Dear reader, allow me to begin this one with an intriguing folktale. According to this legend, back in the early mists of time, a deity descended from the heavens. Seeking a place to spend the night, this divine being beseeched two mountains. The first of these peaks was none other than Mt. Fuji. Unfortunately for our celestial friend, the iconic mountain haughtily refused, thinking that it didn’t need the deity’s blessing. Still needing a place to stay the god instead turned to Mt. Tsukuba over in Ibaraki Prefecture. In stark contrast to Mt. Fuji’s prideful attitude, this crag instead extended its hospitality and even went as far as offering food and water to the divine guest.
Now, adherents who believe this tale report that the reason that Mt. Fuji is so barren today is that it rejected the visitor from above. Mt. Tsukuba on the other hand is bursting with lush vegetation and seasonal flare due to having accepted the deity and subsequently being blessed with its favor. Regardless of whether you want to buy into the myth or not though, one thing is true; No matter when you visit Mt. Tsukuba, you’ll be greeted with something truly magnificent. Whether for the autumn foliage or for a late winter hike, Mt. Tsukuba is one spot you really ought to consider.
Mt. Tsukuba is an amazing mountain that is brimming with natural beauty. Additionally, Mt. Tsukuba also has a lot of history to it. In fact, the crag has appeared in poetry anthologies since as far back as the year 710. Visitors to the venerable Mt. Tsukuba these days will find the ancient Tsukubasan Shrine (Tsukubasan being how Mt. Tsukuba is rendered in Japanese) at the base of the mountain. Allegedly, this timeworn sanctuary enshrines Izanagi and Izanami, the progenitor deities of all of Japan.
By the way, while we are on the topic of climbing mountains, know also that Mt. Tsukuba is one of the best day hikes from Tokyo. Just like with other popular peaks such as Mt. Takao, Mt. Tsukuba can easily be reached from Japan’s capital in a little over an hour. What’s more, Mt. Tsukuba is the perfect climb for amateurs who aren’t looking to challenge a real mountain. Not a fan of scaling mountains in your free time? Fret not, you can also take the cable car to the top so that you can save your energy!
All in all, if you’re looking to get active and outdoors in Japan while also enjoying all the historic and spiritual things that make it such a great country to visit, I suggest that you consider Mt. Tsukuba. Other than Mt. Mitake and the aforementioned Mt. Takao back in Tokyo, I can think of a few other day hikes near the capital that also allow for travelers to simultaneously get their Japanese culture fix.
How to Get There
Before we delve into the details, let’s quickly take a break to cover some key logistics. All things considered, know that the trip to Mt. Tsukuba is really simple. Assuming that you’re coming from central Tokyo, all you really need to do is make your way to Akihabara Station. From there, the Tsukuba area can easily be reached in a mere 45 minutes via the Tsukuba Express. As always, refer to Jorudan or a similar service for the departure schedules. Alternatively, it also seems like there are highway buses from Tokyo Station that will take you all the way to Mt. Tsukuba. Alas, I don’t have any firsthand experience with these so I cannot comment on them.
Assuming that you are doing what I did and taking the Tsukuba Express up to Ibaraki Prefecture, you’ll need to first exit Tsukuba Station, which is the final stop, and then make your way to bus stop number one. From there, you can catch a bus that will take you to the foot of Mt. Tsukuba (be sure to bring along an IC card like a Suica to make paying your fare more traveler-friendly). Note that there are a couple options for trailheads and modern transportation to the top. Which of these you should select depends greatly on your plan. Please refer to the following contingencies…
- Not Intending to Hike
If you’re not looking to exert yourself too much, plan to get off the bus at Tsukubasan Shrine. This will let you visit the sanctum on the way up. Thereafter, you’ll want to buy a roundtrip ticket for the cable car. Note that there’s still plenty of trekking to be had once you’ve reached the upper levels of Mt. Tsukuba so don’t feel bad for wanting to use modern transportation to save your strength!
- Hiking Up Only
Most people who opt to challenge Mt. Tsukuba elect to only climb up and then take either the cable car or ropeway down to preserve their legs. If this is what you’re feeling like doing, I suggest you begin your ascent from the ropeway station. This way, you can see a lot of the cool rock formations on the way up (more on that in the following section). To get to the ropeway, take the bus past Tsukubasan Shrine to Tsutsujigaoka.
- Hiking Up and Down
If you’re a glutton for punishment and don’t mind suffering a throbbing pain in your legs for the coming days, you can hike both up and down Mt. Tsukuba. While I cannot recommend it, those who do opt to descend on foot should do so via the trail that takes them out at Tsukubasan Shrine. This way, you can see a lot more of the mountain than taking the same route on the ascent and descent.
