Just 50 km (31 miles) outside of Tokyo, the city of Tsukuba throbs with Japan’s latest science and technological institutions. Universities, aerospace agencies, and geological centers are just some of the 300 facilities that have sprouted in Tsukuba since the 1960s.
With about 19,000 of the country’s best scientists gathered in the city, this concentration of brain capital has propelled much of the research into realms once conceivable only in science fiction. Here, we show you where the most exciting innovations are, as well as unexpected pockets of natural wonders in this City of Science.
Read on to find out about the top things to do in and around Tsukuba, Ibaraki Japan.
1. Tsukuba-san Jinja
For all its modern marvels, Tsukuba’s first, and perhaps most significant cultural attraction is more than 3,000 years old. Tsukuba-san Jinja cements the futuristic city’s link to its ancient roots. It is dedicated to the soaring twin peaks of Mount Tsukuba, and honors the deities Izanagi and Izanami, who are said to guard faithful worshippers against evil and sicknesses. The gods are also said to grant matrimonial bliss for ardent pursuers of love, with an elaborate ritual performed in spring and autumn every year.
A vibrant display of seasonal blooms surround the ornate structures of Tsukuba-san Jinja. Between the refreshing scent of the 150-year-old camphor tree, and the occasional calls of the wild birds nesting in the forest, any flurried thoughts inevitably come to a standstill at the temple.
Website: Tsukuba-san Jinja (in Japanese)
2. Mount Tsukuba
Many hikers seek blessings at Tsukuba-san Jinja before ascending the twin peaks of Mount Tsukuba – Nyotai-san and Nantai-san. In turn, the mountain is entwined tightly to myths around Japan’s origin. Nantai-san is said to be the manifestation of the god Izanagi and Nyotai-san, the goddess Izanami. When the deities consummated their marriage, legend goes that they became the sacred progenitors of the Japanese people, and even Japan itself.
From the shrine it takes slightly less than 2 hours to hike up Mount Tsukuba, and another 30 mins to cross between the peaks. Alternatively, visitors can go up Nyotai-san via a ropeway and Nantai-san by cablecar. The way up is dotted with onsens and restaurants. However, the real treat is the undulating fields of green below, illuminated by the sunlight streaming between the clouds above. On a clear day, you might even see the elusive face of Mount Fuji.
Website: Mount Tsukuba (in Japanese)
3. Tsukuba Expo Centre
The Tsukuba Expo Centre is where the city first earned its reputation as Japan’s foremost science and technology hub. In 1985, a World Fair was held at the facility to present the country’s innovative force. Since then, the city’s capacity as a development center has only been repeatedly affirmed.
The expo center today is an interactive science museum and a planetarium. Its exhibits range from air bazookas to high speed electric cars, exploration vehicles that trawl the dark depths of the ocean, to a full-size H-II rocket used by Japanese astronauts on their mission. The planetarium is equally impressive, with an observation dome capable of projecting over 380,000 celestial bodies. At the Tsukuba Expo Centre, you can be assured of an immersive and eye-opening education.
Tsukuba Expo Centre
Address: 2-9 Azuma, Tsukuba, Ibaraki
Website: Tsukuba Expo Centre
At Science Square, visitors can interact with humanoid robots, learn about science fiction-esque inventions, and appreciate the deep impact technological evolution is making on our lives.
Get a preview of personal care robots wired to perform everyday tasks, or self-repairing gels activated simply by light exposure. Gain an intimate understanding of your body at the Wonders of Science section, where equipment such as a myoelectric sensor lets you track the complex biological process preceding a simple muscle contraction. The future becomes tangible at Science Square.
Science Square Tsukuba
Address: 1-1-1 Higashi, Tsukuba, Ibaraki
Website: Science Square Tsukuba
5. Tsukuba Space Center
If space exploration is what you gravitate towards, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Tsukuba Space Center is a must-visit. The space center presents technologies to the public that have enabled humans to venture further into the great cosmos.
