Kiso Ontake: Japan’s Pristine Heartland

Kiso Ontake: Japan’s Pristine Heartland


At its heart, Japan is a land of mountains. Dominating the interior of the country and accounting for a significant amount of the national territory, mountains lie at the very heart of Japan – in every sense of the word. The Kiso Ontake Mountain Range is one of several dramatic and beautiful alpine areas covering Central Japan. Dominated by the imposing volcanic peak of Mount Ontake – Japan’s second highest volcano behind Fuji – the region is known for its pristine nature, lush landscapes and stunningly-coloured water of its rivers and gorges.


The geography of the mountain range including its rugged and high peaks, dense forests and deep gorge made the region somewhat inaccessible until modern times, and in doing so, allowed a strong and independent culture to develop; and though modern infrastructure has now opened Kiso Ontake to the wider world, it retains much of its historic character and maintains many traditions.


Most famously, the Nakasendo Trail dissects the region as it passes through the Kiso Valley. Known as the ‘Kisoji’, this section of the trail is considered the most beautiful and includes the historic post towns of Narai, Magome and Tsumago. The trail can be walked any time of year however due heavy snow and cold in winter, and heat and humidity in summer, spring and autumn are the best times to follow the Nakasendo into the heart of Japan.

Mount Ontake is a popular mountaineering and hiking destination in spring, summer and autumn with the Ontake Ropeway ascending to 2150 metres. The native Japanese religion of Shintoism teaches that all aspects of nature are imbued with ‘kami’, translating as gods or the divine. Mountains play an important role in this belief system and as such, a unique ‘Ontake Shinko’ faith, developed in the region, worshipping the brooding volcano.

Emerging as early as the Heian Period (794-1185), Ontake Shinto combines Shinto practices such as mountain worship, Buddhism and folk beliefs. Adherents called ‘doshisha’ would climb to the summit of Ontake, and in that process create the trails today known as the ‘Ontake Kodo’. Multiple shrines act as focal points of worship along the trails including the Ontake Satomiya Shrine  and Omata Sansha Shrines at the trailheads and main Ontake Shrine at the summit, sitting 3,067 metres above sea level.


Religious sites are dotted through the region including shrines and temples, along with important waterfalls, rivers and other natural features considered sacred. For further information, please refer to our ‘Walking Trails, Pristine Nature & More!’ page.