Walking the Old Tsukuba Road (Tsukuba Michi, つくば道) from Hojo to the Mt. Tsukuba Shrine
By Avi Landau
The main roads going up Mount Tsukuba are now often packed with cars, buses and motorcycles- with the most heavilly trafficked route being that which approaches from the neighborhood of Numata, at the south-west base of the mountain. This has been the way most visitors (and even residents) have approached the town of Tsukuba, halfway up the southern slope of the mountain, ever since the first modern road there was finally completed in 1922.
Of course many go up for just the drive- especially the motorcyclists. But most first time vistors are headed for the Mt. Tsukuba Shrine, where one can pray for finding Mr. or Miss Right (this is called EN MUSUBI) or for marital harmony (FUFU WAGO), soak in the positive energies (the shrine and mountain itself are considered POWER SPOTS), admire the architecture – or just say that one has been there. Then there are the many outdoor enthusiasts who make the hike (or take the cable car or rope way) up to the top- or tops (there are two peaks!) for some spectacular (and unique) views of the Kanto Plain- mountainous Japan`s largest flat area.
Whether pilgrim, tourist, outdoors-person or combination of any or all of the above, more people than ever before have been visiting the mountain- and approaching, as I have already mentioned, by major road from the east or from the west.
But over the centuries there have been great changes in the routes used to go up Mt. Tsukuba.in terms of density of traffic on them. Before the road from the Numata side was constructed there had long been several established ways up the mountain- which until the 20th century were of course only trafficked by men and horses.
The oldest of these routes took travellers from what is now Ishioka (formerly the provincial capital called Fuchu) through Kakioka and Obata. This was called the Fuchu Kaido, and those coming from Mito and Hitachi also used it.
Another very old route up to the middle of the mountain started in Yamaguchi, Tsukuba ( at the foot of Mt. Hokkyo-zan) and started up Mt Tsukuba`s slope behind the Rokusho Jinja Shrine. This is the route that the Priest Tokuitsu used when he first founded a Buddhist temple (CHISOKU CHUZEN JI) on the mountain in the year 782. This was the route used by those approaching from the Tsuchiura area.
There has also been a route for those coming from Makabe and Shimodate (in the north- west) called the Ashio Road, and another for those making their way from Koga or Mitsukaido (in the west and south-west) called the Nishi Kaido (the western road).
However, between around 1626 and 1922 (when the road for motor vehicles was first completed) by far the busiest and most important conduit for traffic up the mountain was one which began in the center of the town of Hojo that ran straight up north through the villages of Kangori (神郡) and Usui (臼井) to midway point up the southern slope of the mountain- where the Tokugawa Family, rulers of a unified Japan esconced in Edo Castle (in what is now Tokyo) had decided to rebuild, expand and improve the Chisoku Chuzen-Ji Temple complex.
The huge amount of timber and other material which had to be transported to the construction site required the creation of a straighter, more convenient road than the narrow and winding paths which had long existed. These goods, as well as the large number of highly skilled workers came to Mt. Tsukuba along the areas important water routes- first to Tsuchiura on Lake Kasumigaura, or to Shimotsuma on the Kokai River, and then overland to the town of Hojo. From there they used the road- now known as the TSUKUBA MICHI (つくば道) which was established in 1627 and traces, especially after reaching the middle of Kangori village, a nearly straight line up to the temple (now shrine) site.
Why was the Tokugawa Shogunate so interested in supporting the Chuzen-Ji Temple on Mt. Tsukuba?
Mount Tsukuba with its twin peaks has since ancient times in Japan been considered sacred as a representative of the male and female forces and their interaction.
Interestingly, this is NOT why the Tokugawa`s were interested in it.
The founder of the dynasty, Tokugawa Ieyasu was born in Okazaki in what is now Aichi Prefecture and lived in Okazaki Castle. He later moved (in 1570) to Hamamatsu Castle in Shizuoka Prefecture, and then to Shizuoka Castle (in 1586). Finally, in 1590, he was ordered by Toyotomi Hideyoshi to take up residence in the castle in the village of Edo, in order to maintain control of the vast Kanto Plain in the middle of which this castle stood. Mt. Tsukuba was clearly visible from the castle- off in the distance to the north-east
In 1600, Ieyasu won a victory at a battleground called Sekigahara, and he found himself ruler of all of Japan. The little village of Edo would soon grow to become the biggest city in the world.
