Lost in Tokyo: Traveling and Climbing in Japan

An outsider decodes the intricacies of Japanese climbing culture
By Colette McInerney ,

Handa on Diamond slab (V5/V6), Ogyu-joshi in Toyota, Japan. Photo: Colette McInerney

The blinking dot on my phone hovered over an empty building in downtown Tokyo, where this year’s annual Five Ten Cup was supposed to be held. Typical, I thought. The building’s signs were written in katakana, hiragana, and kanji, a collection of symbols I wasn’t any closer to deciphering since I had arrived in the world’s biggest metropolis a year ago. Translations written in Roman characters could only get you so far, though, because everything here seemed to be built, moved, and changed faster than I could keep track. It took only a month for construction crews to put up a half-dozen houses outside my apartment in the city, then my favorite sushi place disappeared a mere three months after I discovered it.

“It’s the third floor in the building to the right of McDonald’s,” my friend Dave’s text read. Dave Kassel, also from the states, was running the event.

Right, I thought, to the right. How do they fit a gym on the third floor anyway? Since I had exited the train station three minutes ago, the city buildings ran together, stacked on top of one another like Lego blocks. American climbing gyms tend to stick out from the surrounding hair salons, furniture stores, and tobacco shops, but the continuous mega blocks in Tokyo made individual buildings indistinguishable.

I found the building’s entrance, which led down a corridor to a tiny elevator that took me up to the third floor where the door opened to a large room. The comp was nearly over, and cheers came from a crowd beyond the front desk. Having visited several gyms in Tokyo by this point, I knew that, like many things in Japan, there was an order and rule to every situation. This kind of ritualistic Japanese culture comforted my western mind when I first arrived because it seemed reliable, but after a few months it was suffocating. Though these formalities made me feel safe, so many particulars in each social interaction gave me anxiety, like I wasn’t fitting into the Japanese culture at all.

I stumbled through obligatory apologies about my lack of Japanese and mimed that I was here for the comp. The staff responded by being overly polite and helpful; the Japanese word for hospitality is omotenashi. Hospitality is a way of life here.

“Arigatou gozaimasu,” I said as we bowed to each other several times. The staff pointed to the spot where I could remove my shoes before I entered the gym’s climbing area. I sat with my friends behind the main crowd while the last of the competitors finished up the men’s final round. Like most comps, there was an elated energy in the place, with spectators and competitors alike shouting “Gamba! Gamba!” for whomever was up on the wall. Through my year in Japan climbing inside and out, I had witnessed a psyched, positive, and supportive community where the faces were constantly changing. In the U.S., it’s rare for me to go climbing outside or attend a comp and not recognize at least a few people. Here, the sheer number of climbers means that bumping into friends is a lot less likely.

A competitor attempts a problem in qualifiers at the 2015 Five Ten Cup in Tokyo. Photo: Colette McInerney

Later that evening, I crammed into the end of a long table with the event organizers, routesetters, gym staff, and competitors at a nearby restaurant. Several other large parties sat at bar-style tables with people of all ages, and chatter and laughter filled the room. Sushi appetizers, plates of tofu drizzled in soy sauce, and pints of lager—a popular drink, along with sake—were placed in front of us while we discussed the results of the comp. American climber, and the only non-Japanese competitor at the event, Nathaniel Coleman sat across from me and explained he thought he did “OK” in the comp with his top 10 finish.

“I was hoping to uncover the secret behind all these strong Japanese climbers, some kind of workout ritual or special routine,” he said, referring to the comp’s talented field of local competitors and their incredible finger strength and meticulous technique. Three weeks earlier, Nathaniel had competed in the bouldering World Cup in Vail, Colorado, where Kokoro Fujii and Tomoa Narasaki had taken first and second, respectively, with Yoshiyuki Ogata finishing fourth. With only one U.S. competitor making semifinals and four Japanese qualifying in the top 10 spots at the men’s comp, Nathaniel wasn’t the only one who wanted to figure out what made these climbers tick. The Japanese performance in Vail was a chorus of power and technique; tricky sequences, balancey bulges, and dynos were easily dispatched.

