Mount Tsukuba: High on Life
“After night’s thunder far away had rolled－Edward Thomas
The fiery day had a kernel sweet of cold,
And in the perfect blue the clouds uncurled,
Like the first gods before they made the world”
Humans are funny creatures: Some claim we have free will but then we all seem to habitually end up doing the same things over and over again. Indeed, I am sure each of us likely thinks that we can accurately predict how our nearest and dearest will react given any situation. On the other side of the debating table, some claim we have no free will and that our behaviour is predetermined and close to immutable. However, I am sure each of us can dredge up memories of when we have been completely off in what we assumed someone else was going to do.
The scientific discipline to which the above lines of reasoning belong could be said to come under the umbrella of what is known as Biological Anthropology; although it could equally be argued that they also fall under the ken of Postmodern Philosophy or even a pretty animated discourse down the pub.
If you would indulge another tangent; something else much less worthwhile than a beer-fuelled symposium with your peers, but something I am sure we have all fallen into the trap of, at least once, is taking one of those awful personality quizzes that occasionally pop-up on your Facebook feed; What’s your perfect job? Who is your perfect partner? Are you a serial killer? Find your ideal pet and so forth. Well, the place where these social media potholes and, bizarrely, anthropological biology meet is lorded over by Dr. Helen Fisher.
Dr. Fisher’s 2009 book breaks us wee humans down into four different personality types based on the way that each of our brain-chemical systems work. You have your cautious, traditional “builders”, your decisive “directors”, your empathic and level-headed “negotiators” and then, most pertinent to us, experience-seeking, imaginative “explorers”. To be honest, in my opinion these simply sound like a 21st century version of the four humours of Hippocrates and whilst these obviously sounded great for the two thousand years before the 1800’s, the underlying idea was, in fact, poppycock. Of course, I am in no way casting aspersions on Dr. Fisher’s work.
So let’s say, for arguments sake, that we take Dr. Fisher’s personality pigeon-holing at face-value. If this is the case then it is very likely that you, dear reader, are a dynamic “explorer”-type. You seek new, exciting and novel experiences. You are always curious to see what is around the next corner and you are drawn to that one thing on the menu that you have never tried. If this is the case then a trip to Mount Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture might be exactly up your alley and a great way to get some dopamine flooding into your little grey cells.
Let’s not make the mistake in thinking that climbing mountains in Japan is at the cutting edge of survival sports; it is not. We are not talking about ascending a jagged knife of a mountain in the Himalayas. However, it certainly can be very dangerous if, for example, you decide to go up one of the higher peaks in the depths of winter. Cold, inclement weather and the phenomena that accompany it can easily reap a deadly toll on the ill-prepared, as the misadventure that befell the four tourists who were killed in an avalanche back in January 2015 can attest to.
There is a line between being a curious “Explorer” and being simply reckless. Aristotle’s golden mean, the point between two extremes, is still a very valid place to be and fortunately climbing Mount Tsukuba, or Tsukuba-san in Japanese, definitely lies close to this safe point of balance. It has a just enough challenge, but a large enough dollop of convenient facilities, to be to the taste of a number of visitor types. You can approach it as a hard hike through steep rocky terrain strewn with lush vegetation, navigate past Shinto shrines and interesting landscape features or on the other hand simply take a cable car up to its zenith and have a beer.
Now, let’s give you some background to begin with. Mount Tsukuba has been a place of both pilgrimage and religious reverence for the last 3000 years. It is said that the two peaks of Mount Tsukuba represent the two gods Izanagi-no-Mikoto, a male deity who is associated with the Nantai peak and Izanami-no-Mikoto, a female deity who is associated with the Nyotai peak. These two gods, or Kami, are credited with birthing the islands of Japan from the roiling mass of chaos that existed before men and in continuing to protect its people even now. Izanagi-no-Mikoto achieved this using a spear encrusted with jewels known as the Ame-no-Nuboko that he thrust into the sea and through this act brought about the rising of an island known as the Onogoroshima. Once this had sprung into existence, the two Kami descended from the Ame-no-Ukihashi (or bridge between heaven and the mortal realm) to live on the newly spawned land. They built a palace in the mortal realm and brought in to being not only a plethora of younger deities but also the eight islands of ancient Japan and its inhabitants the Wa-jin: Yamato (now the main island known as Honshu), Iki, Tsushima, Sado, Awaji, Shikoku (then called Iyo), Ogi and Kyushu (then known as Tsukushi). Note that these do not include Hokkaido (known as Yezo and the land of the Ainu), distant Okinawa or the Kuril islands to the northeast of Hokkaido of which Japan lays claim to two of these in a continuing jurisdiction dispute with Russia that has lasted since the end of World War II.
