Searching for an Irish tree on a journey back to Tokyo ’64

When Japan hosted its first Olympics 55 years ago, a seed was planted

Ian O’Riordan at Engaru Forest in northern Hokkaido, Japan with mayor of Engaru Shuichi Sasaki

Ian O’Riordan at Engaru Forest in northern Hokkaido, Japan with mayor of Engaru Shuichi Sasaki

 

We were somewhere on the edge of Engaru forest looking out for the Irish trees when the TV crew showed up.

There is no such thing as uncharted territory in a country like Japan, but Engaru, to the north of Hokkaido, the northernmost and most mountainous of the main islands, comes pretty close.

I’d travelled two days and almost 10,000km to get here – the last stretch by road opening up to what looked like panoramic views over the Pacific Northwest – not to hunt wild deer or chase brown bears but to begin a journey back to the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. Now read on.

Words such as legacy and sustainability are often thrown around the Olympic movement, though few ever stick.

Hokkaido is roughly the same size as Ireland and this is also the coolest part of Japan

Or, in this case, take root. Back in 1964, when Tokyo was set to become the first host city in Asia, the organisers thought it would be a bright idea to invite all 93 participating countries to bring along the seeds of a native tree, which would then be planted at sites throughout Japan.

The purpose was twofold: to grow some lasting legacy from the Games, long after they left Tokyo, and also promote forestry projects throughout the country, many of which were devastated in the aftermath of the Second World War, less than 20 years earlier.

The problem was also twofold: only 44 countries ended up bringing the seeds and, of those, only a handful ever took root – at Yoyogi Park in Tokyo, close to the sacred Meiji Jingu shrine and the site of the then Olympic Village, and at Engaru forest, some 1,200km to the north, where exactly 55 years later the five species of trees stand tall in the bright October sunshine.

Sacred site

Among them are the Irish Lodgepole pines, initially nursed by students at the nearby school for the disadvantaged and now carefully signposted as if on some sacred site of their own.

This isn’t just Olympic trivia: Shuichi Sasaki, mayor of Engaru, showed me around with considerable pride, the TV crew in tow for an item on the main evening news, and the plan is for a fresh exchange of seeds when the Irish Olympic team return next July.

Later, they hosted a welcome dinner for the son of a 1964 Tokyo Olympian, and with that came some reminder this is still a country capable of gentle culture shock, beginning with the mayor and his entourage slurping back vast quantities of ramen noodles and sushi with the frightening efficiency of the flush on an airplane toilet.

It’s no surprise our Lodgepole pines survived: Hokkaido is roughly the same size as Ireland (its 5.2 million population too) and this is also the coolest part of Japan, especially in summer, hence the decision this week to move the 2020 Olympic marathons and race walks to Sapporo, to the south of the island, given the searing heat expected in Tokyo when it hosts the Olympics for the second time next July and August.

The legacy of the Engaru trees is also playing some part in sustainability. Two years ago, suitably mature for felling, sections of the Lodgepole pines were shipped back to Tokyo for use as wood panelling and furniture in the new Japanese Olympic Museum, opened in March, directly adjacent to the now-completed New National Stadium.

The New National Stadium in Tokyo pictured in August. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images
The New National Stadium in Tokyo pictured in August. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

Architectural statement

This is turning into a lasting legacy project in itself. After Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Olympics, back in 2013, it was agreed to demolish the original National Stadium, purposely built in the bid for the 1964 Games, and replace it with an architectural statement that took little heed to cost or sustainability.

The late, great architect Zaha Hadid won the design that included a pointed retractable roof and fancy sky walk, before in 2015, amid increasing public discontent over the cost, the Japanese government said enough already.

The New National Stadium that now appears out of the densely populated and built-up Shinjuku district of Tokyo makes a more modest but no less lasting impression, and at least looks distinctly green.

Nine days before the Games started Tokyo Station also ran the first Japanese bullet train from Osaka

Built on a Zero Action CO2 policy, inside it will seat a fixed capacity of 68,000, the outside swathed in greenery and featuring wooden lattice screens, reminiscent of the traditional Japanese temple.

The redesign also meant it wouldn’t be entirely dressed up in time to host the Rugby World Cup final, as originally agreed, although there is the sense they wanted to keep this separate. The Japanese Olympic Committee staged some 2020 media tours this week, to coincide with the rugby, and there’s no denying the New National Stadium is their pride and joy.

Last Monday was also a national holiday in Japan. The 1964 Olympics opened on October 10th, and that date, or the first Monday that falls after, is now considered sacred given the turning point it marked in Japanese history, and the country’s re-emergence from wartime enemy of the West to peaceful global ally.

Technological advances

Tokyo 1964 also turned out to be an Olympics of many firsts and lasts: the first to be telecast internationally by satellite, in colour too, and the first to boast such technological advances as the photo finish on the track and electronic starting gun in the swimming pool.

Nine days before the Games started Tokyo Station also ran the first Japanese bullet train from Osaka. Tokyo also marked the last of the cinder Olympic running tracks and the first-ever Paralympics, now clearly embedded in any legacy of 2020 as much as anything else.

It may not be the perfect host city – it will be will hot, humid and physically testing, and not just for the athletes – but, unlike Rio de Janeiro three summers ago, the legacy of which is the Olympics should never have gone there in the first place, Tokyo is ready and waiting.

They sold 3.22 million tickets in the first round of the domestic lottery in May, the second lottery closing in August for the 4.16 million applicants who were left empty-handed.

They’ve also secured an unprecedented $3 billion in domestic sponsorship, and, as successful as the Rugby World Cup has been to Japan, bringing in some 400,000 international visitors, the Japanese government is expecting the Olympics to bring an extra 10 million visitors to Tokyo in 2020.

The legacy, it seems, continues.

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