Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Heads in the Clouds

About a month ago I was told that my daughter's 6th grade class was going to take a trip up to Mt. Tsukuba here in Ibaraki Prefecture. I was also invited to join. Well, after the usual convoluted mess of sketchy information, miscommunications, and seemingly random schedule changes, I wound up going. Although I wasn't happy about some of the complications that resulted, I really was looking forward to going.

The lower two-thirds of Ibaraki is mostly a plain, i.e. flat as a pancake. There is, however, a small cluster of mountains right around the middle, just west of Lake Kasumigaura. None of these is particularly high; most of them are only about 500-600m in height. However, they look imposing simply because the surrounding landscape is, well, flat. By far the most impressive is Mt. Tsukuba, the tallest of the lot (though not the tallest mountain in Ibaraki. That honor belongs to Mt. Yamizo in the far north, which looks far less impressive simply because it's inconspicuously nestled within the alps).

The name "Tsukuba" (筑波, normally pronounced more like "skuba"), translated directly, would come out as "zither wave", but that wouldn't be appropriate. The first kanji, read "Tsuku" or "Zuku", is in fact the ancient name of the island of Kyushu. Therefore, the mountain's name is more properly translated as "Wave of Kyushu". The title fits; with its distinctive, broad shape and twin peaks, it most definitely looks like a great wave rising above the sea of the Kanto Plain. Interestingly, while most Japanese mountains are of volcanic origin and thus are composed mainly of igneous (i.e. volcanic) rock, Mt. Tsukuba is made of metamorphic rocks such as granite. That means it was most likely formed underground and pushed up into its current shape. That is only one of the mysteries of this enigmatic mountain.

Mt. Tsukuba has a great deal of both historical and legendary significance. It is believed that a Shinto deity who came to earth tried to rest on Mt. Fuji but was refused by its spirit, so it came to Mt. Tsukuba, where it was welcomed (which, they say, is why Mt. Tsukuba is lush with life while Mt. Fuji is barren). Its twin peaks, named Nyotai ("female body") and Nantai ("male body"), are believed to enshrine if not embody Izanami-no-Omikoto and Izanagi-no-Omikoto, the celestial pair that spawned not only many if not most of the deities of Japan, but Japan herself. (Interestingly, the story of Izanami and Izanagi has a twist that is remarkably similar to the tale of Orpheus. After Izanami was tragically killed, Izanagi went to the Underworld to find her. He succeeded, but he was warned not to look at her until they got back to the world of light. Needless to say, Izanagi failed to do so. He looked at her and saw that her time in the Underworld had corrupted her and turned her into a grotesque creature. He promptly abandoned her, and she became the proverbial woman scorned...doing all kinds of evil things to mankind and other deities after that.)(I seem to have digressed a bit...) The mountain has long had an important place in the Japanese heart and has appeared in art and literature at least since the early 8th century.

Most people that climb the mountain start their trek at the famous, centuries-old Tsukuba Shrine and take the path that starts there. We didn't. Instead, we went to the Tsutsujigaoka Parking Area, a tolled parking lot and amusement complex on one of the mountain's flanks. Taking the path from Tsutsujigaoka instead of the Shrine adds a bit more lateral distance but cuts the climb nearly in half.


This is the view from our bus looking toward the trail entrance. A group of people can be seen climbing the first (and easiest) stairway. The main peak of the mountain, which is to the upper left, is obscured by clouds. Also on the left is the Ropeway, which provides a much easier alternative route to the top.


Here's a view of the Ropeway station and a clearer view of the ropeway itself. We didn't take it.

Ascending Nyotai 2

Here we are beginning our trek. (The girl on the right foreground is my daughter. Don't ask me what the deal is with the chicken!) It started out easy enough, with lots of shallow steps. We gained altitude fast.

Ascending Nyotai 3

Soon we were looking down on the Tsutsujigaoka Parking Area from above.

Ascending Nyotai 4

For a while it was fairly smooth going up the slope. It wasn't long before things changed, and we were clambering over broken boulders, roots, mud, dead bodies (Okay, I'm joking)... Anyway, things started getting positively eerie once we got off the flank ridge and onto the main peak itself.

Ascending Nyotai 5

Take this, for example. It looks like the kids are heading into a tunnel, right? Guess again. (Incidentally, that rope with the hanging tassels is a Shinto ornament indicating a sacred place, i.e. the presence of an important spirit. There are lots of those on the mountain.)

Ascending Nyotai 7

They are, in fact, walking under a precariously-balanced boulder! (There are lots of those on the mountain, too!)

Ascending Nyotai 10

Here's a tiny shrine tucked under a giant boulder of pink granite. It's said that, if children squeeze inside and touch the rock underneath, they'll grow up to be good people. All the kids did so. (I don't think it worked. More on that later.)

Ascending Nyotai 11

There were lots of huge, spooky-looking rocks all over the place.

