AUGUST, 2007


Eight hundred and seventy seven metres.  That’s as high as you’re going to get on Tsukuba-san, the baby of the venerable Hyakumeizan.  Well, that is unless you down a few gallons of the mountain’s famous Toad Oil cure all.  Apparently they milk the fat glands of the local toads hopping around the mountain top, bottle the goo up and flog it to the tourists.  The mountain is one of four where Fukada-san relaxed his 1500 metre Hyakumeizan stipulation.  Tsukuba’s height, or lack thereof and proximity to Tokyo make it easy pickings for Hundred Mountain hunters.  Not to mention the cable car and ropeway that chug their ways up its southern and eastern slopes.  Fukada-san had no hesitation in adding the mountain to his Hyakumeizan roll.  Tsukuba is a peak that has been revered as a place of fertility and good fortune for thousands of years by the communities that nestle on the plains beneath it.  In olden times, between the sowing and harvesting of the crops the mountain became a pleasure centre, up there, amidst its leafy groves summer festivities were held and protagonists indulged in great merriment and the sowing of another particular variety of seed.  Ahem…

Though I hadn’t yet made it to the mountain, things, for me, were nonetheless getting rather hot and heavy.  I walked the white line edging a long, flat, treeless stretch of empty road cloaked in a shimmering heat haze.  Midday approached. It must’ve been hitting 100 in the old money.  The summer haze cast a vapid pall over the baking landscape, draining all life and colour from the scenery.  Tsukuba, rising skyward ahead of me, the so called Purple Mountain, had been reduced to a pale shade of grey, all but consumed by the floating gunk suspended in the colourless sky.  Buses had evaporated.  I’d arrived at Iwase Station south east of Nikko around ten that Saturday morning only to discover that the next mountain bound bus was a three hour wait away.  Close to Tokyo, this wasn’t supposed to be hitching country, or so I’d read.  But options were limited: wait for the bus and melt or walk to the mountain and melt.  Sitting around twiddling my thumbs was no fun.  I set off on foot and hoped a ride would pass by before I trickled down a culvert and into a rice paddy.

An hour or so into my tarmac trudge a dark grey sedan drifted out of the heat haze.  The middle aged driver wound down the window and presumptively asked, “Tsukuba-san?”

“Hai!” I said, the cool air conditioning washing over my face as I leant down at the window.

“Okay.  Please, please,” he invited me to jump aboard, running his thin brown hand through his thick crop of hair as he cranked up the air-con.

Being a Saturday, he explained to me, it was his day off so he was happy to pick me up, drive out of his way and practice some English.  We chatted for the fifteen minute ride to the mountain and he wouldn’t let me out until he drove as far up the road, jammed with tea houses and souvenir shops, as he could.

“Thank you so much,” I smiled as I stepped back out into the furnace like air.

“You’re wel-cum,” he nodded and smiled back, “Good luck,” he added before he turned his car around and headed for home.

Old ladies in big straw hats politely invited me to stop by their establishments.  I nodded, smiling sheepishly, declining their offers of hospitality, all the while eyeing off the sensual curves of the toddler sized plastic ice creams on trolley wheels, parked outside their tea houses.  Lures for the hot and bothered, the heat flustered and of course the odd, scraggy, sweaty, mountain man in their midst.

A quick stop by the temple at the trailhead done with, I purposefully turned my back on the cable car and stepped into the shady forests that, unfortunately, offered little respite from the oppressive humidity hanging over the district.  But, there was nothing else for it, catching a cable car to the top of the baby of the Hyakumeizan was a definite no-no.

Nearing the summit known as Nyotai-san, the higher of two peaks crowning the mountain, at the end of an undemanding yet sweat inducing climb, I strolled, dribbling a trail of perspiration, through Tsukuba’s famous rock garden.  Here and there in the woods rock formations stand amongst the trees with names that supposedly refer to their appearance.  By the time I made it out of the emerald green woodlands and onto the top of the mountain I had pretty much spontaneously self-liquefied.  I was the walking water feature the rock garden didn’t have.  Settling down amongst the boulders and snacking on some melted chocolates I watched as a group of a dozen or so sultry young Pilipino lasses clad in mini-skirts and luridly coloured boob tubes arrive.  They began clambering over the rocky ground in their high heels, nattering and giggling amongst themselves and I allowed myself to casually cast my eyes in their direction while they wobbled and toddled about.  As cleavage flashed and bottom bulged I suddenly wondered how many of them were really blokes and nearly choked on a choccie.  What the hell, it sure was change from the old grannies one usually meets hobbling over the mountaintops – though, of course, they were there too, yelling at the kids and speaking with their mouths half full of bento box lunches.  Tsukuba-san, after all, is a mountain for everyone.

Departing before I witnessed any of the young ladies snap an ankle having slipped on a rock or a half chewed shrimp spat from a granny’s maw, I meandered down past some enormous television antennas and the aptly named Toad Rock.  The thing looks like a huge toad poking its head out of the bushes, mouth agape.  If you manage to throw a stone into his mouth and it sticks there you’re granted a dollop of luck.  I found I was more inclined toward the notion of lodging a beer down my neck than hurling stones in the heat and moved on to see if I couldn’t sniff out a cold one.  Yep, Tsukuba’s got it all.  Who needs a mountain wilderness when you can cram in a shanty town of tea houses, souvenir shops and a cable car station topped by revolving restaurant into a mountain saddle between a pair of sacred peaks?

“So much for the sex fests,” I thought as I wandered down into the area.  Nowadays it’s old bats flogging toad oil and soft cream and all other manner of gaudy purveyances.  It was fine by me I guess, as long as they flogged ice cold beverages as well.  On a day like that there was no way I was going to sit and grizzle too long about the rape and pillage of the surrounding environs, especially as I was sweatier than the inside of a summer sumo’s jockstrap and the chances of getting my hands on a beer were better than fair to middling.  Sidling inside a little slapped up shanty I ordered myself up a bowl of noodles and a half litre of lager.  Sometimes in the hills you’ve just gotta do it rough.

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