New Year’s Eve on Mt. Tsukuba (筑波山) (2021)

In December 2018, I established a new, personal New Year’s Eve tradition: I climb a mountain. In Japan (as elsewhere) New Year’s Eve is a time for personal reflection, and I reflect on myself, my year, and the world around me better on a mountain trail than just about anywhere else. The New Year’s Eve climb is also my way of expressing my hope that I’ll keep moving forward (and upward) and keep returning to the mountains in the coming year.

This year, I chose to go back to the proverbial “scene of the crime”–the site of my original, 2018 New Year’s Eve hike–and re-climb Tsukubasan (Mt. Tsukuba), the twin-peaked, 877-meter hyakumeizan in Ibaraki Prefecture, north of Tokyo.

A rare, empty Tokyo train

I wanted to make the first bus from Tsukuba Center to the trailhead at Tsukubasan Jinja (Shrine), which meant a 6 a.m. departure from my home in Meguro to catch the 7 a.m. rapid Tsukuba Express train–which wasn’t entirely as empty as the picture above makes it seem . . . but pretty close to it.

By contrast, the 8 a.m. bus to the shrine was almost full! About half the people on board were wearing hiking gear, while the other half were dressed in a way that suggested they planned to take the ropeway or the cable car (both of which drop visitors at Miyukigahara, a saddle between the mountain’s twin summits.

The approach to Tsukubasan Jinja

The five-minute walk from the bus stop to the shrine was enough to confirm that this was a perfect day for climbing. The temperature was only 2 degrees (about 34, for those of you playing along in the USA), but it wasn’t windy, and the sun took the edge off the chill.

Approaching Tsukubasan Jinja

Mt. Tsukuba has three trails, two of which begin behind Tsukubasan Jinja (the third is much shorter, and begins near the ropeway, on the side of the mountain closest to Nyotai peak).

I started the day with a visit to the shrine–still a day to early to qualify as an official hatsumode (the first shrine or temple visit of the new year) but I made the requisite three loops through the chinowa–a large ring of reeds that supposedly purifies and wards the soul against evil–before heading to the trailhead. As in 2018, I decided to climb via the popular Miyukigahara Trail, which ascends the mountain roughly parallel to the cable car (though fortunately the cable car tracks aren’t visible for most of the route).

Many, many rocks

The trail starts off flat, but quickly starts gaining altitude. The path trades off between natural rocky “steps” and wooden ones–many of which are the short, low variety that crush thighs and souls with equal skill.

I confess, when I made the choice to come back to Tsukuba I’d forgotten this route was roughly the equivalent of 90 minutes on a stairmaster.

Sunlight and blue sky through the trees

Even so, I don’t regret the decision. It was a beautiful morning, and though everyone else was bundled up in multiple layers and puffy coats, by the time I was 30 minutes above the trailhead I’d shed my jacket and was hiking along–happy as could be–in summer pants and a merino t-shirt.

This drew more than a few looks from passing hikers, whose reactions ranged from “bemused by the weird foreign woman” to vaguely horrified. Fortunately, I’ve learned to keep the jacket tied around my waist rather than putting it in my pack. When I stow it, at least 10% of the hikers I meet on the trail will ask whether or not I have a jacket. When they can see I have one, they think I’m weird, but don’t seem to worry.

The trail parallels the cable car tracks

While the trail is mostly in the trees, it meets up with the cable car tracks in a couple of places. You can see the pink trail flash on the tree to the right in the frame above.

There’s a trail in there somewhere, I promise.

The trail heads consistently upward; for the most part, it’s no steeper than a standard set of stairs, but it does ascend like a set of stairs for most of its 2.2 kilometer length.

A Shintō shrine about halfway up the Miyukigahara route

Tsukubasan is a sacred mountain; the Shintō creator deities, Izanagi and Izanami, are enshrined on its twin peaks (Izanagi, the male deity, on the male peak Nantai, and Izanami, the female deity, on the higher female peak, Nyotai). There are also smaller shrines along the trail.

Looking downward

According to Shintō legend, long ago the creator gods descended to earth, looking for a place to spend the night. Lofty Mt. Fuji refused to give them shelter, but Mt. Tsukuba, on the opposite end of the Kantō plain, offered each deity rest on one of its peaks. In return, the deities declared that the upper slopes of Fuji would remain forever barren, but that Tsukubasan would flourish as a home to plants and animals in all seasons of the year.

Only a legend? Maybe so. That said, the upper slopes of Fuji are largely barren . . . and the picture above shows Tsukubasan on December 31. You be the judge…

A sprinkling of snow

Tsukubasan does get some snow, and although the weather was beautifully clear the day I climbed, I started seeing tiny scatterings of snow about 3/4 of the way to the top of the trail, and it continued all the way to, and on, the summits. Not really enough to call “drifts” but definitely visible. I’d definitely like to come back and climb it in the snow.

