The gift that keeps on giving

January 27, 2009 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

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.


22 Responses to “The gift that keeps on giving”

  1. Jason on January 27th, 2009 3:29 pm

    I hiked up Mitsutoge a few summers ago, but Fuji kept itself hidden in the clouds the whole day unfortunately.

    The frozen waterfall looks epic. I was expecting to read about you climbing up it with axes and crampons!

    I was glad to learn of the sacredness of Mitsutoge. I had no idea.

  2. holdfast on January 27th, 2009 4:03 pm

    Simply stunning photos Chris. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Captain Interesting on January 27th, 2009 8:03 pm

    Many thanks for this, Chris – l used to be familiar with Mitsutoge but had no idea we were treading in the footprints of En-no-gyoja himself (he did get about, though, didn’t he?). Your top photo is particularly unusual and haunting: good one!

  4. Clint on January 27th, 2009 10:04 pm

    Awesome story and pictures. I especially like the 1st picture. I don’t know the average yearly snowfall for Fuji, but from your vantage point you can easily tell it is looking a little thin even near the top.

    I keep hearing about record amounts of snow for the month all over the resorts of Japan, so it is surprising to see Fuji’s snow pack looking so meager.

  5. Ben on January 27th, 2009 11:19 pm

    Very nice! Kicks the crap out of Nanshogataki, where I went earlier this month. Granted the altitude of your waterfall is higher and in a better latitude for such things. I have the same Talon 11 pack as one of the girls! Great for quick dashes outdoors, especially summer. My favorite shots are the last three. I actually bought a gray reference card to help with WB in the snow. We’ll see how it works.

  6. Honor on January 28th, 2009 1:23 am

    Beautiful photos. I love number 5 – the colors in the ice are amazing. It almost looks futuristic somehow – to me anyway : )

    I’ve just started walking/hiking again with a couple of buddies so it’s great to learn about different places. Thanks!

  7. David on January 28th, 2009 6:40 am

    I stumbled upon your blog about a month ago while planning a month long trip to Japan for the end of the year. Thanks a lot for those really nice shots and writing, they really bring calm and motivation.

  8. MTC on January 28th, 2009 8:05 am

    Chris, you neglect to mention the row of microwave relay stations and reflectors at the top, in addition to the epic levels of erosion.

    The view from the summit is indeed fabulous but the mountaintop is a mess.

  9. Tom on January 28th, 2009 9:10 am

    Everytime I find a new post, I’m blown away! Thank you!!
    You capture snowy forested mountainsides very well – very magical. I feel transported away from balmy southern Kyushu in an instant… (Although, Sakurajima has had its fair share of snow this year.)

  10. Joseph on January 28th, 2009 9:54 am

    Wow, amazing shots! Truly inspirational.

    Thanks for sharing them.

  11. I-CJW on January 28th, 2009 11:49 am

    Jason – the temptation was there, and I’m still tempted to go back with my axes, put in a top rope and spend a day playing on the ice…

    Holdfast – glad you enjoyed – I imagine Norway has more than its fair share of frozen waterfall this time of year!

    Cap’n – yes, between En-no-gyoja and Kukai, it’s hard to find a mountain they didn’t scale (or fly to the top of..)

    Clint – I know what you mean. I was surprised to see so little snow on Fuji too. Although skiing in Echigo over the weekend, it was pretty thin there too – I wonder if the heavy snowfall has mainly been along the north coast and Hokkaido?

    Ben – interested to hear how that reference card works out, shooting on snow is just a nightmare. The Talon’s a great little pack, isn’t it?

    Hi Honor – when things get cold and the air gets squeezed out of the ice, you get those great blues and greens. It is quite Alien-esque. Mitsutoge is a good day hike if you’re interested – a pair of light crampons will help a lot on the top if you go in winter, but 4-points are fine.

    David – a month in Japan sounds splendid. You’ll love it, it’s a beautiful country.

    MTC – a fair point, and I’m usually the first to rail against such travesties. But it’s a testament to the mountain that the evils wrought by human hands left but a small smudge on my memories of that day.

