground …
OH YES! The giant maple of Oihara! I finally caught up with the little rascal! I really didn’t think I’d find it, especially as I'd nearly given up on three occasions.
The giant maple of Oihara (追原の大楓)
Here is the abandoned tree, the haikyo tree as I like to call it, clinging onto a little wall. Oihara having been a living village until the late 1950s, the maple was there in its midst. It must have been the village chief, emblem, god, the spirit of the forest and probably also a playground. All the local people’s stories still flow through its sap.
I stay there an hour gazing at the tree. I don’t find anything particularly remarkable nearby – an old sheet-metal shelter and the village well, a huge gaping hole extremely deep and dangerous.
The whole area was supposed to be submerged in the 90s for the construction of a dam. Fortunately for our tree, the project was strongly boycotted by the local community.
I think about climbing the old maple but resolve to leave it alone. Let it continue to reign in peace in this beautiful forest.
Retracing my steps along another path, I take my time, savouring the fact of having found this tree that I’d dreamed of seeing for years. I'll be back.