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Presently two nuns clad in dark robes were seen making their way slowly and painfully down through the rough rocks of the mountainside. The Priestly Sovereign asked who they were, and the nun replied, “The one carrying a basket of mountain azaleas on her arm is the former Empress and the other, with a load of bracken for burning, is the daughter of Korezane.”

From the 13th-century epic “The Tale of the Heike,” translated by A.L. Sadler, “Anthology of Japanese Literature” (Grove Press)

Azaleas are in full bloom on warm coastal plains, but on cool mountainsides they will peak in a few weeks’ time. In the hills of Nikko, the flowers of togoku mitsuba tsutsuji (three-leaved eastern azaleas) appear just before their leaves, lighting up the riverbanks in brilliant amethyst flames.