I wanted to offer some wisdom to Nathaniel, but as I reflected on the past 12 months in Tokyo, I couldn’t pinpoint a single trait in these climbers that might make them that much better than the rest of us. In fact, my examination of all Japanese culture over the last year seemed to uncover more questions than answers.

Okonomiyaki, a Japanese savory pancake. Photo: Colette McInerney

I had come to live here while my boyfriend completed a one-year research project. From the moment I had my passport stamped in Tokyo until my final metro ride back to the airport, I remember thinking, Yes, I can live here. Bowls of ramen, punctual train times, and a growing green tea obsession were enough for me. As a gaijin, or foreigner, I wasn’t held to the same standards of cordiality in the culture, but I found that the daily scramble of trying to blend in with locals was exhausting. The expectations were “lower” for visitors, but the country’s language, roles, and rules of life were complex, making me feel more lost than ever.

After a few months, I had shifted my energy to climbing, hoping that this was a field I could relate to no matter how different the culture is. New (to me) rules about style and technique, nuanced movement on the granite boulders, and an exceptionally high level of indoor skill only added to my confusion. Maybe I was being naïve to think climbing could be my common ground in this intricate culture.

Over the years, a number of strong American climbers have visited Japan to repeat hard boulders. Daniel Woods ticked Hydrangea (V15) in 2013, and Ashima Shiraishi climbed Horizon (V15) in 2016, which made her the first woman and youngest person to climb the grade. Carlo Traversi and Sasha DiGiulian came for the Five Ten Cup in 2015, and a handful of strong climbers have developed classic lines outside, such as Kumite (V10) by Jason Kehl, Two Monks (V10) by Chris Sharma, and the popular Frequent Flyer (V6) by Obe Carrion. According to the site 99boulders, 10 percent of the world’s 100-plus hardest boulders are in Japan, and many of them belong to Dai Koyamada, one of Japan’s top climbers. Other historical ascents have taken place in the country, like the 34-year-old Tomoko Ogawa’s ascent of Catharsis in Shiobara, the first V14 ascent by a woman. Even with such a strong bouldering legacy in the country, Americans only know a few names of Japanese climbers, like Koyamada, Yuji Hirayama, Sachi Amma, and Akiyo Noguchi. Most of Japan’s climbers and history remain relatively unknown.

Toshi Takeuchi translates the Ena guide for visiting pro Carlo Traversi. Photo: Colette McInerney

I was curious why this was, but as I searched for beta, topos, and other information online, the language barrier and difficult translations created a huge information gap. Because the web page and text for my local climbing gym were only in Japanese, it was impossible for me to find when I first arrived. I only learned about its location through word of mouth. Similar constraints will be met by any traveling Westerner, as there are no guidebooks printed in English, so locating climbing areas and navigating them can feel hopeless without a guide or translator.

This constraint shouldn’t deter a climbing trip to the country, however. Instead of relying on guidebooks and internet beta like you can with many European destinations, you’ll need to plan differently. Ask someone who has visited before or try to find a local on social media who can point you in the right direction. The country has plenty to offer in terms of the high-quality bouldering, sport, and trad climbing scattered all over its 145,000 square miles, not to mention the plethora of non-climbing tourist activities. Search for online beta in English and follow the internet trail as far as possible, and once you’re in Japan, the people and community are welcoming, helpful, and friendly.

Last year during koyo, or fall, one of Japan’s best climbers, 30-year-old Toshi Takeuchi, showed me through the Mizugaki forest. Gold, red, and orange leaves lit the mountainside where spheres of gray granite bluffs, home to a number of popular trad climbs, peeked out between the trees. Day hikers and tourists meandered along the wider paths and visited the fully stocked hiker lodge that offers warm meals, drinks, and trinkets. We met a few groups of eager climbers in the parking lot before venturing out on the many trails that weave through clusters of boulders. If we happened down the wrong trail, we’d soon find another chalked boulder that was bound to hold a few classic lines.

A Japanese climber on Ninja Gaeshi (V5), Mitake. Photo: Colette McInerney

Mt. Mizugaki is considered one of Japan’s premier bouldering locations because of the quality and concentration of world-class problems. Located about 2.5 hours from Tokyo, city-based climbers leave before 5 a.m. on the weekend in order to beat traffic, which can mean crawling through the mountain’s tunnel passes for hours on end. With hundreds of developed boulders and more to be discovered, the grade range goes from V0 to V15, and the sculpted granite offers a technical style. Slopey holds and low-angle rock demand thoughtful movement, the use of small feet, and commitment to rounded topouts.