Ieyasu was a very thorough person- especially when it came to protecting himself and his family- and keeping their grip on power. He went to great extremes to maintain the regime`s security- an example of which was having the wives and children of all the daimyo (local lords) from every domain in all of Japan live throughout the year as virtual hostages in the capital.
But Ieyasu was also a very religious (or should I say superstitious) person. It was also necessary for him to spiritually protect the regime.One point that concerned him very much was the KIMON (鬼門)- the unlucky north-eastern quadrant from which it was believed misfortune arrived.
As I have said, Mt. Tsukuba lies to the north-east of Edo Castle (now the Imperial Palace in Tokyo). In 1602. not long after his great victory at Sekigahara, Ieyasu made the Chuzen-Ji Temple, which had been established on Mt Tsukuba in the 8th century, offically connected to his family and alotted it a stipend of 500 Koku (enough rice for 500 people to live on for a year). He also handpicked a priest from Nara to overss the continuous rituals which had to be held to keep Edo Castle secure. Later in the year 1611, another head-priest, Koyo-Shonin (光誉上人) was appointed to the temple.
In an interesting legend, it is said that this priest later joined Ieyasu at the siege of Osaka Castle (in 1615) where Hideyshi`s son Hidetada was holding out- a possible threat to Tokugawa rule which could not be tolerated. There, everday, the priest treated the wounded with GAMA NO BURA, the toad oil ointment which Mt. Tsukuba is still famous for.
It was under the 3rd Shogun, Iemitsu, Ieyasu`s grandson ( though there is an interesting theory that he was actually Ieyasu`s son!) that the Chuzen Ji Temple, the protector of Edo Castle`s Kimon, really thrived. It was he who decided to go ahead with the huge expansion of the temple and it was he who created the new road up the mountain.
The project was a huge boost to the local economy with hundreds of workers passing through Hojo and Kangori every day. Inns, shops and houses of pleasure started springing up in Hojo, and all along the new road in Kangori and Usui.
Iemitsu, in an effort to keep the mountain lively even after construction was finished offered land and houses to the carpenters, masons, and other skilled workmen. The descendants of these people live in Kangori and Usui to this day.
With the completion of the temple complex in 1633 and the permanent instillation of 300 monks, Mt. Tsukuba eventually became part of the important 33 temple Bando Pilgrimage.This meant that there was always a steady stream of white clad pilgrims going up and down the mountain along the Tsukuba Michi keeping the inns and souvenir shops flourishing.
WALKING THE TSUKUBA MICHI TODAY
The old stone marker indicating the starting point of the Tsukuba Road still stands at a corner along the main commercial street of Hojo, Tsukuba.
From there, you could probably reach the shrine (after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and the fall of the Tokugawa`s, the temple so closely associated with that family destroyed and a Shinto Shrine was built on the site) in an hour- if you walked at a very brisk pace. That would be alright if you were just trying to get some fresh air or exercize.
But if you really want to enjoy this stroll along this very rustic route, you should take your time and some detours- and it should take you at least two hours.
If the weather is pleasant the walk can be very rewarding- though in the extreme heat, cold or rain you might want to opt for the more conventional routes up the mountain.
You can easily get to the starting point from Tsukuba Center using the Tsukubus Oda Shuttle 小田シャトル (300 Yen- about 1 hour).
You could also take the Hokubu Shuttle (北部シャトル) Tsukubus which goes to Tsukubasan Guchi and get off at the old city office (Tsukuba Mado Guchi －300 Yen, 30 minutes) and walk a bit through the town of Hojo. The bus ride on this rout is also much shorter (about half the time) than the bus that drops you off near the stone marker.