A guided tour takes visitors through to the various astronaut training and satellite development labs, with the rare opportunity to witness a flight control room in operation. At the Space Dome, you can learn about JAXA’s remarkable growth from an unassuming research team, to the full fledge agency it is today. Take the time to discover the exceptional technology on display. After all, it is not every day that you get within spitting distance of real rocket engines and full-scale satellites.
Tsukuba Space Center
Address: 2-1-1 Sengen, Tsukuba, Ibaraki
Website: Tsukuba Space Center
6. Science Museum of Map and Survey
The Science Museum of Map and Survey is the first of its kind in Japan. Its permanent exhibits present an extensive collection of old and new aerial maps, with the ability to manipulate them on the TOUCHchizu browsing system. Outside, at the Earth Plaza, a spherical scaled model of the Japanese Archipelago stretches across the courtyard to give visitors a realistic sense of the Earth’s curvature. A once functioning Kunikaze survey plane lets you examine the machinations of this old but impressive aerial technology up close.
Given the Japan’s vulnerability to earthquakes, it is fascinating to learn how far and fast its mapping and survey technology has evolved.
Science Museum of Map and Survey
Address: 1 Kitasato, Tsukuba-Shi, Ibaraki
Website: Science Museum of Map and Survey
7. Tsukuba Botanical Gardens
Gripping as all these tech advancements are, the natural sciences should not be dismissed. At the Tsukuba Botanical Gardens, more than 3,000 plant species are studied and conserved in an exuberant showcase of our biodiversity. The gardens boast botanical specimens from an exceptional array of biomes. From cool mountains to parched savannas, steep mountains to flat plains, visitors can go on a whirlwind tour of the world simply by strolling through the various sections of the facility.
The Human and Biodiversity Area further emphasizes the intimate relationship between us and nature. Herbs and medicine cultivated in this section remind visitors of their dependence on the environments for health and sustenance. Equal parts informative and serene, the Tsukuba Botanical Gardens is a delightful place to spend an afternoon.
Tsukuba Botanical Gardens
Address: Japan, 〒305-0005 Ibaraki Prefecture, Tsukuba, Amakubo, 4 Chome−１−１
Website: Tsukuba Botanical Gardens
Matsumi Park is another place in Tsukuba to embrace human’s synchrony with nature. While the Japanese-style park is neither the grandest nor the most historically significant, its sprawling green lawns and breeze rippled koi pond still create a dreamy sight.
Matsumi Park’s icon is its observatory tower, referred to affectionately as the Bottle-Opener due to its shape. The 45 m (147.6 ft.) tall structure rises starkly against the low-rise buildings in its neighbourhood. On a clear day, you can get a direct view of Science Square, and even a peek of Mount Tsukuba in the distance. Do have a picnic at Matsumi before continuing your journey of scientific discovery at the Square.
Address: 1-4 Tenkubo, Tsukuba, Ibaraki
Website: Matsumi Park (in Japanese)
9. Hirasawa Kanga Ruins
A visit to the Hirasawa Kanga Ruins takes you a few steps back into the past. More than a thousand years back in fact. The ruins were once county government buildings that date back to the Nara and Hei-an Eras. Based on the ditch around the premise, the raised flooring, and the meticulous angling of the corner logs to keep rodents out, archaeologists surmised that these log huts were once rice and hemp storage facilities. The earthenware, writing tools, and charred rice grains unearthed in its vicinity further confirmed their hypothesis.
Hirasawa Kanga’s cultural value was formally apprised in 1975. Since then, extensive efforts have been undertaken to restore this national historical site. Visitors today can see a semblance of how the ruins used to look. Ringed by a field of high grass with little signs of modernity in the area, it is easy to believe that time is paused here.
Hirasawa Kanga Ruins
Address: 353 Hirasawa, Tsukuba, Ibaraki
A blast into the future
From space centers to robotic labs, geological museums to botanical gardens, the information to learn at Tsukuba is boundless. A full throttle into the future can be intimidating for some. To make the experience more manageable, the city operates a Science Tour Bus on weekends that stops at most of the major research and educational institutions. Nature is also never far away in this city of science, whether it is the mystical Mount Tsukuba, or the humbler Matsumi Park. At Tsukuba, your senses and imagination will be heightened to a whole new level.