The Way of the Weekend Warrior

Japanese climbing scene

 

Masatoshi Sugita makes a low-tide redpoint at the Astrodome, Jogasaki, just before the seas roll in.
Japan offers endless opportunities for foreigners, or gaijin, to make unwitting fools of themselves. Although tourists usually get sufficient slack in the manners department, Topher, for one, seems determined to get it right. Clad in a yukata, a long bathrobe-like floppy-sleeved garment worn as aprés-hot-springs apparel, my photographer is trying hard not to do any unintentional dragnet fishing in his dinner soup with said sleeves while under the mounting influence of hot sake. The drinks seem to be reactivating some of my language neurons that haven’t been fired since I moved from Japan sixteen years ago. Being half German, I look sufficiently un-Asian to be pegged as a foreigner, but I can make jaws drop by launching into the flawlessly posh Tokyo accent of my childhood. With no formal education in the language, however, I inevitably follow up with outrageous blunders in politeness forms, leading to further consternation.
The official reason for this return to my native country was an investigation of the Japanese climbing scene, with its increasing reports of strong climbers and hard new boulder problems. As I try to register all the information fired at me during the dinner conversation, my translation to Topher has all but ceased, as has my Beta on how to deal with the multitude of plates, bowls, and strange critters that comprise his meal.

 

Personal space? The crowded Takeshita-dori shopping street in Tokyo’s Harajuku district.

Yuka Kobayashi on Musasabi (5.12c) at Futagoyama. At the tender age of 16, Yuka has almost as many national titles (14) as years she is old.
Topher looks at Yuji Hirayama, seated across from him. Yuji is a master at studying sequences. We saw him onsight someone’s abandoned 5.13c project today after fifteen minutes’ scoping through his binoculars, and he’s also come close to onsighting several 5.13 El Cap free routes. Inspired, Topher scans the spread in front of him and dives in, sans Beta.
When the proprietor comes in a little later to clear the table, Topher beams at her proudly: He has a neat stack of fish bones on his plate, his crab’s shell is picked completely clean, and there’s not a single grain of rice stuck to his bowl. She politely avoids staring back at the goofy gaijin with hairy shins sticking out from between the too-short yukata and woolen hiking socks.

 

 

Hirayama warming up the old fashioned way.
Have you gone drinking with Kobayashi-san before?” asks Bosch. “It’s very entertaining.” Kobayashi-san is an alpine old-timer. His youngest daughter is rumored to be Japan’s girl prodigy of sport climbing. Bosch, apparently, is Kobayashi-san’s disciple, and judging from his nickname, he does useful things like bolting lines for the girls, belaying them, and picking up foreign reporters at the train station to drive them to the crag.
We are going to Futagoyama, a limestone area two hours outside of Tokyo, and home to Asia’s hardest sport climb, Hirayama’s Flat Mountain. A Land Rover zooms up behind us on the windy mountain road and proceeds to sit on our bumper. The radio in Bosch’s lap crackles to life: “Hey Bosch, drive faster.” “That was Maho, the older sister,” explains Bosch, and dutifully steps on it. The Land Rover pulls up next to us in the parking lot, and out spills the clan. Sisters Yuka and Maho, Dad, and Bosch are decked out in matching team jackets with sponsor badges.

 

A three-ring event? Yuji Hirayama hikes Circus (5.12c) at Jogasaki.
Yuka Kobayashi is sixteen, has hands and shoulders that look oversized for her not-quite five-foot-one-inch frame, visits a climbing gym maybe three times a year, and has parked herself on the first-place podium of all fourteen national comps that she’s entered in the past three years. She hoofs it to the crag, leaving her dad to rattle on about her successes. This is the last weekend before the next installment of the Japan Tour competition series, and Kobayashi-san explains his training philosophy. “Yuka doesn’t like climbing in gyms — I don’t, either — so before comps, we just go to a crag and pick some routes for her to try and onsight. Other than that, she trains a couple of times a week on our wall at home.”
Yuka has onsighted up to 7c+ (5.13a) and redpointed 8a+ (5.13c) on trips to France and Spain. I ask her what are her favorite European crags or routes. She seems a little lost, and sister Maho needles, “Dude, you don’t even remember, do you?” Yuka giggles. It’s rumored that Yuka once asked, in all innocence, “What does pumped mean?” Apparently she also doesn’t believe in warmups, instead jumping straight onto a 5.12b, Dad’s first choice of training routes for the day. She misses the crux sequence and falls, figures it out after one hang, and later on onsights her other training climb, a 5.12c, staying completely unflappable throughout.

