Photo/Illutration"Agariko Daio" (King Agariko) in Nikaho, Akita Prefecture, May 2016 (Provided by Daisuke Takahashi)

I was surrounded by gigantic gnarled beech trees, and I felt their spirits were stirring to speak to me.

I was paying my respects to the "king" and the "queen" of these peculiarly gnarled trees that locals call "agariko" in a beech forest last month at the base of Mount Chokai in Nikaho, Akita Prefecture, near the Yamagata border.

A new footpath opened in the forest this year between "Agariko Daio" (King Agariko) and "Agariko Jyo-o" (Queen Agariko), which are about a 30-minute hike apart.

The standard image associated with beech trees is their straight, towering trunks. But in the marshland on the north side of Mount Chokai, the trees have branches growing out in all directions at about my height, giving the boles their distinctively bulging, contorted shape.

"There are various theories to explain this phenomenon," said Fumio Tanaka, my 69-year-old guide. "Volcanic eruptions, heavy snowfalls and diseases are among the possible causes. But I personally think this was caused by charcoal-making."

For centuries, villagers would chop the trunks above the snow-covered ground to make charcoal. When new branches grew out of the stump, they, too, were lopped off. This resulted in the birth of this "magical forest" of gnarled beech.

Agariko Daio's age is estimated at 300 years old. The trunk's circumference exceeds 7 meters.

From a distance, the "king" resembles Yamata no Orochi, a mythical Japanese dragon with eight heads and just as many tails, but up close it appears quite benign. Because of its age, it was protected by a wire support around its trunk.

Agariko Jyo-o was discovered by Tanaka 11 years ago. At an estimated age of 150 years, the "queen" is still brimming with youth.

"She's absolutely gorgeous," Tanaka gushed. "Her fair skin--the bark--is delightfully plump to the touch. I have no doubt the king is totally besotted with her."

Dec. 7 is the day of "taisetsu" (big snow) according to Japan's traditional lunisolar calendar.

Mount Chokai is now in full hibernation mode, and the marshland at its foot also became snowbound late last month. With no more groups of tourists around to break the silence, the agariko "royal couple" will be enjoying their cozy time together until they hear the tinkling of melting snow next spring.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 7

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.