NATURE IN SHORT / Absorb centuries of history and spectacular nature by hiking up Oyama

Kevin Short / Special to the Daily Yomiuri

Oyama in central Kanagawa Prefecture is the first mountain spotted while traveling west from Tokyo on the Shinkansen. Although only 1,251 meters high, the mountain stands broad and bulky, an immense pyramid looming heavily over the flat reaches of the Sagami Plain. In fact, its very name means “big mountain” in Japanese.

Oyama can be climbed and explored on an easy day hike from the metropolitan area. The best access point is from the northern exit of Isehara Station on the Odakyu Line. The No. 10 bus bound for Oyama Keburu leaves from the No. 4 loading spot, and takes about 25 minutes to reach the base of the mountain.

Sets of steep stone stairs lead upward from the bus stop, passing right through a busy shopping street.

Oyama has for centuries been one of the Kanto region’s most revered reizan, or spirit mountains. The Afuri Shrine that sits on the peak is said to have been first built more than 2,000 years ago.

During the Edo period (1603-1867), pilgrimages to the mountain became a popular rage, and a fine monzen-machi, a street lined with inns and shops serving pilgrims, grew up in front of the gate. Tofu dishes are still a local specialty, and the area is famous for traditional wooden spinning tops.

At the top of the Monzen-machi steps is the entrance to the cable-car, which in a little more than five minutes whisks visitors up to the lower Afuri Shrine at about 700 meters elevation. Naturalists and historians, however, will want to follow the ancient pilgrimage trail that starts just to the left of the cable car.

After a few sets of stone steps the trail reaches a small shrine, where it splits in two. To the right is the Otoko-zaka or Men’s Slope, while the left-hand path is the Onna-zaka or Women’s Slope. The Otoko-zaka, is a no-nonsense series of very steep stone steps that gets you up the mountain fast. The Onna-zaka is a bit longer, but easier, and also far more interesting in terms of history and culture.

A little way up the trail, just before the second bridge, is a sacred spring where cool fresh water bubbles out of a crease in the rocks. According to legend, this spring was created by none other than Kukai (Kobo Daishi), one of Japan’s most beloved Buddhist monks and founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Kukai struck the rock with his staff and caused the water to flow forth. This would have happened sometime around 1,200 years ago, but since then the spring has never once run dry.

After about a 20-minute walk the path arrives at Oyamadera, the main Buddhist temple serving the mountain. The deity enshrined here is Fudo myoo in his most spectacular avatar, a long sinuous dragon coiled around an upright sword. Fudo myoo, especially in this form, is often associated with sacred springs and waterfalls.

Between the temple and the lower shrine the path climbs through a solid grove of native chinkapins and evergreen oaks. These broad-leaved evergreen trees are typical of virgin forest in Japan’s warmer regions, and keep their leaves all year round. On Oyama they thrive on the lower slopes, especially in sunny areas with a southern exposure. Their leaves are thick and leathery, with a bright sheen on the upperside.

The main Afuri Shrine is at the very top of the mountain, but the lower shrine, just a short walk from the cable car terminal, is actually much larger, and provides services for modern-day visitors who don’t feel like hiking all the way up.

The name Afuri may be derived from ame-furi, or rainfall. To the farmers of the Sagami Plain, Oyama has long been revered as the sacred source of the waters that fill their rice paddies.

The climb up to the top is long and hard, and will take about 90 minutes to two hours.

Before embarking on these sacred paths, be sure to perform a simple purification ceremony. At the trailhead is a small stand containing a harai-nusa, a Shinto purification wand tipped with several dozen long, thin paper streamers. Hold the wand in both hands, then give it three good shakes–to the left–to the right–then to the left again. Place a 100 yen coin in the box, and pick up a small rectangular paper-covered cardboard amulet that will serve to protect you on the journey.

Two climbing trails are available. To the right, the Hon-zaka route leads up a set of very steep steps. This trail is short and sweet, about two kilometers in total length. The Kagoya-michi, straight ahead, is longer but less arduous. Incredibly, this trail was originally made for porters, called kago-ya, who carried pilgrims to the top in kago palanquins! These two trails join a little more than halfway up.

Taking a separate trail back down allows a visit to the Niju Falls, at the very source of the Oyamagawa river. This two-tiered set of falls is said to be inhabited by a powerful dragon spirit, manifested in the spectacular Fudo myoo avatar worshiped at the Oyama-dera temple. In fact, the temple was originally located here, and the falls were the site of annual amagoi rain-praying ceremonies.

If the weather is fine, the upper trails of Oyama offer great views of Mt. Fuji to the west, and across the Kanto region to the east. Also, the trails frequently weave through magnificent native forests of deciduous oaks and beech peppered with huge old-growth momi fir trees.

Firs are members of the Pine Family. Their flat, needlelike leaves are attached to the branch with a rounded base that looks almost like a miniature suction cup. The leaf tips of the momi fir (Abies firma) are variable. On young trees and lower branches the tips split into two sharp points; while on older trees and higher branches the tips are rounded.

Fir seed cones look a bit like pine cones, but sit upright on the branches. Unlike pine cones, fir cones do not drop down intact. They fall apart while still attached to the branch. On the ground underneath the trees will be thousands of seeds and pieces of the scales that formed the cone. The seeds are attached to thin wing membranes that help them disperse on the wind.

The hiking route described here covers about seven-eight kilometers, depending on which trails are chosen. Figure on at least five hours of walking, not including rest stops and time taken to study trees and visit shrines and temples.

(Mar. 14, 2006, Daily Yomiuri)