Whether you get off the bus directly at the Sho-ten Gai ( main commercial street), or the kilometer or so away at the Madoguchi Center, before you begin your walk along the Tsukuba Michi, you will have a chance to see a bit of the old town of Hojo. As I have already said the main part of town took its present shape in the 17th century when Iemitsu began the big construction project for the temple. It thrived as a MONZEN MACHI (temple town) catering to the various needs of the pilgrims.
Later, in the late 19th nd early 20th centuries, as a thriving merchants town, many impressive fire-proof stir-houses were built (after too many a disasterous fire had ravaged the town).
Just across the street from the big stone road marker you can see one of the unusual ICHI no KAMI (Deity of the Marketplace) stones. A bit to the east is the old Miyamoto shop, and across the street from that is the Yaguchi Manor (both worth checking out).
Next to the Miyamoto House (to the east) is an old post office converted to a restaurant appropriately named Posten. A good place for coffee, cold ginger ale or lunch.
A few meters in the oppossite direction on the main street is the old Tamura Kimono Shop which is now the visitors center.
Please remember that last year this street was completely ravaged by a tornado. It is heartening to see how well the recovery has gone. Itsalmost as if the torando has given the old rusting town a well needed shot in the arm
The history of Hojo goes back much further, however, and the small mountain you will see on your left as you begin your walk on the Tsukuba Michi played a major role in that.
Known as Jo-Yama ( Castle Mountain) because until the Edo Period there had been fortresses on it, the middle of this mostly forested little mountain is lined with temples and shrines.
There is a very interesting story related to this mountain and the family which long ruled it which I have written about extensively before.
Jo-Yama is now owned by one of Japan`s new religious groups ( I can`t recall which one).
Lets begin our walk.
The first portion will take you up a curving slope a then over tothe other side of Jo-Yama. You will see plenty of new houses- rebuilt after the tornado, flowers (in every season- in summer lots of white lillies and pomegranates), small cemeteries (note all the fresh To-ba wooden tablets inscribed in Sanskrit and pleny of interesting sacred stones- many from the early Edo Period.
(Right at the start you will see signs indicating possible detours- to shrines and temples. But seeing Hojo would take a whole day in itself so you might want to walk on.)
In less than a kilometer you will come down to the new road (the least interesting part of this walk) at which you will turn left.
( If you have the time and the gumption, you might want to take a detour to the right where there is a beautiful reconstruction of a Nara Period (7th century) goverment office called the Hirasawa no Kanga).
After turning left on this new road you will have fine views of the northern side of Jo-Yama. Soon you will come to a sign hanging over the middle of the road that read 神郡 (Kangori). You will turn right hear to get back onto the Tsukuba Michi.
(If you came by car, I guess an alternative could be parking at the Tai Post Office and doing a roud-trip hike up to the shrine- or beyond).
This strip of road will take you by the Fumon-Ji Temple, which I recommend entering for a pit-stop. I have written about this temple in detail in a previous post.
To be continued……………..
After leaving Fumon Ji and turning right you will soon see on the right an old red gate-probably closed. Walk past a bit and look back and you will see an impressive old thatched-roof house which was built in the mid 19th century.
As you walk on in the village of Kangori you will start to see some impressive old houses and even more impressive views of Mt. Tsukuba
When you come to the towns main intesection (no traffic light) turn right and then go around the bend to walk towards the mountain.
Its a beautiful old village which as I have already told you developed as the Chuzenji Temple was being built.
You will see an old stone storehouse covered with murals (which is now used by a volunteer group which helps the handicapped).
Right across from this is the Sakurai Sweet Shop which has been cooking up heavenly sweet bean-filled donuts since the early part of the 20th century. They are about 100 Yen each and make great trail food or souvenirs for those who have not come along with you on the trip.
The Sakurai Sweet Shop
The old warehouse across the street from the sweet-shop sometimes has events- and its cafe is occassionally open
A little bit further ahead ( about 30 meters) you will see another tempting detour- to the Kokage-San Jinja, which is dedicated to the Deity of Silk Production. This once thriving shrine is now literally falling apart deep in the woods up a few long flights of stairs at the end of road (if you turn at the detour)
You would also turn here to get to an amazing Italian Restaurant called La Stala- which is on the grounds of the Harvest Riding Club (reservations required). The meals are long,leasurely and absolutely delicious here. On foot, however, it is quite a detour.
