Mount Tsukuba is shrouded in myth, and the day we hiked to the summit, the valley below was shrouded in mist.
Peaking at 877 meters (2,877 feet), Tsukuba is an hour and a half north of Tokyo. Just take the Tsukuba Express from
Akihabara Station for about 45 minutes (cost=1,150 yen) and then hop on the 45-minute bus ride headed for Tsukuba Shrine.
Lucky for us, Lisa’s former classmate Saya and her British friend Martin picked us up from the station last Sunday and drove us to the base where we were able to find free parking.
Tsukuba Mountain, one of the ‘100 Famous Japanese Mountains’, actually has two peaks representing male and female deities. The higher peak, the female, is called Nyotai-san, while the stubby male-counterpart is Nantai-san. According to mythology, the progenitors of Japan, Izanagi-no-Mikoto and Izanami-no-Mikoto, reside in each corresponding peak.
Thank you wikipedia.
Because the legend behind Mount Tsukuba is steeped in steamy romance, for centuries the shrine has been a popular destination for couples seeking harmony and marital bliss. The Shinto shrine located at the foot of the mountain, Tsukuba-san-jinja, is one of the oldest in the Tokyo region. Poems about the shrine date back to 710 A.D., and it remains a popular place for weddings.
The hike itself is rather challenging. Starting from the shrine, the trail gets rugged
quick. From the east tack, or Shirakumobashi course, it is 2.6 km to the top. This is slightly longer, but slightly easier, than the 2.4 km Miyukigahara course, which essentially goes straight up the mountain at 36 degrees.
The Miyukigahara course follows the cable car, which if you want to save a lot of time and hassle, you can ride up to the peak. Or if you want to sound official/snooty, call it a ‘funicular’ – not a cable car.
Anyhow, Lisa and I hiked Mount Fuji last summer. After that adventure, I decided I didn’t need to exercise for another year, so the first 30 minutes of Mount Tsukuba was a bit of a chore.
Particularly exasperating was the fact that Martin was bounding up the rocks like a damned mountain goat. And this was after I had spent the car ride bragging about how much hiking I had done, whilst he regaled a story regarding his night of heavy drinking.
So yes, it was a little disconcerting to see him preening at the top of a boulder while I gripped the shoulder straps of my backpack like a vise and sucked wind.
Once my lungs adjusted a bit to the altitude and fresh country air, I was able to keep up without looking like the cook from Ernest Goes to Camp.
It took about two hours to reach the summit. The ascent was broken up nicely with scenic views of the Kanto valley below and picnic spots. There were also several rock formations that were given metaphorical descriptions similar to the constellations.
There was the pile of boulders that was supposed to be a the back of the god Daikokuten, while another formation depicted the side profile of Buddha. One stack of rocks was supposed to be two ships passing by each other on the open sea. One interesting formation was told to be that of a frog, opening its mouth halfway. Many people toss rocks into the mouth of the frog, for good luck I guess. We gave a couple of tosses, but the rocks tumbled out of the gaping mouth. We would have kept trying until we were successful, but as Saya said, ‘we are adults’ and decided to move on with our lives.
Mount Tsukuba’s mascot is a frog, since the region is known for a species that secretes a miracle cure-all oil on its back. The locals collect this oil and sell it in vials in the gift shops at the top of the mountain. I opted to buy a little figurine of a frog instead.
It is possible to spot wildlife on Mount Tsukuba, such as deer or raccoon or even badgers, and we did spy a wild Japanese hare. However, other than that, the animals were scarce. I credit this to the high number of hikers that noisily trek up and down the trail every day.
Hiking is extremely popular in Japan, especially among the older retirees, and we ran into these grayed, crooked characters all day long. However, there were also plenty of young people out and about on Mount Tsukuba, including families with young children (under 5), groups of teenagers and a few of the yama girls.
The yama girl is a new trend among young Japanese women. These jubilant girls enjoy purchasing wildly colored clothes and go hiking, bouldering an even mountaineering. Some people blame the yama girls for the increase in climbing accidents and deaths in Japan, but, in my opinion, most of the injuries are due to the idiot foreign adventure seekers trekking in the off-season.
In any case, there were a lot of people hiking on Mount Tsukuba last weekend. At some points we had to stop and wait while pensioners well into their 70s and 80s eased their way down the steep, narrow crevices, which became more frequent as we neared the top.
In addition to slowing up our pace, all of these people also scared away all of the wildlife.
Eventually, though, we did reach the peak. And the view was…. non-existant.
While the temperature was nice, extending into the 70s, the sky was overcast, and we missed out on the supposed spectacular scenery below.
The summit is known for its panoramic view of the Kanto plain. On clear days you can see Mount Fuji and even the Sky Tree in Tokyo.
We were able to glimpse the expansive farm fields and greenery at the base of the mountain, but beyond that it was a thick wall of haze. Oh well. Them’s the breaks.
We didn’t linger terribly long at the top. Since the cable car, sorry – funicular, is popular among tourists there are several restaurants and gift shops at the civilized summit. It is common to eat overpriced ramen and drink watered down beer and catch a ride back down. We used the public bathroom (running water), bought a few snacks and gifts, checked out the shrine at the top and made our way back down.
It was a 70-minute descent along the steep Miyukigahara course. I would have hated to have come up this way. The trail was like a Stairmaster set at level 11, with very few switchbacks. Log stairs were built in the trail, and were only about four inches tall and six inches deep, making you almost tip-toe all the way down. We couldn’t walk at a normal gait and our knees and ankles began to ache rather quickly.
The only feature of note was a small stream trickling down the side of the mountain. The locals use the water to distill a popular sake. We also saw some plum trees that still had some flower petals clinging to their branches.
We were quite relieved when we finally returned to Tsukuba-san-jinja. On the return trip we were able to explore the grounds a little further, and it was quite extravagant. The gardening was exquisite, and the buildings and gates were ornate.
I would definitely recommend hiking Mount Tsukuba to anyone who is looking for a more challenging hike than Mount Takao while still not straying too far from Tokyo. Or hell, go ahead and plan to get married at the summit.