 

Sisters Maho and Yuka Kobayashi ask, “What’s a ‘pump?’”
Kobayashi-san declares playtime, and Yuka promptly heads over to a short, nasty looking 5.12c — it’s obvious that she’s a glutton for hard climbing. I ask her about competition pressure. She doesn’t really like it, but enjoys trying the climbs the routesetters concoct. Competitions, in her view, are mostly a necessity for establishing herself as a professional climber.
In a coincidence worthy of a Douglas Adams plot, Topher has an uncle who lives only a couple of subway stops from my Japanese aunt’s house. The Donahue clan is innocent of the sort of intercontinental mixing that’s rampant in my family, and the uncle makes a convincing embodiment of Americana as the CEO of MacDonald’s, Japan. He has endowed us with a stack of gift certificates, which we’re hesitant to use because they would cut seriously into our stomach capacity for better, fishier things. Topher pulls out a handful of them with a flourish and presents them to Yuka, whose eyes light up. “Whoa, Makudonarudo! Cool, I can buy, like, a burger with each of these!” It’s the most excited she’s sounded all day.

 

Hirayama flies up his 5.15 route Flat Mountain at Futagoyama.
The Western eye is quick in seeing stereotypes everywhere, in Yuka’s Zen calm on the routes, and in her martial-arts-like disregard of ego. There is a grain of truth to the impression. Echoes of martial arts abound in the Japanese climbing world. Quickdraws, for instance, are called nunchaku, as in the sticks on a chain Bruce Lee flung about his head. Martial arts grades are used for bouldering ratings, a practice started in the 1990s as a joke, but which has since become the standard.
“We’ve run into problems with the ratings, actually,” explains a boulderer with whom we strike up a conversation at Mitake, a local area one hour from Tokyo. Our new friend dragged his crashpad over when I made a warmup problem look all too sketchy, and then appointed himself our guide while he was resting for his next burn. “You see, one grade spans two to three V grades. Take the First Dan, or master grade — it ranges from V6 to V8. Add some sandbagging to that, and you basically don’t have a clue what you’re getting on!”

 

Monos anyone? Hirayama trying Koyamada’s Mudra (5.14c) at the volcanic Horai area.

Take a number: The Ninja Rejector boulder at Mitaki is one of the closest climbing areas to Tokyo.
After towing us around until we wave our over-inflated forearms in surrender, he returns to his project on the Ninja Rejecter boulder. The base is lined with pads and some twenty ninjas, their cheering squad, and a peanut gallery. The ninjas are taking turns throwing themselves at a handful of problems ranging from V5 to V13. I get the same encouragement for trying to do a couple of moves on the easy problem as the next guy who’s teetering his way towards the topout of the V13 — a chorus of Gam-ba!, short for gambare, meaning “do your best,” gives way to general hilarity when the hardman topples off the final mantel. Hardman himself is lying on the pads, hooting with laughter, then rolls out of the way as the next climber launches himself at the same problem. Like clockwork, one woman craters off the highball crux of a V8 every five minutes, and a couple of guys barely find time to slink up in between her attempts, only to fail on the first move.
There’s a pad procession to the train station at the end of the day. Most of the boulderers reappear on the train back to Tokyo with a couple of cans of beer they acquired somewhere. The train is jam-packed with happy, tired hikers, similarly equipped with beer for the hour’s ride.

 

Boulderer Shin Tachibanazono blends right in with the Tokyo crowd, en route home from the Mitaki boulders.
Topher and I marveled at finding a crowd at the most difficult boulder while all the easier routes were deserted, but the climbers are dismissive. “Well, yeah, most climbers get good pretty fast, but it’s probably just something in the national psyche to enjoy being obsessively dedicated.” I’m reminded of a friend’s story about a Japanese mountaineer reduced by exhaustion to crawling on an Ecuadorian volcano’s snow slope on all fours — still going up — while smiling from ear to ear and insisting that she was having a grand old time, which she probably was. While membership in the formerly popular mountain clubs has dwindled to almost nothing, free climbing, and especially bouldering, offers endless new fun in self-castigation.

