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Exploring Tsukuba Mountain

Today the weather is good, very warm, so I decide to take a train over to Ibaraki Prefecture, to a little place called Tsukuba. At Tsukuba Station, I take a ¥720 bus that crawls for thirty minutes toward Tsukuba Mountain. Eventually, I get off the bus. The only tourists here are old Japanese women who have made the journey to this mountain to look at flowers.

The first thing that strikes me as I stroll off the bus, is the view. The day is relatively clear, and the distance is a sea of fields and countryside that seemingly spread forever, before eventually blending into the whiteness of bright, sunlit clouds. One of the reasons I am here today, like the old women, is to look at flowers; flowers of beautiful pink and white. The other reason is that this steep mountain is steeped in history.

Samurai Another Day

In March 1864, an army was raised on this very mountain, the leader, a samurai named Fujita Koshiro. The army, known as Tsukubazei, were against plans to close Yokohama Port and exclude foreign ships from entering Japan. Even the law to stop foreigners entering Japan was considered barbaric, it was called the ‘Order to Expel Barbarians’.

The twenty-three-year-old leader led his army of samurai and farmers, in what became a war against Emperor Kōmei. The battle was lost, and the army were all beheaded. It was this event that contributed to the ending of the Edo Period, and the start of the Meiji Restoration.

Still considered to be a terrorist, a statue of Fujita Koshiro stands proudly at the entrance to Tsukuba Shrine; a shrine said to house the god and goddess that protect from evil and illness. The shrine has been a place of worship for over 3000 years. I continue my walk through the mountain paths, passing a random telephone box with a huge statue of a frog on its roof, Omido Temple with its massive bell, the cable car service that isn’t running today (as usual), and a statue seemingly standing guard in a small car park.

Frog Day Afternoon

The statue is of a man carrying a cup of medicine. Using my amateur translation skills, the medicine is made from gamagairu, a giant frog said to live in this area; hence the telephone box. The medicine is taken from the ear of the frog and is said to have magical healing properties. That’s right, magical.

People in England or America will be familiar with the expression ‘snake oil’, a term used to describe health products that don’t actually work; a swindle of sorts. In Japan, a similar expression exists, and that is frog oil. Salesmen use a special sword that contains fake blood in its tip, pretend to cut their arm revealing a huge gash, then proceed to rub the frog oil on their skin. The wound disappears in an instant, and fools buy.

I continue my stroll, and head in the direction of Mount Tsukuba Plum Blossom Gardens. These gardens are free to enter and feature over 1000 trees. Thirty kinds of flowers blossom in this area, and mixed in with the flowers, are the famous rocks of Tsukuba. Rocks, I might add, that are for sale.

I lug my rock up the mountain path and realise that I should have probably bought it on the way down. The flowers in the mountain are beautiful to see. Red plums are in full bloom this time of year, and white plums are apparently in half bloom. I walk through sweet plum groves and fresh smelling flowers, before arriving at Lookout Point Arumaya; a small mountain hut that looks as though it was stolen from a children’s fairy tale.

Eyes Wide, Hut

I gaze in the direction of Mount Fuji, 155.6 km away, and visible on a clear day. Today is such a day, but for whatever reason, the mountain remains invisible, as always; forever shrouded by the white layer of clouds that blend into the distant horizon.

I stand in quiet contemplation in the small hut at the top of the mountain, admiring the beauty of the flowers and the endless nature. As I stare out into the distance, a Japanese man taps me on the shoulder, disturbing my moment.
“We made it from bamboo and straw, squashed real hard.”
“I’m sorry?” I say, confused.
“We made it from bamboo and straw, squashed real hard,” he repeats.
“I heard you, but what are you talking about?”
“The walls, here,” he points at the walls of the hut, “We made it from bamboo and straw…”
“A bit of a fire hazard,” I tell him, but he doesn’t understand. The man remains fated to repeat his set phrase, the only phrase he knows in English. Time to go, I decide.

As I walk back down the mountain, I recall a story that a friend once told me.

Many years ago in Japan, people were very poor. Many families lived in one house, grandparents, parents, and children together. When times became tough, and the families couldn’t afford to feed the young children, a sacrifice was made. Children were the priority, so what happened was that the parents would carry their grandparents to Tsukuba Mountain, abandon them, and go home to their children. The grandparents would starve to death on the mountain so that the family could continue to feed the children. A sad tale of Tsukuba Mountain, and the many poor old people that perished in its lonely grip.

At the bottom of the mountain, the stores are mostly closed. The men are sleeping from a hard day of selling snacks and frog oil; the only shop still selling anything is the Tsukuba Rock Shop.

There are so many more sights to see on this 877-metre tall mountain. The place is littered with things to do. Unfortunately, I wasted far too much of my limited time in the mountain hut, and end up running back, rock in hand, toward the bus stop.

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