    Tom – that’s very kind, and it *did* feel quite magical up there, especially as the clouds parted and Fuji made its entrance!

    Joseph – you’re most welcome! It’s a pleasure to take them and share them.

  12. billywest on January 29th, 2009 2:28 am

    Beautiful shot of Fuji between the trees. It occurred to me when first seeing it that few Japanese photographers would include the trees in the shot. It’s like they think the trees dirty up the scene or take away from its simplistic beauty.

  13. jay on January 29th, 2009 11:47 am

    Great work again. The first image is just breathtaking. I stopped at just stared for like 5 minutes when I first saw it!

  14. I-CJW on January 29th, 2009 1:06 pm

    Billy – I’m a big fan of tree silhouettes. I love the way they stand out against a background of clouds at dawn and dusk. I agree with you, I think they actually focus attention, especially on the colours of the sky.

    Jay – that’s pretty much what we did too! I was amazed that Fuji showed itself that day. The forecast was poor, it was drizzling and the sky was a blanket of grey – which lifted in minutes just as we got to the peak!

  15. George Baptista on January 29th, 2009 11:47 pm

    I stared at the frozen waterfall photo for a few minutes, trying to figure out a line up. If our room had more wall-space I’d frame it and stare at it all day long.

    I wish we had brought along such ironmongery during our recent foray into the Makihatayama area, where we might have found the limits of snowshoes. That’s when you are inching your way up, careful not to slip or have the wind blow you off. You take a look to the side and realize the slope is steeper than expected, maybe 50 degrees. Normally I would’ve been cussing but was too pumped up, and the wind would’ve drowned me out anyway.

  16. Peter Skov on January 30th, 2009 2:15 am

    There’s another place I have never been to. That waterfall is gorgeous. I particularly liked the photograph where it was possible to see the twisted roots of the tree and the gnarled limbs of ice. One could imagine creatures carved of ice and wood.

    I didn’t know Mitsutoge was the second most holy mountain in Japan. I had always heard that next to Fujisan, Hakusan and Tateyama were the most sacred mountains.

  17. I-CJW on January 30th, 2009 3:29 am

    Hi George – as I mentioned above, I’m still tempted to go back and have a surreptitious crack at that waterfall.. Looks like you guys are getting some good snow up there. Take care!

    Hey Peter – you’d like it up there I think on a good day. The view is stunning, and it’s a decent one-dayer. As MTC said above, the summit is a bit of a mess however. I could have stayed gazing at that waterfall for hours though. As for it being the second most holy mountain, you have to bear in mind that it was the sign at the entrance shrine that declared it so :-)

  18. Duangdao on January 30th, 2009 7:03 am

    Who can tell me how to make the reservation lodge on the top of Mitsutoge.I want to overnight there on 28 Feb.

  19. I-CJW on January 30th, 2009 7:20 am

    Hi Duangdao – the telephone number is 0555-76-7609 for the Mitsutoge-sanso. Most of the time, you don’t *need* a reservation to stay at the lodges, but it’s always advisable to make a reservation if you can.
    The Kawaguchiko Town Office Tourist Section might be able to help you as well: 0555-72-3168.

  20. RedYeti on March 16th, 2009 10:58 pm

    Catching up with some blogs very, very slowly after a my latest contract tried to steal my entire life…

    And what a treat! Agree with Cap. Interesting – that top photo is stunning.

  21. I-CJW on March 17th, 2009 12:56 pm

    Hi RedYeti! Good to hear from you. I feel your pain – I have an enormous backlog of blogposts from the past couple of weeks. Not to mention writing my own…

  22. Colin Canfield on December 31st, 2013 9:54 am

    Thanks for your article, I just did the same walk in late December after reading your description (plus a couple of others) – it is really a beautiful spot on the top. I don’t the antanaes take much away from the view at all….

Leave a Comment

Your comment should appear immediately after hitting the Submit button. If it doesn't, then you've fallen prey to the spam filter... Do send an email to "cjw" at the site address if this happens!