 

Asian sensation Dai Koyamada on Logical Progression (5.14d).
Life in Japan is all but impossible without a regular job, and vacation time, apart from public holidays, is still a strictly theoretical concept in many companies. As a result, people climb like fiends during the little time they have outdoors. “Yeah, I was a climbing bum once,” reminisces one of the boulderers, “for two full months.” He’s not joking.
The train pulls into Shinjuku station, which regurgitates crowds equivalent to the population of L.A. on a daily basis. Topher, once again alienated by Japanese conversation and signs he can’t read, scrambles to collect his photo gear from the luggage rack before lunging onto the crowded platform. He figures that if he loses track of me, his only recourse will be to become a Tokyo street bum. He has already requested a sign written in Japanese: “My name is Topher. I didn’t vote for Bush. Please help me find home.”
The boulderers disperse onto various subways, stuck in the city for another week of work and pulling on plastic. The full-time climber would be a nonexistent animal in Tokyo if it weren’t for patron saints like Naoya Naito. Naoya is an old-timer of the Japanese climbing scene who made the not-unusual transition from mountaineering to traditional rock climbing, and then to sport climbing.
A much more unlikely transition that he also pulled off was morphing from run-of-the-mill salaryman, as white-collar worker bees are called, to owning five of Tokyo’s twenty climbing gyms, a couple of gear stores, and a climbing video production company. His business is carefully tailored to give all employees (himself included) a minimum of one month off per year and to feed an army of talented part-time youngsters who hope to someday become pro climbers. Ever on the prowl to increase his gym clientele, Naoya is on top of current climbing trends in the country.
“Routes are for old people, like us,” he says. “Both in the gym and at the crags, you’ll see that the vast majority of roped climbers are over thirty. The cool thing to do is bouldering, and that’s what the kids get into.” He invites us for a session at one of his gyms, and we see it for ourselves. An extremely fit-looking seventy-year-old is working on a 5.12d. He didn’t take up climbing until after his retirement. On weekday mornings the gym is well visited by retirees who have discovered a new hobby, and work on their routes with as much glee as the teenage bouldering crowd. The gym has practically no routes rated 5.9 and under, only a few easy 5.10s, and no topropes — everyone leads.
“The people who come here are seriously into it,” explains Naoya. “There are some other gyms that are more set up for novices and occasional climbers.” What about trad climbing? “Only a tiny fraction of the climbers nowadays do it. I sell about one rack of natural pro a year between the two stores. Partly it’s a matter of popularity, partly availability — there are more sport routes than trad climbs, and there aren’t a whole lot of beginner-friendly or easy trad climbs. Even at Ogawayama, which is a granite area, there aren’t too many splitters, at least not many that aren’t choked with mud after every rain.”
Naoya’s videos target the small climbing community. He shows us his latest opus, a chronicle of Yuji Hirayama’s onsight attempt of El Niño on El Cap, the first video he’ll release internationally. His current film project is a commission by a large publishing house to make a general-audience film featuring Yuji on classic climbs at some of Japan’s better-known crags. We tag along on a shooting and climbing road trip to the sea cliffs of Jogasaki on the Izu peninsula.
At the crag, director Kosuke Abe and Naoya start rigging in anticipation of the star’s arrival, while we warm up on a 5.10+ that turns out to be an eye opener. It’s a blustery day, the surf’s up, and boomers are exploding spray thirty feet high off the seaside boulders just behind us, making for grandiose scenery in a small-scale Japanese sort of way.
Yuji comes bounding down the trail, psyched as usual. Headlamps are obligatory on a cragging day with him, we’re told. Naoya witnessed Yuji’s early days. “Boy, was he a cocky little teenage brat. He’d go to Ogawayama equipped with a bowl and a spoon and hang out at the campground for a month. The other climbers would basically feed him. In return, you’d get comments like, ‘No way, Naito-san, you really fell off there? I thought it was pretty easy!’ Somehow he was just too likeable to get pissed off at, though. When he moved to France, not speaking a word of French, surviving on odd jobs and fending for himself — that’s what mellowed him out.” The grown-up Yuji is friendly, laid back, psyched to climb with anyone who’s motivated, dedicated to his sponsors, and a perfect diplomat — every inch the Dai Sensei, or Grand Master, as he’s nicknamed.

 

 

On an approach to another crag, a middle-aged woman among a gaggle of hikers squeals, “Oh, are you Hirayama-san?” Yuji immediately kicks into climbing ambassador mode. In an area where hikers have grumbled about cliff congestion and unsightly draws, this is excellent PR. Naoya and Yuji are members of Japan’s version of the Access Fund. Much too small to purchase crags outright, the organization holds climbing festivals in villages near popular crags to introduce the locals to climbing, and to point out that climbers can bring good business to the town.

