For hundreds of years, samurai and merchants traveled Japan’s legendary Nakasendo road and asked the gods of the Mount Ontake for their blessing. Little has changed today.
I stand on the mountain, sweating, gasping for breath. My T-shirt sticks to my skin, my thighs quiver. Countless steps stretch away below me, and up ahead? Countless more. I have to overcome some 500 meters of elevation before I reach the top of Mount Ontake, Japan’s second-highest volcano after Mount Fuji. I’m at roughly 2500 meters, but ready to curse Fukito Katsuno, the teahouse owner who put me up to this.
My trip started in Nagoya, a city of over a million. What drew me to it was neither the huge department stores nor the fried grasshoppers at the railway station restaurant but the Japanese Alps northwest of the city, which are said to be wonderful for hiking, particularly in the fall, when the leaves turn bright colors. So I board the bus to Magome, a picturesque mountain village in the almost 70-kilometer-long Kiso Valley, through which the Kiso River meanders. Fly fishers catch brook trout here, fruit growers harvest apples and grapes. Due to its seclusion, the region has been spared industrialization, a building boom, and the devastation of war. It’s hard to believe that one of Japan’s most important trade routes once led right through here: Nakasendō, meaning “road through the central mountains.” It was built by the ruling Tokugawa shōgun in the 17th century to link the imperial city of Kyōto with the capital, Edo (present-day Tokyo). Nobles, samurai, merchants and messengers on horseback used the road during the Edo period (1603 to 1868). Magome, where I began my hike, had one of the 69 mail stations along the roughly 540-kilometer route.
As I start out, the sky is clear. A typhoon had swept the clouds away the day before. The Nakasendō trail winds uphill, flanked by two-story houses built in the traditional half-timber style. The lower stories are covered in cypresswood paneling. Pink balloon flowers and purple hydrangea provide splashes of color. Magome feels like it belongs to another time, except that, instead of samurai, you see Western tourists in the narrow streets, going in and out of small shops selling wooden bowls and chopsticks, herbal medicines and fried rice balls.
Outside of the village, a small street intersects the Nakasendō trail, forming a boundary that many tourists do not cross. The twittering of birds soon replaces the confusion of voices. I walk towards Tsumago village, some eight kilometers away. To my right, a rice farmer is covering his plants with blue plastic film; to my left, another farmer in a conical straw hat is walking through her tea garden, where she has a trout pond.
If you want to understand our culture, you should climb the mountain, too
Soon, a mountain panorama opens out before me, the peak of Mount Ontake rising above it some 30 kilometers away. The scene looks so peaceful, but the volcano is still active and erupted last in 2014. I ponder whether 17th-century travelers appreciated this beauty, or was the journey just too arduous in those days? Did they ring little bells to keep the bears away as the signs still caution? Did they fear the bewitched foxes and badgers that are said to inhabit the forest? The local feudal lords, at any rate, did not travel by choice. According to the shōgun’s decree, they had to spend a certain period of time in Edo every year, something they also did in order to see their families, who had to live in the capital, like hostages. This is how the shōguns secured their power: A subject who was forced to spend weeks on the road had neither the time nor the money to start a rebellion.
After a good hour’s walking, I reach a pass at 800 meters after which the trail turns downhill. Here and there, the thick forest of elm, fir and cherry trees is dwarfed by tall sawara and hinoki cypresses, which can grow to a height of 40 meters. Rays of sunlight slant through the leafy roof above my head, piercing the gloom. The tang of resin hangs heavy in the air, and I hear the nearby rushing of a mountain torrent. Then the forest opens up to reveal a wind-combed cornfield – and a teahouse.
Fukito Katsuno, 78, has been volunteering at the 250-year-old wooden teahouse for the last eight years. He prepares green tea for hikers and talks about the days when traveling samurai stopped to pray before the statues of gods in the garden. “They came into contact with the Ontake faith in the Kiso Valley and then spread it throughout Japan,” says Katsuno. In the late 17th century, the Ontake belief system developed from the Shugendō faith that combined Shinto beliefs with Buddhist practices. According to Ontake, divine energy manifests itself in nature, in trees and mountains. Katsuno serves us more tea from his iron teapot. “The Nakasendō trail was dangerous, there was always a risk of being robbed or catching a disease,” he explains. “Travelers were convinced they would never reach Edo without the help of the gods. So they climbed to the top of Mount Ontake, where the earth and the sky meet. If you want to understand our past and our culture, you should climb the mountain, too.” We said our goodbyes and I continued on toward Tsumago. After another hour, I reached the former mail station with its old Edo architecture. Here, too: shops, tourists, people milling around. Pushing through the crowd, I decide to follow the pilgrims and climb Mount Ontake.
Hiking the Japanese Alps
3 Teahouse Tateba
6 Teahouse Nyonindo
7 Mount Ontake
The next morning, waiting for the cable car that will take me up to 2150 meters, I feel that I have crossed another boundary: There’s not a single Westerner standing in line here, just Japanese people of every age, some of them holding sticks, others carrying bear bells or even helmets. When I arrive at the mountain station, I understand why. What I had imagined would be an easy woodland trail turns out to be an arduous climb – up a flight of steps made of tree stumps. Which explains why I was huffing and puffing after my hour’s worth of upper-thigh workout.
“Konnichiwa,” says an elderly pilgrim in greeting. This is his fifth climb up the mountain, he tells me. “I did it to keep fit at first, but then I began to feel the presence of the gods.” Would he reveal his age to me? “I’m 80,” he replies with an indulgent smile. That’s just the incentive I need right now. My lungs have become accustomed to the thin air and my senses are acutely aware of their surroundings. Fir trees and Japanese stone pines are interspersed with glades of waist-high maidenhair fern amid maple and ginkgo trees with brilliant yellow and red leaves.
In another teahouse, 2800 meters up, I meet two yamabushi – mountain monks – dressed all in white but for the eldest man whose turquoise pants reveal his status as a priest. Every month, he says, he travels here from Nagano to be close to the gods and because, for the yamabushi, exertion leads to enlightenment. I ask him whether the gods will bless me, too. “Gods don’t differentiate between religions,” the priest replies, “they just check to make sure your heart is pure.” He takes me to a stone gateway where two Kami Buddha figures sit enthroned. We bow deeply and reverentially drop coins into the bowls in front of them. I pray for a successful ascent and feel much more confident about the final stretch.
The climb becomes less steep and small bushes take the place of trees. I can see the summit house in the distance, probably three quarters of an hour away. I spot a small plateau and cannot resist a final rest. In front of me, the Japanese Alps crest skyward like waves. Behind me, stone tablets welcome the gods on earth. I lie down on a bed of zigzag bamboo, stare at the sky and spot clouds shaped like dogs and flowers. When was the last time I looked for cloud shapes in the sky? When have I ever pushed my body so far that it stubbornly refuses to go one step further? I realize now that I will never reach the peak. The muted sound of a conch shell that signals the arrival of pilgrims suddenly alerts me to the silence. A feeling of timelessness envelops me. If there is such a thing as peace, that’s what I feel right now. A group of pilgrims passes at a jog, their bear bells tinkling. Let them go. I’ve reached my goal already.
Traveling on foot in Japan
The height of Mount Fuji, the legendary symbol of Japan.
The height of the bronze Buddha statue beside the Daibutsu trail.
The length of the Tōkai trail, the longest in Japan. It passes through eleven prefectures.
The length of the wooden Kappa Bridge at the heart of the Kamikōchi Valley hiking area.