Regardless of how you get up to the top of Mt. Tsukuba, I strongly suggest that you plan to come down from the peak via the cable car. This will take you out at Tsukubasan Shrine. Thanks to the convenient logistics, you can then pay your respects to Japan’s progenitor deities (that is, if you didn’t get a chance to on the way up). Additionally, there’s also a number of ryokan that open their baths for day use. As someone who hiked Mt. Tsukuba not too long ago himself, I must say there’s nothing better than a good soak after an arduous and sweaty climb!
Scaling Mt. Tsukuba
One of the most distinguishing features about Mt. Tsukuba is that the towering crag actually has two peaks. These are known as Mt. Nyotai (lit. “The Female Body”) and Mt. Nantai (lit. “The Male Body) and they stand at 877 and 871 meters-tall respectively. As alluded to before, even if you take the ropeway or cable car up, there’s still a fair bit of climbing to do once you’re near the top if you want to visit either summit. Moreover, there’s a lot of spots to check out both on the way up Mt. Tsukuba as well around the up reaches. Be sure to keep your eyes out for the following…
- Twin Shrines
Mt. Tsukuba’s dual peaks each have their own dedicated shrines. Those following my suggestions for hiking will come out near the small sanctum for Mt. Nyotai. Alternatively, those taking the cable car up will find themselves at a point equidistant between the twin summits. In either case, you’ll need to sweat a little to pay your respects. That said, those looking to improve their lot in matchmaking might want to consider making the extra effort as Mt. Tsukuba is actually famous for connecting soulmates.
- Odd Rock Formations
Those hiking up to the summits of Mt. Tsukuba will be treated to a number of intriguing stones. Of these, the two that are the most memorable are the so-called Gama-ishi (lit. “Frog Stone”) and the Benkei-Nanamodori (lit. “Benkei Returned Seven Times).The Gama-ishi is a rock that looks like a frog and allegedly you’ll be blessed with good luck if you can get a pebble to land squarely in its mouth. As for the terrifying Benkei-Nanamodori, this stone archway will test even the most stalwart hikers. Allegedly, the mighty monk Benkei Musashibo was so scared to pass beneath it that he had to return as many as seven times before finally mustering up the courage.
- Dem Views
As can be seen in the image used way back at the opening of this article, Mt. Tsukuba affords some truly amazing vistas. The peak is the highest thing around and therefore you’ll be spoiled with unobstructed views of all of the Kanto plain. On especially clear days, the Tokyo skyline, Lake Kasumigaura and even Mt. Fuji are clearly visible from the summit. After working your way up Mt. Tsukuba, I honestly can think of no better reward than these epic views!
By the way, I highly suggest you try the local Tsukuba Udon. Made from a hodgepodge of local ingredients, this bowl of noodles will help to refuel you after making the challenging climb to the top of Mt. Tsukuba. While I tend to stay away from foods that have a lot of carbs, I felt that my now shaky knees were enough permission to indulge. You’ll find Tsukuba Udon at any of the restaurant cum souvenir shops that dot the mountaintop.
Other Nearby Attractions
While Mt. Tsukuba is a bit of a day trip unto itself, there’s a lot of other things to do in the nearby vicinity. In addition to simply having a good old soak in one of the many onsen back at the foot of Mt. Tsukuba, I also suggest that you check out JAXA’s Tsukuba Space Center. Since the year 1972, this facility has been the base for the country’s space development work. Because of this, all of the Tsukuba area is rife with references to exploring the great unknown. Should you have the time and be interested, I definitely recommend you consider the Tsukuba EXPO Center Planetarium.
Additionally, Ibaraki Prefecture’s famed Ushiku Daibutsu is also not too far away from Tsukuba. Though the public transportation logistics are rather lacking, those with their own set of wheels should be able to reach the 120 meter-tall statue of the Amida Buddha within an hour. Sadly, those who don’t have access to a car should either spend more time enjoying Mt. Tsukuba or alternatively head back earlier to Tokyo for some nerdy fun in Akihabara. Put simply, there’s no reason to waste precious hours on a bus when you could be doing something else.
Before wrapping this one up, know finally that there’s a lot more to do in this part of Japan than just Mt. Tsukuba. While Ibaraki is a rather large prefecture and is bisected by lakes, there’s enough allures for several days of fun. For more information, see this lengthy guide on Ibaraki that I wrote when stuck at home in 2020 on all that the prefecture has to offer.
Until next time travelers…