A huge network of streams and rivers crisscross Otaki’s rugged landscape, and there are numerous waterfalls around the village. Kiyotaki and Shintaki Falls are the best known; each over 30-meters-hight, they have been sacred places of purification for centuries. The currents that feed them flow from Mt. Ontake itself.
During takigyo, or traditional waterfall austerities, practitioners stand beneath the icy flows to cleanse the mind of extraneous thought, enhancing the clarity of meditation. The practice also has symbolic value as a kind of mountain baptism, linking the world of the village below to the pristine heights. In the old days, pilgrims could only begin climbing Mt. Ontake after 100 days of austerities at the falls, accompanied by the appropriate rituals and long periods of fasting and meditation. These days, the practitioners of Ontake-san’s mountain faith still visit the falls for their rituals, if for shorter periods.
Every season has its own draw. In spring, the falls thunder with melt-water from the mountain. Particularly in the summer, don’t be surprised if you encounter groups of white-clad pilgrims performing austerities. You’ll hear them chanting their incantations as you approach. Autumn is gorgeous with the colors of the changing leaves, and in the winter, enormous ice pillars form. Visit the waterfalls at night during this period to see them lit up in their ice-palace splendor.
While Kiyotaki and Shintaki Falls are both used in a similar way by the faithful, their surroundings and atmospheres are unique. We highly recommend visiting both. Shintaki is less visited and has an otherworldly vibe. Feel free to walk past the shrine into the cave behind the falls, but watch your step—the damp rocks can be slippery.
The Ontake Waterfall Trail connects the falls and lets you walk in the footsteps of centuries of spiritual pilgrims. The loop takes about an hour and a half to walk and covers the fourth stage of the Ontake Pilgrimage Trail, which includes some of its more otherworldly scenery.
The Ontake Waterfall Trail is in green on the map below. For those with less time, a steep ascent / descent over the ridge between the falls takes about 20 minutes each way (in blue). The trail is generally accessible from late March until the first snows in early December. For winter visits to the falls, you can access them with about a 10-minute walk from the road. Snowshoes or crampons (and extra caution!) may be needed during that time.
Zoom out on the map to see the trail location, about 3.5 km from the village center.
Buddhist priest blowing a conch at Shintaki Falls, a common site on Mt. Ontake.