The final steps to Miyukigahara

A little less than 90 minutes after leaving the trailhead, I emerged at Miyukigahara, the flat plateau between the mountain’s summits. From the top of the Miyukigahara trail, it takes about ten minutes to climb from the plateau to the Nantai summit, and about 15 to cross the plateau and climb to the Nyotai summit on the other side. Nyotai is about 7 meters higher than Nantai, so to say you “truly” climbed to the high point of Mt. Tsukuba, you need to visit Nyotai. That said, most visitors go to both (as I did, both yesterday and on my 2018 climb).T

Looking north from Miyukigahara

The plateau itself is heavily developed–in addition to the cable car station, at least four restaurants and several souvenir shops ring the open area. The most popular souvenirs are metal or enamel pins with the mountain’s name and image (I bought one of the former for my collection in 2018, and the latter kind yesterday) and various items in the shape of frogs, to commemorate the mountain’s famous gama-ishi (frog rock). More on that below…

Nantai, as seen from Miyukigahara

Unfortunately, the summits are also home to a large number of broadcast antennas, making it difficult to get good photos without power lines or antennas in the image. This one isn’t a purist’s peak, and comes with a warning: if you climb to get away from civilization (as I often do), it can be quite jarring to emerge from a lovely forest into a tourist trap (complete with hundreds of tourists who took the easy route up via cable car or ropeway). That said, the views from the top can be quite lovely, and the hike is an easy way to stretch your legs if you want a short adventure.

Approaching Nantai

It’s also kind of fun to watch the cable car and ropeway-ascenders hiking up and down the final bit of trail to Nantai peak; it’s not a hard climb by any means, but in some cases it’s clearly a little more than they bargained for.

One of the flat bits of trail to Nantai Peak

As I mentioned, on a clear day the views are excellent.

Nyotai from Nantai

Due to an optical illusion, Nyotai actually looks lower than Nantai in the picture above. In truth, it’s a little higher.

Izanagi’s shrine

The male creator deity, Izanagi, is enshrined on Mt. Nantai (871m), Tsukubasan’s “male” peak.

The front side of the shrine

Mt. Tsukuba sits on the north end of the Kantō, Japan’s largest agricultural plain. The picture below is facing south – and on a truly clear day, you can see all the way to Mt. Fuji on the south end of the Kantō. Yesterday was mostly-but-not-quite clear, so the views were merely “spectacular.”

Looking south from the north end of the Kantō

Miyukigahara – looking toward Mt. Nantai.
You can just see Izanagi’s shrine, beneath the branch, to the left of the building and the broadcast tower

After descending from Mt. Nantai, I crossed the plateau and headed along the trail toward Mt. Nyotai. As you can see, there weren’t too many visitors on the plateau yesterday–it was far busier in 2018.

Can you see the frog?

About halfway between Nantai and Nyotai, there’s a famous rock that supposedly gives good fortune in love and marriage. I gave that one a pass (all good here flying solo, thanks) but stopped at the nearby teahouse for a cup of coffee and a break from the cold. The summit was colder, and a little more windy, than the trail, so I’d put my jacket on, along with a hat and gloves, but the cold still managed to seep through. After the coffee and shelter thawed me out, I was ready to continue.

The final approach to Mt. Nyotai

The shrine atop Mt. Nyotai honors Izanami, the sister of Izanagi and the second of the Shintō creator deities.

Izanami’s shrine (877 m)

It never fails to amuse me that the female peak is 7 meters higher than her male counterpart. Feel free to fill in the blanks with a gendered (or non-gendered) joke of your choosing.

The view from Mt. Nyotai

It was beginning to get a little hazy, but the views from Mt. Nyotai were just as good as the ones from Mt. Nantai.

No Fuji today.

On a clear day, Mt. Fuji would be visible on the horizon, on the right side of the picture above. Yesterday was not such a day, but I still felt grateful for the chance to climb and enjoy the mountain.

Ibaraki Apple Soft-serve

I had dinner plans with my son back in Tokyo, so I opted to hike back across Miyukigahara and ride the cable car down from the summit rather than hiking (or taking the ropeway, as I did in 2018). As I left the ropeway station, I noticed a sign advertising “Ibaraki apple soft serve” at a shop beside the exit, so of course I took a celebratory detour.

Doesn’t everyone celebrate a successful climb in 3 degree weather with ice cream?

I’d never had apple soft serve before–the scent was beautifully light and floral, and it tasted tart, with just the perfect balance of sweetness, like a pie made of Granny Smith apples.

Mt. Tsukuba from the bus – farewell for now!

I hopped an afternoon bus back to the station, and rode the train home to Tokyo. All in all, it was a perfect way to spend my fourth New Year’s Eve in Japan.

I wish each and every one of you a happy and healthy 2022!

Hike Info: 

Access/Trailhead: Tsubasan Jinja (Miyukigahara Route)

Elevation Gain/Loss: 700 m ascent (descent via cable car due to dinner plans!)

Distance: 3.1 km

Time Spent: 2.5 hours

Notes to the wise: As of January 2022, the first express bus from Tsukuba Center to Tsukubasan Shrine leaves at 8 a.m., and it runs every 30 minutes on weekends/holidays, and once an hour on weekdays. Be sure to check before you go, as the schedules do change with the seasons, and sometimes annually.