Keep walking straight and you you continue to see impressive homes and gardens on both sides of the road.
As the scenery opens up to a sea of sparkling green paddy (in summer) you will see another stone storehouse (built in 1952) on the left in front of which are walking tour maps (in Japanese) of Kangori, Hojo, and the southern slope of Mt. Tsukuba.
And though the town of Kangori did not take its present form until the 17th century, these rice fields that yo now see were surveyed, developed, divided and parcelled out way back in the 7th century as part of the nationwide Jo-Ri system to bring more cultivated (and taxable) land under government control.
As you walk on with the rice growing on both sides you will soon pass the Sakasagawa River and you will see from the sign overhead that you are now entering the village of Usui (臼井). For those with a special interest in sacred stone, I would recommend a short (easilly do-able) detour just past this bridge.
Turn right and walk past the two houses before turning right again and walking back towards the river. Soon in front of you, will stand a Hi Machi Kuyo-To (日待ち供養塔)- a Waiting for the Sun monument- the oldest of its type in all of Japan. ( check the article I have written about this)
Continuing down the Tsukuba Michi you will pass a Bato Kanzeon stone dated 1624 ( one of the MANY sacred stones you can see on this walk). It is on the right side of the road where there is a turn off. These stones are characteristic of this part of Japan and are meant as prayers from the safety and health of ones horses and cows. Offerings to them could also be done supplications to the spirits of deceased animals or as consolations to their spirits.
Now you will start to climb.
You will come to another intersection- a T- junction.
(Turning left would take you to an old Yakushi Prayer Hall beneath a huge gingko tree. Then just past this hall a turn to the right would take you on another road up the mountain past the Iina Jinja Shrine and the unique Gassuiseki Jinja where women who are having trouble getting pregnant come from far and wide to take eggs (chicken eggs) which will be used as lucky charms.
Even more attractive, further to the west (but very walkable) is the Inaba Shuzo Sake Brewery which whips up an assortment of really delicious hootch- very tempting- but lets stick to our path!)
Continuing straight up you will pass a meeting hall (there is a cistern out in front) with plenty of interesting sacred stones on the grounds behind it.
The climb steepens.
If you are getting hungry, an interesting (though pricey) place to stop is the Ida Soba Restaurant. The building itself might make a visit here worthwhile. Its an old converted farmhouse with mud floors and tree trunks used as pillars and beams.
The soba noodles here are quite unusual- short, thick,and very chewy. The proprietor likes to sit by and talk to his customers ( and this can be annoying). Some people love it, some hate it and its not cheap- but the building is heart-warmingly lovely.
To be continued…………
With bloated stomach (if you have eaten at Iida`s) get back onto the path and forge on. Soon you will reach a stone torii gate marking the beginning of the pigrims path to the shrine. For centuries the path beyond this point was stone steps – but it was made into a road in the 1960`s so its possible to continue for a bit beyond this point by car until you hit the steps further on.
(if you turn to the left at the stone torii you will get to the road running up and down the slope along which are the Gassuiseki Jinja Shrine and the Iina Jinja Shrine.)
When you get to a fork in the road veer to the right to stay on the Tsukuba Michi.
Further on you will see a youth hostel on your right
You have almost reached the main road when get to this old post office (built in 1939).
Up a few more steps and you`ve reached the road- the one that comes up from Numata- which you are now going to cross.
On the other side, just to the right is an old inn, the Taihokan (対宝館) which was established in the Edo Period. It is said that In the 1860`s the leaders of the radical anti-foreigner pro-emperor faction the Tengu To (天狗党) stayed here
To continue to the shrine cross directly over and go up the steps under the steel pedestrian overpass.
Climb the steps and you will come out into the crowds that have arrived via the road from Numata.
Well youv`e made it now just a couple more sets of stairs and you are at the main hall.
I will write a detailed description of the shrine grounds in the near future!
Have a nice walk back- are are you going to take the bus?