Mount Ontake is an active volcano which erupted, for the first time in recorded history, in 1979. Dominating the Kiso Valley, it is better known, perhaps, as the domain of magical mountain spirits. Also called Mitake and Otake, Mount Ontake is sometimes called Kiso Ontake in order to distinguish it from a number of other mountains with similar names. One of the other mountains, Mitakesan or Mt. Mitake in Tokyo prefecture, and Kiso Ontake both are Shinto centers of worship, particularly by the Shugendo sect which specializes in ascetic practices on mountains.
Kiso Ontake has its shrine at the foot of the mountain and is the headquarters of the Mitakekyo (“Mitake teaching”). In addition to the groups of Shugendo believers who ascend the mountain to perform their rites, local farmers also worship there early in the spring as it is believed that the mountain’s god descends to the rice fields in the spring and ensures fertility in the coming year. This folk belief is typical of the Shinto concentration on natural wonders and fertility.
The Shugendo sect, and its sub-sect, the Mitakekyo, are very eclectic sects which combine Shinto beliefs with Buddhist doctrine and practice. Its believers are usually called yamabushi (lit. ‘mountain warriors’), who may often be hermits. Shugendo emerged in the 12th century as a result of the joining of solitary hermits who had fled Buddhist monasteries to seek magical and medical powers through fasting, meditation and ascetic practices such as standing under cold mountain waterfalls or in snow. Shugendo was, until recently, a very secretive group since its beliefs and rituals could only be passed on from master to disciple after a certain level of practice had been achieved. Yamabushi ascend sacred mountains like Ontake in each of the four seasons which have their own austere practices designed to arouse the Buddha-like nature that lies within. In 1875, the sect was banned when the Meiji government tried to insist on complete separation of Shinto and Buddhism, but it survived underground until 1945 when new policies implemented by the Allied Occupation insisted on religious freedom.
Carmen Blacker’s The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan (London : Allen & Unwin, 1975) includes an excellent chapter about Shugendo practices centering on Mount Ontake.