Climbing Mt. Tsukuba for Christmas

According to one Japanese legend, long, long ago one of Japan’s many gods decided to descend to earth and asked both Mt. Fuji and Mt. Tsukuba to play host the visit. Mt. Fuji, so beautifully formed, arrogantly declined, while Mt. Tsukuba offered hospitality. As a result, to this day Mt. Fuji’s flanks are barren and stony, while Mt. Tsukuba’s hospitality was rewarded by lush forests and other vegetation.

Mt. Tsukuba stands some 90 kilometers north of Tokyo overlooking the Kanto Plain and the alluvial flatlands above Lake Kasumigaura. The product of geological upthrust, Mt. Tsukuba has twin peaks that give a different appearance depending on the viewer’s position. Indeed, this mountain seems to have an ever-changing personality based on where and how it is experienced.

Perhaps it is for this reason that Mt. Tsukuba has historically been a popular subject for traditional poetry, appearing in the Man’yoshu poetry anthology compiled around 1,300 years ago more than any other Japanese mountain.

The mountain’s twin peaks, Nyotai, the female peak (elevation 877 meters), and Nantai, the male peak (elevation 871 meters), are closely associated with Izanami and Izanagi, the two ancient gods who are said to have created the Japanese islands in the first place and are also the parents of many of Japan’s other deities, including Amaterasu Omikami, the mother goddess believed to be the ancestress of Japan’s imperial line.

Since the two peaks represent these two ancestral gods, of course, the mountain is also home to a major shrine, Tsukubasan Jinja, which honors them and is dedicated to marriage, fertility and families. The shrine has a long history, but dates much of its current layout to the third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu (1604-1651), who visited the shrine in 1633.

The seventeenth century construction was actually commissioned by Iemitsu’s father, Hidetada, but he died before the work could be completed. It was also Hidetada who started construction of Nikko’s famed Toshogu Shrine and, similarly, it was left to Iemitsu to finish the job. He used many of the same craftsmen for both projects. A prime example of this is the wood carving work. Look familiar?

The shrine is also a starting point for one of the hiking trails to the summits. I decided the summit might be a great place to keep watch for Santa Claus, so I made the ascent on December 24. It took around 2.5 hours to climb to the top, passing through woodland that is quite pretty even in the “dead” of winter.

Along the way, we passed a number of small shrines honoring various deities who inhabit the mountain or protect those who spend time here. Most are well signposted, and even have QR codes to provide details in English. Some hikers leave small stones, symbols of their prayers for a successful ascent and safe return.

As we climbed, we began to encounter more and more massive boulders and rock formations. Mt. Tsukuba is comprised of a combination of gabbro and granite. Gabbro is a slow-cooling (and therefore harder) version of basalt. It is a relatively course-grained stone that is high in iron and magnesium. It also has a tendency to develop cracks in relatively straight lines that, over time, fracture, forming boulders that often tumble down the mountain or pile onto each other on the mountain side.

Many of these boulder formations have been given whimsical names, like Daikokuten (below left) and Great Buddha (below right).

At last, we reached the summit, making our way across a footbridge behind the satellite of Tsukubasan Shrine to the top-most point, also a scramble of boulders. Although it was too hazy to photograph, we could make out Mt. Fuji, 150 kilometers away, as well as other close peaks such as Nikko’s Mt. Nantai and Mt. Asama beyond that. In spite of the panoramic view, Santa was nowhere to be seen.

I have to admit, this was a pretty strenuous climb and I was pretty pooped by the time I reached the summit. I was, therefore, quite glad to learn of a shortcut back down again: a ropeway that also offers great views and took just 6 minutes.

There is also a cable car, but it’s currently closed for maintenance, presumably getting ready for the onslaught of visitors over the new year period. There were even lights strung over the paths from the ropeway and cable car terminals to the summit shrines; obviously midnight hatsumode visits are popular.

Mt. Tsukuba is regarded as one of Japan’s 100 top mountains. I have to admit, now that I’ve climbed it, I can appreciate its popularity. It is beautiful, both from a distance and close up. Well worth a visit in any season.

© 2021 and Vicki L. Beyer
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