Despite Tokyo being a huge metropolis, thanks to the excellent transportation system there are a surprising number of hiking options close enough to be done as a day trip. I decided to try Tsukuba-san ('san' means 'mountain'), which is in Ibaraki prefecture.
The start of this hike can be reached in under two hours from Akihabara station in central Tokyo (see info tab for details). At the Tsukuba Shrine bus stop, where there is an information centre and kiosk, you will see a very large red torii (Shinto shrine gate). Pass through this and walk up the hill, along the road. It's about 5 minutes to walk to an area where there are many shrines set amongst some traditional gardens. It is worth wandering around this area for a little while before starting off on the hike.
Now, like most Japanese mountains, there is a cable car option up to the saddle, however to me it is not a real hike if you ride up! To the right of the cable car there is a steep track that leads to the saddle. It is a combination of steps, tree roots and rocks and is quite challenging in places, particularly if there has been rain recently, as was the case on my visit. The track climbs through some beautiful forest. It took me about 45 minutes to reach the saddle, without stopping for any breaks. From the saddle there should be nice views, however sadly it was foggy the day I was there.
The saddle is the cable car terminal, and there are a few restaurants and souvenir shops, as well as toilets. From here it is a short 600m return trip to the top of Mt Nantai (870m). After returning to the saddle from the summit, head towards Mt Nyotai (876m), about 600m away. Along the path you will see a rock formation called “gama seki” ('toad stone'). It is shaped a bit like a toad with an open mouth, and everyone tries to throw a stone and get it to lodge in the toad’s mouth. It is said that you will have good luck if you can do this. I managed to do it on my first throw, so surely I should get some extra luck?! On the summit of Mt Nyotai there is a nice shrine with a lovely bridge. Again, there should be good views from here, but not on the day of my visit. I ate my homemade onigiri (rice balls) here for a quick lunch.
From this spot, the path descends steeply towards Tsutsujigaoka (there is another cable car option if you prefer). Initially it is a case of almost being on your hands and knees to scramble down the rocks, until you emerge into a flatter area where there are many different rock formations alongside the track, all with various Japanese names. It is a very pleasant walk.
After a while you will reach a track junction – the shortest option is to descend directly back to the shrine (the starting point), however I took the longer route which goes via Tsutsujigaoka. When you arrive at Tsutsujigaoka, there are a few more restaurants and a large parking lot. It is possible to catch a bus back from here to Tsukuba Station, however if you still have the energy, from Tsutsujigaoka there is a track through a lovely green and rocky forest that joins the shorter track back to the shrine. Taking this longer track via Tsutsujigaoka is well worth it! Once you arrive back at the shrine, you can make your way back to the bus stop.
Buses back to Tsukuba leave at 10 and 40 minutes past the hour. I had a well deserved ‘soft cream’ (soft-serve ice cream) from the kiosk while I waited.
My total walking time was just under 3 hours (excluding breaks).