With hands buried deep in our pockets, we hurry off the deserted platform at Mitsutoge station and into the grey morning. Mt Fuji funnels a cold wind down onto the plain, icing the lakes at its foot. The station master scurried back into the warmth of his office as soon as he has taken our tickets. We try to ignore the clouds which cruise the peaks above us and make our way through the frozen fields to the base of the mountain. Yuka groans. Apparently the mountain looks a little higher than I might have lead her to expect.
Mitsutoge is a mountain, or rather three mountains, with a history. It’s considered to be a holy peak, second only to Fuji, which is buried in cloud to the south this cold morning. It’s been a site for pilgrimages for a millennium or more. Yuka and T-chan babble with excitement; the mountain has transformed itself from an icy pile of rock and into a spiritual journey in the footsteps of none other than En-no-gyoja, 7th century ascetic. There’s a noticeable spring in their step, and not a word of complaint.
The trail winds up the mountain and through the light snow, a fast climb up the 3000 feet to the towering cliffs that stand below the peak. The streams which pour from the summit are frozen solid, waterfalls turned to solid columns. I pull the ironmongery from my pack, three pairs of crampons, and we kick our way up the ice. Snow starts to fall, and in the silence we drink in the scene until it becomes too cold to stand still much longer. We can’t imagine anything more beautiful.
The cliffs, which in summer are bedecked with rock-climbers and multi-coloured ropes, are quiet. Our footsteps echo against them, the crunch of the ice and occasional squawk as a crampon point scrapes across a snow-hidden rock. And then it appears, at first the merest hint, just a faint outline of the western flank. With each passing second the clouds tear away, and Fuji roars up above the plain below. We race to Mitsutoge’s peak, casting nervous glances over our shoulder all the way, fearful that the clouds will retake their prisoner. They don’t. We boil hot chocolate, sink our teeth into cold rice balls, and few words are exchanged, so entranced are we by the majestic slopes of that iconic mountain. The Minami Alps and Okutama ranges poke their pale heads through the clouds to the north too, a view as beautiful as it is unexpected.
Fuji hovers between the trees as we make our way over the back of Mitsutoge and down towards Lake Kawaguchi. A battered sign points to the Haha-no-Shira falls, and somewhere in the valley below we can hear the crash of water against rock. We drop further, hop off the trail and slide down a snowbank to a frozen ten foot waterfall, great columns of ice the color of quail eggs, some as thick as a man and others as thin and delicate as swords. It’s impressive, but further down we can hear a greater rush of water, and we race towards it. A staircase of rock, so finely chiseled it looks almost man-made, funnels the river and ice drips like a chandelier on each side. A small shinto shrine and a tall lacquered tori stand beside it; is this the illusive Haha-no-Shira falls? Stepping back to take in the scene, I realise that this waterfall is merely the prelude; a short climb further down the river, and we are standing below a fifty foot wall of ice and cascading water.
Mitsutoge left us in no doubt; each gift better than the last, this holy mountain may stand in Fuji’s physical shadow but spiritually it towers as high as any in the land.