 

Koyamada explaining the moves to the author, and video producer Naoya Naito.
Having caught up on work and promotional obligations after his return from Yosemite in 2003, Yuji is gearing up for more climbing. His ultimate goal is further onsight attempts on El Cap in perhaps five years’ time, and he seems happy that the Big Stone’s next crop of free routes will be harder than the ones he’s already tried.
In preparation, he hopes to take his climbing up a notch by entering more competitions, trying to onsight a 5.14b, and putting up more routes like Flat Mountain at Futagoyama, which he completed last year.
A minor controversy surrounds Yuji’s bolting of Flat Mountain fifteen years ago. Yuji drilled an artificial hold, fairly low, before realizing that the route would be impossible for him without significant amounts of additional chipping, at which point he abandoned the project. On his return to Flat Mountain in 2003, Yuji immediately filled the drilled hold with epoxy before beginning to work the route again. His rating after the redpoint is 5.15a. It comes as no surprise that some Western climbers react to reports of cutting-edge ascents from (to them) unknown areas with suspicion, but one can hardly ask for a more solid track record than Hirayama’s when it comes to putting ratings in perspective.
While I’m in no position to judge 5.15a, the ratings in Japan in the mere mortals’ range seemed stingy (read: sandbag). At many crags, routes up to 5.12+ or 5.13- went up during a time period when international travel was still rare for Japanese climbers, and the tendency went towards grade deflation. Some routes have since been retrograded, but many original ratings survive and continue to influence more recent routes. Rating drift is likely to happen in small, isolated climbing communities, and in Japan it’s gone the sandbag way, as well-traveled locals point out to us at every opportunity with a sort of half-guilty pride.
On our road trip we live off convenience-store food during the day, which would be scary in the U.S., but the Japanese gas station food selection would make the Surgeon General drool with envy. Topher develops an affinity for rice balls stuffed with dried tuna shavings, and soon masters the sleight-of-hand technique that slides the plastic wrapping out from underneath the crispy seaweed paper, leaving the rice ball neatly tucked inside.
Meanwhile, I’m stretching the limits of my formal Japanese, arranging climbing outings and interviews via borrowed cell phones and hack e-mails written in phonetic script. One climber witnesses my fumbling cold call to the house of another climber and can’t contain his sniggering. “I must sound pretty funny trying to be polite to someone I haven’t met when they don’t know I’m a gaijin,” I admit, embarrassed. “No, that’s not it at all! It’s just that I’m prepared to bet anything that that was the first time a girl called that nerd’s house and left a message for him — and an exotic-sounding girl at that! Oh, I can’t wait to hear the rumors!”

 

Koyamada taking the white road on Byaku-dou (at least V15), Horai.
We develop a weekly ritual of arranging an outing to Ogawayama with Tokio Muroi, the mysterious slab master of V15 fame, which invariably falls through because of rain or snow. Ogawayama is the highest crag in the area, situated at over 1600 meters elevation, and it catches the brunt of the mountain weather. Tokio is a retiring character. He eschews crashpads, which makes his first claim to V15, Banshousha, sound like a cranium-shaking experience. Not much else is confirmed, other than 5.13 climbers haven’t been able to even get off the ground trying the problem; that Tokio probably has abnormally flexible ankles; that he boulders hard; and that it’s impossible to tell a V13 slab from a V15 one, there being no standard for that kind of climbing at that level.
Muroi also claimed a second V15 slab, which has been repeated — and heavily downrated. There’s a rumor that the rating dispute also involves an old spat over sponsorship and a shoe review, the kind of thing that is said to be rare in the normally tight-knit Japanese climbing community.
The downrater is no other than Dai Koyamada, mystery man, sandbagger, and perhaps the world’s strongest climber. Dai has been ghosting through the Western climbing press for several years. In Japan, he’s universally acknowledged to be the most powerful climber, surpassing even Yuji. His name is more often than not misspelled in Western publications, and his age has been variously reported from twenty-three to twenty-seven in the past few months. Dai is rather amused by the confusion. “I’ll be twenty-eight this year — do you think I look like twenty-three?” he asks hopefully. “Well ... no.” He looks chagrined. “Damn, must be getting old.”
Koyamada has met us for an evening workout at the gym that was his bivi site for a year after finishing high school and moving to the Tokyo area. We huddle around a gas heater for the interview while the wind whistles through the rafters. The winter nights living in the gym were probably as close as Dai will ever get to alpine conditions. His climbing style has him airborne half the time — going up, not down. “I bike too much — check out these big old legs, bad for climbing!” he says ruefully, looking at his calves, then contradicts himself by launching into a series of sick dynos.
The gym manager shows us some of Dai’s problems and complains that they are extremely unpopular because he underrates them. Dai is referred to by the affectionate diminuitive of Dai-chan by everyone, but in the same breath they frequently give him flak for sandbagging. He invites us on a trip to Horai, a volcanic-tuff climbing area four hours south of Tokyo, near Nagoya. Although it’s mostly known for its sport climbing (which is excellent), this is where Dai put up a boulder problem named Byaku-dou. Literally “White road,” referring to the Buddhist path to Nirvana, it caused a minor furor in the Western climbing press when it was touted a possible V16.
Dai brings an entourage on the trip, including an additional photo team for a sponsor’s website and a video crew hoping to improve on the too-dark footage of Byaku-dou’s first ascent. The rock is seeping from recent rains, but after drying off the holds, Dai gives the problem a few solid burns, climbing through the crux to the top on one attempt, and getting to the crux move on others.
The crux itself is a long deadpoint move off a monopocket, and Dai’s feet cut loose as soon as he hits the next sloper. The whole problem consists of a nine-move sequence out a roof, with a lot of opposition on marginal slopers for hands and feet; a couple of positive holds leading into the crux, with the angle easing gradually to fifty degrees overhanging; and a few more tenuous balance moves on small holds to the top. Dai initially put up an easier problem, rated V13, that enters the crux from the right. Both problems are unrepeated. Yuji Hirayama and French hardman Fred Rouhling tried the V13 variation while Dai was working on Byaku-dou, but neither was able to pull the monopocket crux move.

