The day began at the Otaki community center where we boarded a bus and headed up the mountain to Ta-no-hara 田の原. Sitting at 2108 meters, Ta-no-hara is the highest point accessible by car. Sitting just below the summit of Ontake is the Ta-no-hara Natural Park 田の原天然公園. The park consists of a series of wooden walkways that lead through a marshy forest of tall erman's birch (dakekanba 岳樺 in Japanese), Japanese Rowan (an rose variety, nanakamado 七竈), and several varieties of stunted pines, such as shirabiso 白檜曽(Alvies veitchii Lindley), kometsuga 米栂 (Tsuga diversifolia, a hemlock variety native to Japan), haimatsu 這松 (Pinus pumila, the name means "crawling pine", due to the tree's ability to sprout roots from dangling branches so as to "crawl" across the landscape).
Ta-no-hara Natural Park also boasts a variety of wild-flowers that bloom during the summer months. We learned about too many of these for me to list them all here, which gives a sense of the diversity the park holds.
The staff at the Ta-no-Hara Visitor's Center were nice enough to let us eat our lunches in the cafeteria. A large wall of windows offered clear views of the summit pyramid; though a broad skirt of grey clouds hid the top of the mighty mountain, I could see its eastern slopes which were glowing green with new vegetation (it's still early spring up high on the mountain). Gullies of crumbling rock cut through the green and extended perpendicular to the cloud roof above; sinewy lines of white, crusty snow clung stubbornly, straddling trickles of water bouncing down from the mountaintop.
A chasmic half arc of brown shale opens from the mountain's southern slope and stretches eastward, interrupting the downward progress of a strong ridgeline. From rim to rim this crater is probably a kilometer, if not two, or three! A 1984 earthquake loosened the mass of earth that once occupied the space and sent it rushing in a swollen brown torrent down the mountain towards Otaki. 29 people lost their lives that day. However, looking at the empty space on the mountain I couldn't help wondering how the whole village wasn't consumed.
Bellies full, it was time to start back down the mountain--we had places to see on the way down. Our next stop was at Ginga-mura Campground 銀河村キャンプ場, which is owned and operated by the village. A few years ago a group of volunteers planted a field of keshi-no-hana (garden, or opium, poppies. The field was planted purely as a tourist attraction--as far as I know there are no plans for Otaki to become an opium producer. Opium poppies are funny little flowers, with slender stalks that stand up long and straight and flowers that face downward with large petals that flop about like an a woman's oversized sun hat. I think I heard that there are about 300 of these poppies blooming at Ginga-mura, but I'd put the number more around 100.
From the campground we continued on foot through a mixed forest of mainly karamatsu 唐松 (Japanese larch) and a variety of broadleaf varieties, such as shirakaba 白樺 (white birch, Nagano's prefectural tree), which had replaced the erman's birch that grows primarily above 2500 meters. We continued to encounter a variety of incredible wildflowers, including one of the most fascinating flowers I've ever seen: ginryousou 銀霊草. The Chinese characters for this flower translate as "silver spirit grass", which makes is fitting as the flowers look like little ghosts hovering around the forest floor. Ginryousou have an ephemeral quality that make one question their very existence, as if they may disappear when you look away for a moment.
Our final stops of the day were the twin waterfalls of Kiyotaki 清滝 and Shintaki 新滝, which sit at about 1500 meters on Ontake-san. Both of these waterfalls are respected as places of power and used by pilgrims to Ontake-san for meditation. On this day we descended to Shintaki from above. Before reaching the waterfall itself we passed a small wooden building used by worshipers when engaging in religious practices. We also stopped to look at a small shrine that sits next to the falls. Someone in the group motioned for me to look into a small cave that opens into the rock wall from which Shintaki's waters fall. As I approached the cave I could see the warm glow of candles and after a moment discerned the shape of man sitting in zazen, the traditional posture of meditation in Japanese Buddhism. I allowed myself a photo and then departed trying not to disturb the serenity of the scene.
The path from Shintaki to Kiyotaki covers very steep terrain and so we were forced to use a series of wooden bridges and staircases that, in the rain, were a bit challenging. However, with slow, sturdy steps we navigated the course with no problems. Kiyotaki was impressive as always, but I must say that it lacks the grandeur of it's neighbor, Shintaki. The rain was beginning to increase in intensity, so we didn't spend long lingering at Kiyotaki.
Though I've written about the day, I don't know that I can put words to my own experience with Ontake. I'll end by saying only that Ontake is a deep and powerful place. Simply being there is enough, but spending time on the mountain with local residents, learning from their expertise and joining in their admiration of the wonders that the environment there offers, is something that I come up short in trying to convey.
Peaks like Buddhas at the heights
send waters streaming down
to the deep center of the turning world.
And the Mountain Spirit always wandering
hillsides fade like walls of cloud
pebbles smoothed off sloshing in the sea
old woman mountain hears
tell the wind
Mountains will be Buddhas then
-Gary Snyder (from "The Mountain Spirit", Mountains and Rivers Without End)