With the mountain embodying the two creator gods you will not be surprised to find a number of Shinto shrines dotted over the mountaintop. The main shrine on southern face is the imaginatively named Tsukuba-san-jinja and is a draw for both foreign and native visitors alike. You can also find small shrines on the two peaks each dedicated to one of the Kami.
With the above backdrop tastefully hung, let’s get physical and talk about what you will find at the Mountain. The highest point of Mount Tsukuba is 877 metres tall — a mere 25% the height of Mount Fuji — but this is no hillock. Indeed it is listed as one of Japan’s one hundred great mountains or Hyaku Meizan. Its twin peaks jut up from the Kanto plain and afford a wonderful of view of such disparate things as spiky skyline of Tokyo to the thrusting cone of Mount Fuji in a single sweeping vista.
In a land of widespread volcanic activity and barely dormant volcanoes there is a dearth of mountains such as Mount Tsukuba; its gabbro and granite composition are testament to its stable and non-volatile nature in a land that is rocked by tectonic spasms and such is the scarcity and quality of these rocks themselves that they are still quarried here today.
There are three main hiking courses up the mountain each different in difficulty, by which I mean the amount of exertion necessary to follow them; none are beyond the capabilities of even older children but you may want to make sure you are in good physical condition before attempting each.
The two most popular and arguably easiest routes are up the East Ridge and are known as the Shirakumobashi course and the Otatsuishi course that lead to the Nyotai peak. This route also goes through the Beneki-nanamodori which represents the hesitations of the bold warrior priest Benkei as he tried to ascend the mountain and you can also see a number of unusual stones that line the way up. These routes are also shadowed by a cable car for those of us who are less mobile.
The most direct and much tougher route is the Miyukigahara course that goes straight up the mountain and leads you to the cleft between the two peaks. This is the route I took and for one very important reason: I was a biology teacher in high school and I am certainly a bit of a naturalist. A defining feature of Mount Tsukuba is its lush, and I really do mean lush, flora and fauna.
“The tall forest towers;
Its cloudy foliage lowers
Ahead, shelf by shelf;
Its silence I hear and obey
That I may lose my way
The lower slopes are a gently undulating cavalcade of trees from Oak to Cedar, Cypress to Pine and even splashes of cherry trees that then give way to Beech trees, conifers and Maple trees. The presence of Maple is what makes Tsukuba-san such a go-to place to visit during Kouyou, the autumnal season where the leaves change and the country is a swathe of reds and oranges. In my opinion autumn is one of the best times of year to visit Mount Tsukuba although each season has its highlights.
“Gone, gone again,
May, June, July,
And August gone,
Again gone by”
Beneath the canopy you can find other autumnal favourites such as Hydrangeas as well as rhododendrons, giboshi and other ferns. With such a mickle of plant life you will not be surprised to find an equally large muckle of bird, amphibian, insect and mammalian life on the mountainside. If lady luck favours you, you may even be able to catch a glimpse of a deer, a fox, a hare, tanuki or even a boar.
So, you have made your way through the verdant lower slopes, traversed the granite elevations and made it to the end of the trail. What do you find? Shops! Flanked by the two apexes of the mountain, the ridge between them has a number of establishments eager for your patronage. There are souvenir shops and a both friendly and reasonably-priced Ramen restaurant that refreshingly serves beer. You can even get hold of some of the famous Tsukuba cure-all Toad Oil. Just what you need after a hard climb I daresay, or maybe not. However, even better than this is the view; winds assails the heights of the mountain and on a clear day you can see over the plains below both far and wide; nourishment beyond the simple intake of nutrients.
Finally, let us talk logistics. First of all you will need to make your way to Tsukuba station on the Tsukuba Express that goes directly from Akihabara. Make your way outside to the bus station, it is clearly signposted in English and get on a bus bound for the Tsukuba-san-shrine. This takes around 40 minutes but for most of the journey the mountain dominates the horizon.
So, if you fancy getting away from the bustle of Tokyo and enjoying a slice of nature without the gridlock of a popular climb like Mount Fuji I recommend a visit to Mount Tsukuba. Enough said m’thinks.