Nantai means ‘man’s body’ and the body of the mountain is varied. I climb through tree roots and torii (shrine gates), clamber over boulders, and slip on muddy sand and sharp rubble. The mountain is a volcanic cone, much like Mount Fuji, and it is a sacred mountain, a shintai, something which holds kami, spirits.

The path to its summit is difficult yet popular. By mid-morning, I’m meeting many elderly Japanese who are already on their way down, and several younger (middle-aged) men. The latter are dressed all in white, the colour traditionally worn by mountain pilgrims and the yamabushi, the mountain ascetics who lived here in earlier centuries.

Whiteness appears regularly on the path. The torii at the foot of the mountain, which I passed through to ascend, were dressed in strands of straw rope and hung with the folded zigzags of white paper which indicate a sacred place; and beside the path white plastic strips are tied around occasional tree trunks at eye level.

As I make my way up, I also start noticing fine curls of pale birch skin lying intermittently beside the trail. At first I pocket them as miniature mementos then realise they’re too regularly placed to be chance arboreal sheddings, and start myself dropping them along the way as I continue. The trees themselves are changing as I get higher and white birch trees become more frequent until, at the edge of the trail, on a steep curve of the mountainside, stand a line of them, their loose peels of bark unfurling, and as the breeze catches them, they flutter in the sunlight like the paper strips on the torii.

At a tiny shrine set into a rock face a few hundred feet short of the summit, the birch disappear completely, and the world becomes comprised of twisted pines, bleached dead limbs and stumps, and reddish volcanic soil. A sudden cold wind arrives and, as I climb, the trees and soil finally give out until there’s only sharp lumpy black and red rock, and a steep open rubble slope to the summit.

It’s a surprisingly difficult scramble up but, along with the old lady who’s appeared beside me, I get there. The summit is graced by one main shrine and two smaller ones, and I find a sheltered place to nestle by one of these subsidiary shrines, on the far end of a ridge slanting off to the north.

Lines and lines of blue hills rise and fall into the haze of the western sun (Fuji-san hiding somewhere to the south) and the north is full of steep peaks pointing and spearing the mat of thick grey cloud above them. I’m sitting behind some lumpy black rock, having daifuku (sweet red bean patties) and green tea, when I notice tiny white particles drifting around me. At first I think it’s tiny flies, then I think it’s dust, then I’m sure it’s ash, then, as a tearing wind sets in, I realise it’s snow. I barely get back across the ridge and down to the treeline. The wind is like walls of ice, scouring and freezing. I have never been at this altitude before. The world whitens, sharpens. I am blown away!

Shinto Torii gate at top of Nantai-San

Nantai-san, Nikkō, Tochigi, Japan (2486m/8156 feet though I start from Chuzenji at 1269m/4163 feet)
17th October 2014