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A Trek To Mt. Tsukuba

Author: Butch Talorete, Issue: July 2000, Topic: Tourism, Location: Tsukuba City

Thousands of years ago, a deity descended from the heavens and asked two mountains for a place to spend the night. With its great summit and almost perfect cone, Mt. Fuji refused, believing with pride and arrogance, that it does not need the deity's blessings. Mt. Tsukuba, on the other hand, humbly welcomed the honored guest, even offering food and water. Today, Mt. Fuji is a cold, lonely, and barren mountain, while Mt. Tsukuba bursts with vegetation, filling with colors as the seasons change. So goes the legend of the two-peaked Mt. Tsukuba, the so-called "purple mountain" on the Kanto plain.

Ancient chronicles say that the sacred progenitors of the Japanese race are enshrined here, the male divinity, Izanagi-no-Mikoto, at 870 meters on one peak, called Mt. Nantai, and the female divinity, Izanami-no-Mikoto, at 876 meters on the other, called Mt. Nyotai. Legends say that the two deities wed, gave birth to other deities and to Japan herself.

But Mt. Tsukuba is famous not only for the legends that have appeared in poetry anthologies since 710 A.D. Today, the mountain and its centuries-old Shinto shrine are both a source of blessing for the Japanese people and a must-see attraction to both local and foreign tourists.

You can reach the mountain's two peaks in two ways, one, by cable car, and the other, by a two to three-hour trek on foot. For the faint of heart and spirit, the cable car is the easy way, taking just a few minutes to reach the view deck where restaurants and souvenir shops are aplenty. Nestled closely between the two peaks, the view deck provides easy access to Mts. Nantai and Nyotai, as well as a majestic view of the Kanto plain. However facile this way may be, it is like reaching a faint climax without adequate foreplay.

Mt. Tsukuba's romance only comes with trekking through its rough footpaths and steep cliffs. Along the way, especially in summer and spring, a variety of broad-leaved trees provide a cooling embrace to the adventurous spirit. You can find evergreen oaks in and around Tsukuba Shrine, and this vegetation changes to beech and maple trees at higher altitudes, while conifers begin to appear at 700 meters. It is the smell of the forest, like a woman's scent, that brings the mountain to life.

She sweetly whispers, too, through her array of wildlife, including kites, hawks, pheasants, owls, nightingales, even wild boars, badgers and racoons. With cicadas and more than 70 butterfly species, Mt. Tsukuba is likewise a nature preserve.

Unless you bring a stroller with a baby inside, the trek isn't demanding at all. There are refreshment stations serving snacks and drinks after every hundred meters. And the birds-eye views from these posts are a photographer's heaven, especially in autumn when the leaves change from yellow to gold to red to brown, filling the scene with a cornucopia of colors. It's like a walk through the park; actually, only better.

And then comes the peak, when you suddenly feel like Sir Edmund Hillary as he conquers Mt. Everest. Your mountain may just be a molehill, but it is still yours. It is not just conquering Mt. Tsukuba, but conquering your fears and feelings of physical inadequacy that count most. It is not just the mountain's height, but also the sweetness of the struggle. At the peak, you and the mountain are one.

Albeit there are small shrines at each of the summits, Mt. Tsukuba's center of activity revolves around Mt. Tsukuba Shrine, a Shinto temple found on the south face, beginning at 270 meters above sea level. Built many centuries ago from solid oak trees, the shrine is a Mecca for many Japanese seeking guidance from the spirits and their ancestors. Many also believe in the power of the two divinities enshrined here in warding off evil and fulfilling heartfelt needs.

The Ozakawari ("Exchange of the Gods' Seats") Festival during spring and autumn, as well as the New Year's Day, brings hundreds of tourists to the shrine. The Ozakawari is when the Parent Gods at the mountain's base exchange places with their children to ensure a bountiful harvest. The Mt. Tsukuba Plum Blossom Festival from February 20 to March 31, on the other hand, highlights the mountain's 3,000 red, white and green plum blossoms, a succinct symbol of the mountain's celebration of life and rebirth.

For life indeed is the symbol of Mt. Tsukuba, a complete contradiction to Mt. Fuji's cold, barren and Martian landscape. The mountain's warmth, the same one it expressed thousands of years ago to a deity, are surely alive and well today. The immortal deities may still be there, too, to guide you safely to the summit.

And if you reach it, who knows, they might walk with you all the way.

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