Ascending Nyotai 12

Take this one, for instance. It's called the "Seated Buddha" because its silhouette is said to look like...well, you figure it out! Actually, though, the scariest rocks were underfoot. Once we got high enough to get into the (very low) cloud layer, things got damp. The dirt parts of the path became mud, which meant our shoes got poorer traction, which meant stepping on the uneven rocks became tricky. There was lots of slipping, but fortunately no falling. Finally, after a couple of hours of climbing...

Ascending Nyotai 13

...the summit of Nyotai ("female body"), which is the higher of the two peaks by six meters. (Hmm...) Anyway, after that hard climb, we were rewarded with a spectacular view...

Ascending Nyotai 14

...of absolutely nothing.

Ascending Nyotai 16

This is the Shinto shrine near the summit. Part of it was recently rebuilt, so it smelled strongly of new hinoki wood. It may be a small shrine, but it gets lots of visitors...

Ascending Nyotai 17 shown by all the omikuji fortunes tied to the fence! It is the custom to tie an unfavorable omikuji to a tree branch at a shrine in hope that the shrine deity will help reverse the fortune. There aren't any good branches to use up here, so metal does the job just fine. (At least all those people hope it does!)

Ascending Nyotai 18

Coming back down from the summit, we camped out in a wide clearing at the intersection of four paths right below the shrine. Here we had our picnic lunch...and watched all the people go past. Yes, climbers were out in force. What surprised me was how many of them had professional walking sticks, i.e. they looked like telescoping ski poles. That reminded me of the time, eighteen years ago, when I was taken on a hike to the top of Mt. Bandai in Fukushima Prefecture. I had only just arrived in Japan, and I was shocked when I met up with my climbing partners and found them in wool shirts, wool socks, heavy boots, and lederhosen (I kid you not!) with professional walking sticks! (They were a bit flabbergasted at my polo shirt, cutoffs, high-top sneakers, and homemade, hand-whittled walking stick. Can you say, "Culture shock"? Nice try.)

Descending Nyotai 1

After lunch I was ready to hike across to Nantai ("male body"), the other peak, and was disappointed to hear that the group was heading back. We were given a choice of hiking or taking the Ropeway. I was all set to hike back down, but my daughter had a fit. Not wanting to hear her beg, I gave in and joined the group taking the Ropeway down. Before boarding the car, however, I decided to be a gaijin with a camera and snap some more shots.

Descending Nyotai 3

Here's a look across to Nantai, where I didn't go.

Descending Nyotai 4

This is the big guidemap to the whole Mt. Tsukuba area displayed at the Nyotai Ropeway Station. Does that couple look Japanese to you?

Descending Nyotai 5

And here's my little girl giving her shy grin with Nantai as a backdrop.

After that we rode the Ropeway back down to the Tsutsujigaoka Parking Area, did some souvenir shopping, had something to drink, and waited. And waited. And froze. And waited. Then those who had hiked down rejoined us, and the kids promptly took off to the amusement center. And the rest of us waited. And waited. And froze. And waited. Finally we boarded the bus and headed for home.

All the while, during the trip, I was thinking how amazed I was at how well behaved the kids were. They were really being at their best during the trip. It was almost spooky how suddenly that changed once we were on our way home. The parents had prepared some activities for the time on the bus for the return trip, but the kids immediately vetoed them, saying they were too sleepy. That was fine with me, because I'd been hoping for some shut-eye, anyway. Well, I got approximately ten minutes of sleep before I was suddenly awakened by screaming. Yes, screaming. Basically, there was one group of four girls and three boys positioned behind me that had apparently gone hard of hearing or something, because they were practically shrieking everything they said...and kept on shrieking for the better part of an hour. (One girl pointed out that I was trying to sleep and was reassured by the others that I was "only pretending". My own comment that the girl was right was soundly ignored.) That only changed when another boy grabbed the bus mike and started singing; the screamers promptly snatched the mike from him (mid-song) and started "singing" (read "yelling in rhythm") themselves. Meanwhile, the girl sitting directly behind me kept repeatedly jumping up and down using my chair back for support, i.e. my chair was constantly moving. I wondered why the teachers weren't doing anything about it, and then it hit me: There were no teachers present on the trip. It was only kids and parents. And all the parents but me were up in the front of the bus pretending none of it was happening. I suggested passing around a garbage bag just before arriving, and the Romper Room bunch in the back handed it back to me with the assurance they had no garbage left. When the bus arrived, they immediately bolted off the bus ahead of everyone else...leaving a mess of discarded gum and candy wrappers all over the seat and floor. Irritated almost to the breaking point, I recommended calling the kids back immediately and making them clean up their mess properly. I was ignored; the mothers quietly cleaned it all up themselves. Why should I be surprised? Stupid kids = stupid parents. (Now, what was it they said about touching that f*****g rock?)

I definitely intend to try climbing Mt. Tsukuba again. Next time maybe I'll go alone.

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  • So long to the touch-the-rock-and-grow-up-to-be-good-people myth then, lol.

    Enjoyed the part where you explained about the two peaks - Nyotai and Nantai, as the story seems so.. "mysterious" (in a word).

