June 30, 2018
Something a bit different. Mt Tsukuba is the lowest of the 100 Famous Mountains and was the easiest climb so far. It’s also the first one I’ve done within a single day. This mountain has an interesting history and folklore surrounding it, which you can read with a quick interweb search. It’s also a part of the minority of Japanese mountains that isn’t volcanic.
The 6:45am Tsukuba Express train from Akihabara, arrived at Tsukuba Station at around 7:40.
Then it was a short walk to the bust top outside the station. The first of the hourly buses up to the Tsukubasan Shrine arrives at 8am, and there was already a lengthy queue of hikers waiting at the stop.
I joined the end of the line. At 7:50 the bus pulled up, and I was lucky enough to squeeze on. There were around 20 or so other people who weren’t able to fit. Hopefully there was a second bus that pulled in, sparing them an hour-long wait for the next scheduled one.
At 7:55, we on our way. The route runs north along a highway between rice fields, before heading off to the east and winding its way up through the foothills of the mountain. The two peaks that make up the Mt Tsukuba summits were hidden in clouds, and the sky was an overall grey, despite the forecast for a cloudless day. At 877 meters, this isn’t a big mountain, but set against low flat plains, it still makes for an impressive sight.
At 8:30, the bus reached the shrine area and everyone piled off. A few hikers milled about, preparing and chatting, while the rest headed off, under a torii gate that’s probably visible from the moon, and up toward the shrine and start of the Miyukigahara trail. This is the most popular route for hikers, with an ascent of around 600 metres. It starts at the shrine, and heads up to Mt Nantai – Mt Tsukuba’s west peak. From there, a path across the saddle links to the east peak of Mt Nyotai.
An alternative way is to continue on in the bus up to Tsutsujigaoka station and the Ropeway (cable car) and take the shorter path up to Mt Nyotai. If you’re feeling particularly lazy, you can just take either the tram (which is actually referred to on maps as the “cable car”) all the way to Mt Nantai from the shrine, or an actual cable car on the Ropeway, which runs from Tsutsujigaoka station up to Mt Nyotai. Confused? Just walk. It’s more rewarding.
I needed the exercise, so like most of the hikers, chose the Miygukahara trail. After a brief stroll around the Tsukubasan Shrine, I hit the mountain proper.
The path begins at the top of the shrine, and is marked by a picturesque stone torii gate set amid greenery. There are pathways going every which way in the shrine area, but a few small signs make it easy to find the right route.
For the first half hour, the walk was a steady uphill plod through a nice forest. Nothing too difficult, but steeper sections required some rock hopping. It was wet and a little muddy, so stepping up from rock to rock took a bit of care. There were a few families with young kids heading up as well as several elderly hikers, and some bottleneck sections on the rocks early on meant a bit of waiting here and there. As the path continued upward, the numbers thinned out, with hikers falling into their various natural walking paces.
At a couple of points the trail passes close to the tram track, and at one of these, a loud whirring sound began to ring out through the forest. It was the wheels on the track spinning as the cable slid between them. A small crowd gathered to wait and watch, and within a couple of minutes two trams came past from opposite directions – a red one from below, and a green from above. They passed one another right in front of us, much to everyone’s joy. The whirring continued for a couple of minutes after they’d passed, then it was quiet again.
As I continued upward, the forest became wetter and cooler, with an occasional bit of thin cloud hanging in the air. Some parts became steeper, but plenty of wooden bars and rocks made the going fairly straightforward.
At around 10am, through a tunnel of bushes and trees, I saw a structure. It was the saddle between the two peaks. As I came out of the trees, I was surprised to see how sprawling it was – shops, small restaurants, cafes and the tram station.
There were already dozens of hikers sitting around, eating, drinking or just having a break. There’s a nice view of the plain out to the west, and after a few photos I continued on along a slightly narrower path, up to the first of the two peaks – Mt Nantai. This only took 10 minutes. There’s an old weather station up here and another small shrine. After a couple more photos of the overcast plain to the south, I headed back to the saddle.
I enjoyed a quick coffee at one of the cafes, then ambled around the saddle area and took photos. You can go up to the roof of the tram station to get the best views from anywhere on Mt Tsukuba. It offers good views of both peaks, as well as Kasumigaura Bay and the ocean to the south and east, and northwest toward Chikusei and the mountains beyond.
The temperature was perfect – cool but not cold, and the patchy clouds and remaining mist on the mountain gave it a rather pleasing atmosphere and light.
I spent some time taking plenty of pictures. Just after 11, I headed off across the saddle on the Sancho-renrakuro trail, toward Mt Nyotai.
This is a short but lovely path, with a cafe nestled in trees and rocks about halfway. Despite the number of people on the mountain, the track still has some peaceful stretches with only the sound of birds and the wind. The walk across to the second of the two peaks only took about 15 minutes.
Mt Nyotai has a very small summit area, and by the time I arrived, there was a caravan of people heading up from a steep, narrow path on its far side. On top, people queued up and jostled for photos on the boulders. Someone had even brought their corgi up.
I only stayed a few minutes, then made my way past a small souvenir shop on the edge of the summit area, and down the eastern side of the mountain. Here, there were lots of bottlenecks, particularly toward the top where the path was steep, narrow and rocky. I joined the back of one cluster of hikers heading down, so as to not get too caught up waiting for traffic coming up. Plenty of people slipped on the wet rocks – some going up, but most on the descent. I think the pressure of seeing people waiting at the bottleneck areas forced a few missteps. There were also quite a few people on this stretch who weren’t really dressed for hiking, which made the going pretty slow in places.
About halfway down, the trail passes a couple of interesting rock formations, including Benkei-Nanamodori, which hangs precariously overhead.
Then it was down to the last intersection. Turning right onto the Shirakumobashi trail leads back down to the shrine. I chose the left path, which leads, via the Otatsuisi Course, down to the Tsutsujigaoka station at the base of the Ropeway.
The lower half of this trail comes out of the forest and into a more open area. The sun was scorching by noon and aside from one or two quick stops for photos, I made for the station.
At 12:45pm I arrived at the far end of the Ropeway’s large parking area. There’s an old playground here, with some disused rides, a rusty old slide and one interesting picture of a warrior. I spent a few minutes resting in the shade of the Ropeway’s restaurant, then just as I decided to go and check out the bus timetable, the bus pulled in.
At 1pm, along with half a dozen other hikers, the bus headed off down the winding mountain road. It stopped to pick up a few more hikers at the shrine, and at around 1:30 we were back at Tsukuba Station.
This was an easy hike, with some nice views of the Kanto plain from the top. I’d recommend doing it on a week day, or if you have your own transport, either early in the morning or late in the afternoon, to avoid the crowds. The first bus leaves Tsukuba Station at 8am and the last leaves the mountain at 5pm, so if you head up on a weekend like I did, catching the 8am bus at least gives you a fairly peaceful climb, even if the descent involves plenty of traffic jams.
Mt Tsukuba forecast:
Bus timetable from/to Tsukuba station
Information on the various paths on the mountain: