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Atami in Shizuoka, along with Beppu in Kyushu and Shirahama in Wakayama, is well known for its hot springs.

My very first impression upon arriving in Atami was of its similarity to towns in the south of France, at the bottom of steep hills which run down to the Mediterranean Sea. Atami is nestled between Hakone Mountain, 1,438 meters above sea level, and the mountainous Izu Peninsula, on the edge of Sagami Bay. This area is a very popular destination for people from Tokyo.

My destination was Izu-Oshima, to see camellias growing in their natural habitat, and Atami has a direct ferry service. After arriving from Osaka by shinkansen, I assembled my bicycle and headed for the ferry terminal, only to find that the next ferry would not depart for another three hours.

Before I venture to any new area in Japan, I always make a point of buying a hiking map of the immediate area. The hiking maps printed by Shobunsha are very good, light enough to carry wherever you go. Don’t worry if you cannot read the place names written in kanji. Local people will only be too willing to help you read and thereby remember their place name.

After a glance at my map I noticed one shrine up on the hill had a camphor tree (kusunoki, Cinnamomum camphora) designated as a tennen-kinenbutsu (natural monument). I decided to investigate this special tree and walked up the steep hills of Atami to the tree-enclosed shrine just beyond the shinkansen tracks.

No matter what God one believes in, one cannot but be impressed by the lovely trees that grow in and around the Shinto shrines in this country. These shrines protect some aspects of the local flora from development. The woodland that surrounds Kinomiya Shrine can be classified as a small laurel forest, shoyo-juinrin in Japanese. Many of the trees found in this type of forest are broadleaf evergreens. One tall evergreen on the left-hand side of the main entrance caught my attention at once, a horuto-no-ki or mogashi (Elaeacarpus sylvestris var. ellipticus). As far as I know there is no English name. There are an estimated 200 species in the genus, distributed in the warmer regions of Indomalaysia, Australasia and the Pacific area. Two species grow wild here in the warm temperate areas (dan’on tai) of Japan. It was my first sighting of this noteworthy evergreen.

The main reason why this tree can grow very successfully in Japan is because the coastal area of the Izu Peninsula, including Atami, is influenced by the warm current, the Kuroshio, which flows from the southwest Pacific toward the northeast, fetching up at Vancouver. According to one young priest at the temple, snow is very rare and the area is frost-free.

The horuto-no-ki’s bark is smooth and gray. Its leaves are leathery in texture and are alternately arranged on the branches; each leaf measures 6-12 cm long and 2.3-5 cm wide, with shallow teeth on the edge. In July or August white flowers are borne high in the tree in racemes 4-7 cm long, with around 15-20 individual bisexual flowers. The ripe fruits are blue-green in color and are 1.5-2 cm long. Evergreen trees shed old leaves after new leaves emerge. The leaves on the horuto-no-ki turn red before falling.

To the left of the main shrine there is a torii guarding the entrance to where Japan’s second largest and oldest kusunoki tree stands. The tree is colossal, 23 meters in circumference; it is reckoned to be over 2,000 years old, and still healthy considering its age. It is known as Kinomiya no O-kusu, or simply Goshinboku, the Holy Tree, since it is believed a Shinto god resides in this tree. This tree is said to endowed with special powers such as making people healthy and safe from the ills of life, the gift of eternal youth and longevity. You can make whatever wish you like.

The bark is brown and lightly fissured. Wood from the cinnamon tree (not this one, of course) is used to make furniture and for sculpture. Oil from Cinnamomum camphor contains safrole, which can be extracted for flavoring, but is now banned in many countries because it is potentially carcinogenic. Chinese medicine uses extracts from the leaves, which contain crystalline camphor, to cure skin diseases, external wounds and as a stimulant for fainting, in aromatherapy, for digestive complaints and depression. If taken internally in excess amounts it may be lethal; the oil can also be absorbed through the skin, causing systemic poisoning.

The cinnamon tree belongs to laurel or lauraceae family, which contains 32 genera and 2,500 species. The main centers of this large family are Southeast Asia, tropical America, especially Brazil. The avocado pear (Persea americana) and bay (gekkeiju, Laurus nobilis), whose leaves used in cooking, are members of the same family. Throughout the warmer parts of this country the tree is very frequently planted in parks and shrine grounds, and also as a street tree. The normal height of a mature kusunoki is 20 meters, but old specimens can reach 55 meters! The tree in Kinomiya Shrine is approximately 20-25 meters tall.

The largest camphor tree growing in Japan, by the way, is in another Shinto shrine, this time in Kyushu, where there are many large trees. The tree is known as Kamo no Kusu and can be found in a Hachiman Shrine in Kamo-cho, in Kagoshima. The Kamo no Kusu is approximately 30 meters high and has a girth of 33.6 meters. Local people reckon the tree to be 2,000 years, but is officially said to be 1,500 years old.

In Saga Prefecture the third largest camphor tree, Kawago no Okusu, can be found growing on the grounds of Higo Shrine, a 20-minute ride north of Takeo Station. This kusunoki is 25 meters tall and has a girth of 23 meters, and at an estimated 3,000 years is by far the oldest tree in Japan.

Back in Atami, in the dark woods just across the road from Kinomiya Shrine, I spotted a small, spiny, evergreen shrub known as aridoshi in Japanese, Damnacanthus indicus of the family Rubiaceae. The genus Damnacanthus is of tropical origin, found mainly in northeast India and Thailand, China and Korea. In Japan there are three or four recognized species plus a number of naturally occurring varieties. D. indicus and its brethren grow only in the low mountains of the warm temperate areas of Japan.

Later, on Izu-Oshima, I saw aridoshi growing in larger communities. It only grows to between 30-60 cm tall. Its leathery leaves are opposite, very small, oval in shape, measuring 12-15 mm long and 9 mm wide. Sharp spines up to 15 mm cover the branches of this shrub. In May small white tubular flowers are borne singularly or in pairs, followed by black berries.

The next time you are in Atami why not take a short walk up to see the Kinomiya no Kusu? All over the country in various locations there are colossal trees. Perhaps there is one close to your home.