    I wonder what would happen if i touch the rock, *winks michieviously*

    By Blogger ❤ IceGlacial™ ❤, at 11:16 PM  

  • It really is a mysterious mountain in many ways, ♥IceGlacial™♥, and not just because of all the interesting legends associated with it.

    Well, I hope you do get a chance to come to Japan to touch it and find out!

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 12:22 AM  

  • A couple months ago, my friend from work and I were treated to the same view in the Mt. St. Helens area.

    That might be a good side trip for when I visit again some time in the next 20 years.

    (geological grammar nazi)
    FYI: Granite is also an igneous rock like volcanic lava. You are correct about the difference between them though. Granite is intrusive and volcanic deposits are extrusive.

    Metamorphic rocks are igneous or sedimentary rocks that have undergone deformation due to heat and pressure (examples: marble from limestone, slate from shale).
    (/geological grammar nazi)

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 2:45 AM  

  • I like the big guidemap, so cute...

    Ah.. what a lovely shy grin on your daughther's face :)

    By Blogger Selba, at 11:49 AM  

  • Don
    I was thinking of you when I saw all those granite boulders.

    Thanks for the correction. My bad. I always thought granite was formed from compressed (i.e. metamorphosed) igneous rock. Ironically, it turns out that it's an igneous rock formed largely from melted metamorphic rock.

    Japan is the cuteness capital of the world, after all! ;-)

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 12:50 PM  

  • Some of those pics did spook me a little.

    Your daughter is growing up quickly!

    And that really sucks about the kids being undisciplined. *sigh* No amount of rock touching will make up for parents' shortcomings.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 1:17 PM  

  • Olivia
    The landscape is pretty eerie on the main peak, especially in the top few hundred meters (which requires a little less than a kilometer of hiking to cover). I also noticed it's an area with very strong vibes. I found long ago that there are (or at least seem to be) certain places in the world that "sing". When I'm in such places my muse goes into overdrive, sometimes almost to the point of overwhelming my conscious mind. There are several such places in my native Oregon. I never realized it till now, but Mt. Tsukuba is definitely another such place.

    That's why I was able to sit outside in the cold and stare at the mountain for two hours (while waiting for the others to get their act together) without getting bored. My conscious mind was only half switched on, but my unconscious mind was going in full gear the whole time. I just hope I can recall half the things that came out of it.

    Yes, she is growing up quickly. I just submitted her application to take the entrance exam for Ye Olde Academy.

    What's really sad about those kids is that their class has been rather famous all over our city for being remarkably well behaved. It's true; compared with the insufferable zoos at some of the other elementary schools in our area, they've seemed like angels. All that seems to have changed just since summer. The "cool girls" apparently realized they're about to become teenagers and suddenly started being really obnoxious and spoiled. Issues of bullying and open defiance of school rules that would have been unthinkable even just a few months ago (but are common at some other schools) started popping up, or so I'd heard. During most of the Tsukuba trip the kids were actually being really good, sticking together, following instructions, being polite to other people we encountered, etc., so I was beginning to think that the stories had been exaggerated. The return trip showed that they hadn't.

    My daughter was pretty upset about it, too. Those kids used to be her best friends, and I say, "used to," for a very good reason.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 3:56 PM  

  • Japan is the cuteness capital of the world, after all! ;-)
    OH, you wanna tell us U’re cuteness too? :=]

    Luckily, you haven’t fainted this time, thank GOD!

    Traditionally, some Chinese would believe touching Jade Laughing Buddha’s (Hotei) belly will grant both wisdom and luck. Jade is a semi-precious stone that is also said to bring luck and good fortune

    I touched a lot, but...:-[

    By Anonymous L.C_D, at 4:54 PM  

  • That must be a place people go and have a "spiritual experience" or an "epiphany" and then go home a different person and drive everyone nuts with it ;)

    Still, I would love to visit somewhere with a vibe just so my soul can go wow.

    Sorry to hear your daughter lost her friends. But consider yourself complimented on bringing her up so well!

    By Blogger Olivia, at 2:07 PM  

  • Wow Moddy
    I ee I've got some catching up to do

    By Blogger QUASAR9, at 4:55 AM  

  • Heads in the Clouds
    Indee dee

    By Blogger QUASAR9, at 4:56 AM  

  • Interesting to read your description of these ethereal sounding peaks and the mythology surrounding it and then see school kids traipsing over very earthly trails (though for some reason I can't see many of the images -- like the one of your daughter. It's too bad the bunch of well-behaved kids devolved to a pack of crazed kids. The mothers cleaning up after them probably didn't reinforce the right message...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:12 PM  

  • Moody, this is such an enjoyable post. I learned something about Mt. Tsukuba, mythology (love those universal, overlapping themes), Shinto shrines, and the universal nature of holliganism.

    Your daughter is lovely. And I'm sure she takes care of her own trash. Shame on those meek mothers.

    By Blogger San, at 5:52 AM  

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