On a clear day, look out from a high vantage point in Tokyo, such as Tokyo Tower or the Skytree. To the west the mountains ring the horizon, a reminder that everything here, even this urban infinity, subsists at the pleasure of Japan's volcanic geology. At one extreme, Mount Fuji watches on in its silent vigil. Towards the other, the imposing ice-capped spine of Honshu rears redoubtable in the background.
East towards the sea, however, everything is flat. There is scarcely a hill to be seen. But there is one exception: a conspicuous double-mountain to the northeast, all the more peculiar for how it has that skyline all to itself.
It is Mount Tsukuba (筑波山) – one of the 100 Famous Japanese Mountains. The principal mountain in the flat southern half of Ibaraki Prefecture, it overlooks the “Science City” of Tsukuba, a 1960s planned concern devoted to scientific research and discovery which houses the prominent University of Tsukuba, as well as an Annex of the National Archives of Japan.
Mount Tsukuba has two peaks: Nantai-san (男体山, “male body mountain”), at 871m high, and Nyotai-san (女体山, “female body mountain”), the rightfully taller at 877m. A sacred mountain, the peaks are respectively associated with Izanagi and Izanami, the ancient Shinto deities who mythologically birthed Japan's islands, gods and people. The Tsukuba Shrine at the mountain's base is one of the oldest in Japan; people have been coming there to worship the mountain for 1,300 years.
Tsukuba-san is notably not volcanic. It is composed mostly of granite, and features many large boulders and rock formations for which it is famous, each bearing its own resemblances or stories. The best-known of these is the “Toad Rock”, whose apparent likeness has given Tsukuba-san a permanent cultural association with toads now profusely represented in its installations and merchandise.
|The “Toad Rock”. Note the mass of stones in its “mouth”. More on how they got there later.|
Add to this the mountain's superb variety of trees and seasonal flowers, the panoramic views across its surrounding flats, and its easy accessibility, and you have a recipe for another massive mountain touristification phenomenon. The saddle between the two peaks has been colonised by restaurants, souvenir shops and viewing platforms, serviced from two directions by a cable car and a ropeway. Fortunately humanity's works have not nearly overwhelmed it so much as, say, Takao-san, but if you go, do not expect to have much of the mountain to yourself except in the most immiserating weather conditions.
|The view north from the saddle.|
This does however make Tsukuba-san a flexible day's outing. Only an hour and a half from central Tokyo by public transport, it offers a relaxing family excursion with much to enjoy for dogs and small children, requiring only as much physical exertion as you are comfortable putting in. As a more serious walk, it offers a steep but forgiving hour-and-a-half ascent up the mountain, and a rocky ramble across and down which in total can be completed in as few as four hours, or five to six if you opt to explore multiple paths or take your time around the top. Experienced hikers will find little to challenge them, but Tsukuba-san is perfect for unconfident beginners seeking to gauge their endurance, or for some good exercise to get back in shape.
To get there, take the Tsukuba Express train from Akihabara Station; the Rapid service takes only 45 minutes. At Tsukuba station, take Exit No. 3, then go to Bus Stop No.1 for the bus to Tsukuba-san (about 40 minutes, 700 yen one-way, timetable here). Get off at either Tsukuba Shrine Entrance (筑波神社入り口, Tsukuba Jinja Iriguchi), or Tsutsujigaoka (つつじヶ丘), depending on which side you want to climb from. This article covers a circuit starting and ending at the shrine. The mountain's routes are well-signposted, with maps on frequent display, and there are clusters of restaurants and shops at both starting points and at the top.