Monday, the 13th, was holiday - Ibaraki Prefecture Citizen's Day. We had hoped for good weather and got it - warm and clear. (Well K thought it was a bit cool, but I was content. Now there's a switch.)
We headed for our preplanned destination: Tsukuba-san, the mountain I have photographed and featured on this blog many times, but always from our distance of 20 miles. In addition to my interest in its beautiful double peaked profile, it has been the butt of many of my puns (sorry, but puns run in my family). As Tsukuba is pronounced much like "SCUBA", I talk about "tsukuba diving", "tsukuba doobie doo", and poke fun at its diminutive 877 meter height in comparison to Maui's Haleakala which rises to 3,055 meters. This day I'd get a chance to experience this mini-mountain first hand and see what it is really made of.
I was going to call this post "There and Back Again" but that would be plagiarizing Tolkien, so changed it to "Up and Down Again", but in fact we would ascend the mountain twice, and "Up and Down and Up and Down Again" sounds weird in ways I'd rather not discuss. So we're stuck with the silly title above. I'm also didn't mean to write a "Blogopotamus" (super long post), but this is turning into one, so I'll try to cover that up but making it two parts.
We drove up the east side of Lake Kitaura and crossed at Rokko Bridge - the name being made up of Kashima and Namegata, the two cities it connects. Sadly, the bridge's replacement sits unfinished right next to it, for lack of funding. Concrete pillars stand in the middle of the lake with no bridge atop them. We go across the old bridge which is one lane wide with two sidings for the eastbound traffic. At busy times there are traffic cops to manage the flow, but otherwise you just hope everyone is thinking alike as they converge head-on. Seriously.
Then across Namegata City to the Kasumigaura Bridge from which we could see the mountain. "As the crow flies" the mountain is only 20 miles from home, but in road distance it is more than twice that. Given the speed limit of 50 kph (31 mph), it would take an hour and half or more to reach Tsukuba-san. Yes, everyone drives 60 kph, but red signal lights along the way eat up the extra speed, and today being a beautiful day, the motorcycle cops are out in force. A speeding ticket from them is an expensive joke. (As for myself, I have yet to get a speeding ticket on my bicycle, though my brother managed to do so - really!)
As we got closer, the communications towers atop the mountain came into view, as did the "ropeway" (aerial tram) station below the taller of the two peaks (on the right in the picture above). From this angle, the peaks appear farther apart than they do from home and the mountain loses some of that volcanic cone look.
We arrived at the mountainside shrine "Tsukubasan Shrine" at the 270 meter level, which is dedicated to the god or spirit of the mountain, and settled on a close by parking lot. There is no town here really (Tsukuba City is miles away), just a collection of restaurants, souvenir shops, and hotels. Any business with a parking lot has someone out by the road waving in cars with a flag. Usually, the further from the main attraction, the cheaper the parking, and free if you spend enough money in their store. 500 yen was the average price for a day's parking. The place was busy, but I wouldn't say crowded for a holiday.
One of the things Tsukuba-san is famous for is "toad oil", or grease, which is (I'm not making this up) applied to the skin - particularly the face - in order to heal damaged skin and improve the complexion. In the Edo period it was highly valued by Samurai for treating cuts. There is also an annual toad festival here in which a portable toad shaped shrine is carried through the streets.
To obtain the oil, a toad is placed inside a mirrored box and seeing his/her own reflection scares the oil out of the toad - or so I'm told.
After disposing of the car, we start up the first of countless steps up the mountain, first passing an old arched bridge, then a wonderful gate, to the shrine. I was carrying a backpack and had volunteered to carry our lunch (which K had prepared this morning), bottles of home brewed "mugicha" (roasted barley tea), water, sweater, camera tripod, and emergency kit (I was never a Boy Scout, but I follow their motto - "Be Prepared"). That I had forgotten to remove my bicycle tool kit only added to the weight. In retrospect I should have asked K to carry the pack. She is lighter than I am by goodly amount and runs up and down the stairs at her school every day. I on the other hand get my exercise on a bicycle, which involves a different set of muscles than does hiking or stair climbing. This would be driven home to me in a lesson not soon to be forgotten. When we're riding bicycles I have to go easy for K's sake, but when climbing steps, she bounds up them like a gazelle (mountain goat would be more accurate, but it's not a very flattering analogy) as I plod along in trail.
Left to right - main entrance "torii" of the shrine, souvenir shops, wooden roof of the bridge, patinaed metal roof of the shrine gate, and barely visible next to the gate, the roof of the main shrine building. Oh, the modern building on the right above the bus? More souvenir shops, of course.
Along the way, we try to avoid the souvenir shops, but a woman with a flag is waving everyone off the path toward her shop as she shouts about toads and toad oil.
The ancient gate to the shrine is flanked by an old Japanese cedar on the right and a ginkgo tree, the leaves of which were turning brilliant yellow, on the left.
The architecture of the buildings is reminiscent of the temples in Nara. Tsukuba Shrine has a history dating back seventeen centuries. From the eighth century it also served as a Buddhist temple. The present hall was built by the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1633. It was turned back into a Shinto Shrine During the Meiji Era, when the Emperor returned to the throne.
The shrine had chrysanthemums on display which rivaled those of Kashima.
Past some more souvenir shops, and up more steps, we arrived at the cable car station. Happily for me, we did not have time for the hour and a half hike to the summit and would ride most of the way. The ride is 500 yen each way but we opted for a special ticket that allowed us to ride the cable car and the ropeway both ways for 1500 yen per person.
"A cable car AND a ropeway on such a diminutive mountain?", you may ask. Of course! As I observed in "Japan As Disneyland - What A Country", in many ways Japan is one big Disneyland-style theme park, except that the props - such as mountains - are real.
The cable car ride is 1600 meters long and takes six minutes. The track reaches a 33 percent grade which gets really fun when you go through a tunnel. If the cable breaks - how much good are brakes? The trees along the track were lovely and though it was a bit early, we did get to see some autumn colors.
The station at the top is located on the saddle between the peaks, closest to the lower of the two. The peaks are called Nantai-san and Nyotai-san (man body-mountain and woman body-mountain), with Nyotai-san being six meters higher. We would hike to the top of Nyotai-san before descending to the ropeway station.
In keeping with the "Japan as Disneyland" theme, as soon as one exits the cable car station, the eye is greeted with, what else?, a rotating restaurant and more souvenir shops. Sigh. There are also great views of the Kanto plain, and today, though it was getting a bit hazy, we could see all the way to Kashima to the southeast and the snow capped mountains to the northwest. Hang gliding and soaring are popular here and a motor glider (a glider with a small engine and retractable propeller) was silently looking for updrafts.
Tune in again for part two wherein we are attacked by a giant granite oil toad, conquer Nyotai-san and find ourselves dangling over an abyss by a slender thread!