Mt. Ontake, one of Japan's most sacred mountains, has drawn worshippers and pilgrims for over a thousand years. It's home to otherworldly landscapes, an ancient pilgrimage trail, and a nature-focused spiritual culture that thrives to this day.
Kiso-Fukushima Station is the closest main station to the mountain's hiking trail, which is a direct connection from Nagano. Getting to and around the area without a car takes a little planning, so be prepared.
From Nagano Station catch the JR Shinano line to Kiso-Fukushima Station. To get to the hiking trail from Kiso-Fukushima Station take a bus bound for Tanohara to the final stop. Buses run only three times a day.
You can also take the Ontake Ropeway-bound bus and get off at the gondola. From there you can ride the Ropeway's 2,100 meter journey up the mountain.
At 3,067 meters, Mt. Ontake is Japan's second highest volcano
Due to the 2014 eruption, a one-kilometer area around the crater has been off limits, so check before you visit
You can ski down the slopes of Nagano's highest volcano
Mt. Ontake's sacred roots reach deep into the past. The religion practiced here is a blend of Shinto, esoteric Buddhism, and ancient shamanic lore. Practitioners still come from across Japan to walk the Ontake Pilgrimage Trail to the summit. In the warmer months of July and August, you'll encounter pilgrims in white performing ceremonies at the holy sites along the way.
While one trail starts at the bottom of the mountain in Kiso, very few walk the whole route today. The easiest way is to take the Ontake Ropeway, which whisks you up to within a couple hours' hike of the summit.
From there you can trek the volcanic moon-like landscape, passing the many shrines, and Mt. Ontake's sacred ponds. Covering the whole summit takes five or six hours, but there are lodges where you can stay during the pilgrimage season.
The other Ontake Pilgrimage Trail starts in the remote Otaki Village, home to two of the most sacred waterfalls in the region, Kiyotaki and Shintaki Falls. For centuries, pilgrims clad in white have stood below these spectacular cascades for purification before ascending Mt. Ontake.
You can access either of the falls directly, but the hour and a half Ontake Waterfall Trail loop is worth the effort. This takes you through the mountain's beautiful forest lined with shrines and mossy dedications to the divine. The approach to the falls feels like stepping into another realm, especially when the pilgrims are around chanting and conducting their rituals.
If you're in Kiso during the winter and want to try some sports, Mt. Ontake has two resorts, Ontake 2240 in Otaki Village, and the Kaida Kogen Maia Ski Area. Both are smaller resorts but offer a fun day in the snow. You'll even be able to tell your friends you skied Nagano's highest volcano.