Blossoming Alpine plants, snow gorges, and refreshingly cool air welcomed us at Murodo on Tateyama (Mt.Tate in Toyama Prefecture) when we got off the highland bus. It was the second time I had called in at the Murodo Plateau which is 2450 m above sea level and the first time for my husband. The temperature up there was 14℃ and it was 20℃ cooler than in town.
The first time I went there was when I was a high school student on a summer excursion. After traversing some high mountains such as Mt. Mitsumata-Renge, the group led by our class teacher, who was an excellent climber, reached the Murodo Plateau. It was also July and I was 17 years old. Being full of youthful energy, I didn't mind at all climbing any slopes, however steep and rocky they might be, and walking any distances, however long and hard the road might be.
This time, unfortunately, we could not see Tateyama's three peaks because of fog. When the weather is fine, they can usually be seen from Mikuriga-ike pond like in the photo below. We walked through two snow gorges and had fun hiking and seeing Alpine flowers. We were on the plateau for only 5 hours because it started raining cats and dogs.
from Wikipedia ↑
Like Mt.Fuji, Tateyama, one of Japan's three holy mountains, has a shrine on its main peak called Oyama（3003m). The Tateyama Mountains that encompass Tateyama's three peaks, the Murodo Plateau, and neighboring high mountains such as Mt.Tsurugi and Mt. Dainichi, were once a sacred place.
Since about 1000 years ago a lot of ancient esoteric Buddhists, who belonged to the Tateyama shugendo（修験道) sect, used to practice asceticism in Murodo's caves and humble huts. For them the mountains looked like the epitome or a representation of the Buddhist universe: the six spiritual realms and some higher ones, life and reincarnation, and suffering and human existence.
In summer at Murodo you come across completely different sights: one is heavenly and the other is hellish. Vast stretches of flowering fields look like heaven and the fearful-looking and barren Hell Valley looks scary. The valley is filled with poisonous volcanic gas. And above the two glorious high peaks of Tateyama rise into the sky.
Flowering fields at Murodo
Hell Valley (地獄谷）
It is no wonder that flowering fields appeared to be a sight of heaven to the eyes of ancient ascetics who practiced at Murodo, and the Hell Valley must have evoked an image of hell. They also thought that the lofty peaks and skies were the realm where gods and heavenly beings lived.
Tateyama mandala(立山曼荼羅 吉祥坊本）, from private collection, Tateyama Museum of Toyama, Edo period
Look at these Tateyama mandalas. They are particularly interesting as they depict Buddhist concepts of the universe in a unique way. These mandalas look quite different from traditional ones which have charts or geometric patterns that represent the universe symbolically. In them you can glimpse the Buddhist cosmology that ancient Japanese people believed in and also get a sense of awe-struck feelings they had toward the holy mountains.
Tateyama nowadays is a popular destination for climbing and tourism though there are still some Shugendo ascetics who train themselves up there.
Tateyama Mandala, Daitoku-ji Temple, Uozu-city, Toyama Prefecture, Edo period
* According to Teteyama Museum of Toyama(prefectural museum) the Tateyama mountains and Murodo became a widely known sacred place during the Heian period (794~1185/1192). In the museum you can see lots of excavated cultural assets and relics that have been discovered on Tateyama related to mountain worship from the Heian period and other periods.