Standing at 3,067 meters Ontake-san is Japan's 14th tallest mountain, and it's second tallest volcano, second only to Fuji-san. Ontake-san has been revered for hundreds of years as a reihou 霊峰--a holy mountain--and may have once rivaled Fuji-san in this respect. Every year hundreds of pilgrims come, dressed in white, to pay homage to the mountain, pray, and undertake various spiritual practices.
Among these practices is a form of meditation that takes place at different waterfalls located on the mountain. Practitioners stand at the base of the waterfalls and allow the frigid waters streaming from above to pummel them as they try to remain calm in a meditative state. I have yet to see this practice myself, but have visited two of the most popular waterfalls used by pilgrims: Kiyotaki 清滝 (pictured), and Shintaki 新滝, both of which are located in Otaki.
The Otaki side of Ontake-san was first opened for spiritual practice in the 2nd year of the Tenmei era (1782) by a mountain ascetic known as Fukan (普寛). From this time a steady stream of believers have come from around Japan to make pilgrimages to Ontake-san. Worshipers of Ontake-san belong to a religious sect known as Ontake-kyou (御岳教). I don't know much about the sect, apart from what I've seen myself on the mountain; it looks very similar to other forms of Shinto (Japan's indigenous religion).
This spiritual aspect of Ontake-san also served as an economic staple for Otaki for many years, with villagers catering to the needs of pilgrims, providing lodging, food, and portage. These days most pilgrimages come to Ontake-san by bus and often don't spend too much time on the mountain or in the village. However, the sacred mountain paths of the past still remain and there is a growing interest among residents to restore these areas so that they can be used once again.
One such area, Sawataritouge (沢渡峠) (pictured above, about 1920, and below, present), was used by pilgrims up to, and even after, WWII. The spot was popular with pilgrims because of the panoramic view of Ontake-san it offered
. In the past a small hut offering beverages and foods, as well as a large torii gate that framed the view of Ontake-san, stood at Sawataritouge. These days, all that remains are the stone footings of the gate, some stone lanterns, and a scattering of beer bottles and other "trash" from the hut.
Though Ontake-san seems to have lost some of its status as a sacred mountain within the modern Japanese landscape, it's clear that the volcano has long been admired and revered. Residents of Otaki have also long revered Ontake-san and I admire their renewed interest in helping to restore the mountain's status as a place of awe and respect.