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Sunday, May 7, 2000

Azaleas bloom in land of mountain god

Hayama is a picturesque seaside town located about 4 km south of Kamakura. Favored with a mild climate and scenic coasts, it sports a neighborhood of upscale houses and sophisticated restaurants facing a small yacht harbor. A chain of quiet beaches stretches south along the rock-strewn coast; inland, gentle wooden mountains offer inviting, rustic hiking trails. The charm of Hayama is such that it is even the site of a secluded Imperial villa.

The town flower of Hayama is tsutsuji (azalea). Tsutsuji is an indigenous plant venerated since ancient times as a symbol of spring. In an old rural custom, young women used to bring flowering branches down from the mountains on April 8 (corresponding to May 8 today) to plant by rice paddies and to display on the front doors of their farmhouses. This was to welcome the god of the mountain, who was believed to descend to villages in springtime.

This course begins with a bracing 3.3-km hike on a trail through woods leading to a brilliant azalea garden, and finishes with a hearty lunch in an unspoiled fishing port. The restaurant closes for lunch at 2:30 p.m. and is reached by an infrequent bus, so plan to arrive at Zushi by 10 a.m. or so if you want to eat there.

Take the JR Yokosuka Line to Zushi Station, about one hour from Shinagawa or Tokyo Station. Exiting on the east side of Zushi Station, take bus No. 11 or 12 from terminal 3 and go 10 minutes to Motomachi (ask the driver to let you know when to get off). Walk straight along the road, past the Uotora sushi restaurant with its nautical wheel and seahorse sign. (It's highly recommended by locals; open 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., 4-8 p.m., closed Monday and the last Tuesday of the month). Turn left when you come to a fork in the road, and continue straight ahead toward the Presbyterian church on the hillside ahead. Cross the next intersection and ascend the hill to the church.

The dirt path on the left side of the church looks just like a mythical tunnel leading into a magical world (well, almost). Native broad-leafed evergreen trees mixed with deciduous keyaki and yamazakura create a tranquil atmosphere. A bush warbler hiding somewhere close may welcome you with a song, joined by kites sending a lilting tune from far above. The clamor of the city is still audible, but sheltered by thick woods, it sounds like a faint drone from the remote past.

As you approach the first small peak, Mount Sengen, you will see somei yoshino cherry trees planted on the terraced hillside. The stepped path to the top gradually reveals a panorama of Hayama, its cluster of houses descending to Sagami Bay with sailboats dotting the water. On a clear day Mount Fuji will beckon from the horizon. Notice a torii gate on a small island in the sea, marking the offshore sanctuary of Morito Jinja nestled in woods on the coast. The shrine is said to have been founded by Shogun Yoritomo in the late 12th century when he started his military rule in Kamakura.

Turning around to face the mountain, you will see a fenced-in stone monument dedicated to local victims of the 1904 Russo-Japanese War. Behind it is another, smaller stone dated 1826. The carved inscription on it reads: "Great Boddhisattva of Mount Fuji Sengen," indicating that this was a place for the worship of the highest peak in Japan, led by an 18th-century ascetic monk called Miroku.

From the Mount Fuji monument the path is sometimes steep and crisscrossed with tree roots as it travels along undulating ridges. Past another small peak it curves to the right. The last ascent of 200 steps is challenging, but angelic violets blooming in clusters will cheer you on. A bench at the top invites you to rest in the shade of trees.

Continuing on, take the right fork to descend, with deep valleys on both sides of the path. When you find another bench on the roadside, look left to see the rounded twin peaks of Futagoyama in the distance. The descent is as pleasant as the ridge walk. If you look in the undergrowth, you will probably find a flower similar to a jack-in-pulpit but with an unusually long spike reaching out from the purple-black tube. This is known as Urashima's arum, and the spike is said to be the fishing rod of Urashima Taro, a Japanese Rip Van Winkle who went to the Dragon King's palace at the bottom of the sea to return 300 years later.

The dirt path, deeply hollowed by rain and footsteps, inspires thoughts of ancient times when travelers walked along the original Tokaido Highway from Kyoto to northern Japan. The highway crossed the peninsula from Sagami Bay to Tokyo Bay, from where travelers took a boat to Boso or Chiba.

Arriving at a fork in the path marked with a brown sign, turn left until the trail ends with a cemetery on your left. Walk straight ahead and turn right at the T-intersection. Following the paved road winding left down to a highway, you come back into civilization.

Just before the bottom of the hill is an open space with an obelisk, which is Hananoki Koen, the highlight of the course. Walking around the obelisk, you will find a garden of blazing azalea blossoms on a sunny hillside. A profusion of pink, vermilion, magenta and white flowers fill the slope, as if surging upward to the blue sky.

The overwhelming brilliance of the flora is a manifestation of Mother Earth's energy, whose power ancient farmers hoped to receive from the azalea branches they gathered in the mountains. The park contains 15,000 azaleas, mostly cultivars of the Kirishima species, and attracts crowds from late April to early May.

Downhill from the obelisk is a toilet facility, behind which is a bus stop. You now have two choices. To return directly to Zushi Station, take the No. 1 bus or one of the buses that stops across from the fire station on the highway off to the left. If you like, you can get off at Motomachi and have a sushi lunch at Uotora, the restaurant mentioned at the beginning of this article.

The other option is to catch the No. 11 to Shin-Nase, leaving at 12:24 or 1:23 p.m. (eight stops; ask the driver to let you know when to get off). Shin-Nase is the small fishing port you saw from above. Getting off the bus, walk along the street in the same direction as your bus, savoring the town's nostalgic atmosphere, and look for a white-walled fish shop, Uosa, on your right.

Around the corner, annexed to the fish shop, is a restaurant with the name Uosa stenciled on an indigo-blue noren curtain (open 12-2:30, 4:30-8 p.m., closed Monday). It is often crowded with local customers and hikers, but is worth a wait.

The menu posted on the wall changes often to serve the freshest catch of the day. Recommendations for those who are unfamiliar with ordering in Japanese include kaisen-don, a bowl of rice topped with an assortment of sashimi and served with savory miso soup; crispy hotate furai (fried scallops) and aji furai (fried jack mackerel), which are normally served alone but will come with rice and miso soup if you ask for the teishoku meal set. Be sure to get the hijiki salad made of freshly gathered seaweed, now in season. After you've eaten your fill, head back to the bus stop and return to JR Zushi Station.

Sumiko Enbutsu is an author of popular guidebooks, including the recently published "Water Walks."


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