Sunday, July 13, 2008

Opening the Mountain: Ontake "kaizan" 御嶽山の開山

On Thursday, July 10th, mountain opening ceremonies were held both at Ontake's true summit, or ken-ga-mine 剣ケ峰 (3,067 m), and at Otaki's summit (outaki-choujyou 王滝頂上 2937 m). I had planned on staying in the Otaki mountian hut the night before, but ended up not being able to. So, I set out from Ta-no-hara at about 6 on Thursday morning. It had been overcast and a bit drizzly in the village, but soon after I began my ascent up Ontake's south-eastern slope I left the clouds and rain below me.

My body was light and moved easily up the rocky ridge leading to the Otaki summit. I made good time and was at the first summit by about 7:30. A gave a quick hello to a friend who works in the Otaki mountain hut and hurried on along; I made the true summit by about 7:45.

Visibility was poor, but I was able to see the first two of Ontake's five ponds resting just below the summit. The first pond, ichi-no-ike 一ノ池, no longer holds any water, but the second, ni-no-ike 二ノ池, shown blue, like a flake of turqoise, as sunlight poured in intermittently through gaps in increasingly cloud-filled sky.

By the time the ceremony at the summit began (around 10 am,) a small group of believers, clothed in white, began to gather. Two Shinto priests emerged from a small mountain hut next to the summit shrine and worked their way through a series of chants, offerings, and cleansing activities. I watched for a bit, but had to duck out early to scramble back down to the Otaki Summit, where the ceremony was set to begin at 10:30 am.
I rushed down from the summit, letting my mind to drift off a bit while my feet found their way, almost effortlessly, from rock to rock. The smell of sulfur was strong in the air, flowing up from a vent some yards away that was spitting yellowish steam up into the clouds with a loud hissing sound. As I arrived at the Otaki Summit I found friends and acquantainces who marvelled at my eager early morning ascent. Greetings said, we all moved into the main shrine area for the ceremony.

Following the ceremony, a group of Swiss Horn musicians (of all things) from the neighboring village of Okuwa performed several songs. After the horn group had finished, a young ascetic from Ibaraki Prefecture stood before the shrine and began chanting; he then blew a large conch to conclude his prayers to Ontake-san.
After the ceremonies had concluded everyone moved into the Otaki mountain hut for a quick bite to eat and a small taste of omiki お神酒, which means literally "shrine sake".

I made a quick decent--sliding on remaining patches of snow when I could--and stopped only to take photos of flowers and mushrooms that I found interesting.


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