 

View from the Jogasaki sea cliffs, Izu Peninsula.
“I couldn’t even let go with my right hand, let alone try the move,” says Yuji. “It felt like my finger would explode!” When I ask about Byaku-dou’s rating, Dai explains: “Initially, I was thinking V14, but Fred convinced me that it was harder.” Rouhling had been working on Dreamtime, then considered the benchmark for V15, “and had worked out all the moves, although he never did it. So, considering this crux move, and figuring in the first half of the problem, which he didn’t try, he insisted that Byaku-dou was harder than Dreamtime. I guess I buy that, although that’s a weird way to rate a problem, without his having tried half of it, and based on another problem he didn’t complete. Basically, someone needs to repeat Byaku-dou before anything more can be said.”
Having satisfied the media, Dai spends the rest of the day brushing green slime off his newest discovery, a severely over-hanging face with what looks like, at the most, poor excuses for crimps, off which he explodes, trying crazy opposition moves over and over.
Dai took off for Australia shortly after our visit and caused an international stir by repeating every V14 in the Grampians, some in four tries or less, putting up a new V15, and doing a monster linkup that had been termed “Hollow Mountain’s last big problem” by locals, now named the The Wheel of Life by Koyamada. V16 mutterings have been heard again for the latter, although Dai figures that at sixty-plus moves, a route rating of 5.15a is probably more appropriate.
While there is a general hope that more climbers will make Japan an international destination, many locals are the first to point out that the country doesn’t offer the large-scale variety or aesthetic appeal of other places. Rather than towering over deserts or mountains, the crags are mostly tucked away in forests. Tectonics and high precipitation conspire to make Japan’s big-mountain faces hideously unstable. The general opinion seems to be that there are no undiscovered crags left for roped climbing, although new routes may still go up. The existing routes are mostly short, but will get you pumped in a hurry — few crags in the western U.S. come close in steepness.
Bouldering may be Japan’s strongest suit. There are many areas still unexplored, and with the recent popularity, Koyamada, for one, figures that Japan could evolve into an international bouldering destination in a couple of years. In terms of variety, difficulty, and a zen rock garden ambience that’s hard to find elsewhere, the existing options are already impressive.
For me, Japan’s main attraction will probably always be the food. Topher has now onsighted fish in any form, shape, and state, including for breakfast, and a botanical garden’s worth of different kinds of pickled plant matter. He’s even redpointed natto (soybeans’ answer to stinky cheese) in three tries, to the marvel of one of my Japanese cousins, who can’t stand to be in the same room with the stuff. My ticklist of lost childhood culinary delights is nearly complete, and if I go for a second lap, I’ll be unable to even waddle up to yet another crag. It’s time to go home.

 

 


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