The Japanese grading system, called dankyu, can prove complicated for travelers, as it is modeled after martial arts rating. It has two “levels” (kyu and dan). A higher number in dan means the problem is harder, but a higher number in kyu means it’s easier. Couple that with a few sandbag boulders, and visiting climbers quickly figure out to focus on the lines that inspire them instead of the grade.

Toshi led us to his recent project, Asagimadara, an 8c/V15 highball. Looking up at the boulder’s slabby ending, I got chills when I noticed that the slopey crimps, pockets, and sidepulls seemed to disappear about 30 feet off the deck. The line had two ascents, he explained, the first ascent by Tokio Muroi in 2011 and a repeat by Toru Nakajima in 2013. As he detailed the history, Toshi emphasized the style of climbing over the grade. Minimal pads and thin mats are the traditional method for bouldering protection in Japan. Muroi, now 43, has been putting up hard first ascents in Japan since the early 2000s, and he is not only famous for his renowned FAs, like Bansousha (8c/V15) in 2001 and Kakusei (8c/V15) in 2007, but also for completing these committing boulders with few or no pads.

The Senso-ji temple in Asakusa. Photo: Colette McInerney

While most Japanese climbers today use pads, I did see a different culture of pads overall. Many climbers would come to the boulders with several smaller pads stacked smartly on their backs. I discovered how this pad setup played a role in functionality and space consciousness the day I visited Mitake, a popular bouldering area an hour outside Tokyo. I felt more and more self-conscious as I carried my four-foot-wide by five-foot-tall Mondo pad through four train connections. It wasn’t until I hit the final track that I spotted other climbers carrying pads, though smaller and more conservative, and I finally relaxed. In a country where efficiency and order are integral to life, I felt like I slowed down the entire train with my bulky, oversized pad.

After visiting a few Tokyo apartments, I could see how storing pads of this size would be precarious. Moving big objects on public transportation felt inefficient, and although some climbers do have cars, owning and operating a car in Tokyo is expensive. Many people carpool to climbing areas and use trains and public transportation for work during the week.

Though no one was rude to me about my clunky baggage on the train, my anxiety about inappropriate actions stemmed from another Japanese philosophy I was learning about: gyo-gi, the concept of being most polite. In day to day life, this means using certain language depending on who you are talking to and not eating or drinking in certain public places (the train stations don’t even have trash cans). In climbing, this translates to specific rituals. Clean the boulders of excessive chalk and tick marks after each climbing session. Always ask before climbing on a boulder that has people around it. Never step on someone’s pad with your street shoe—most Japanese climbers carry a small mat and towel to wipe their climbing shoes before stepping onto the rock or pad.

Climber, industry man, and friend Handa Yuta became my personal decoder when it came to understanding traits of Japanese climbing culture. Not only is Yuta an expert climber in his own right, but his work as a contributor at Lost Arrow, one of Japan’s top outdoor gear distributors, keeps him closely aligned with current happenings in the climbing scene. He explained the two paths of Japanese climbing: traditional style outdoors and pure difficulty indoors.

Toshi Takeuchi during his ascent of Asagimadara (8C/V15) in the Mizugaki forest. Photo: Colette McInerney

The traditional path emphasizes the style and ethics of an ascent. Yuta cited the recent send of Keita Kurakami and Yusuke Sato when they did the hardest multi-pitch trad line in Japan, Senjitsu-no Ruri (5.14a R/X, 250m, 7 pitches), on the granite spires of the 7,316-foot Mt. Mizugaki in April 2016. In an interview with Alpinist, Kurakami explains his motivation and ethics behind the bold ascent.

“Thirty years ago, strong pioneer climbers began to open some free routes without bolts. This cleanest style has been respected and performed in this area ever since the late 1980s. Nowadays, when someone will open a new route around here, they consider climbing style very seriously,” he said.

A few members of the arguably stronger young generation have taken a similar stance. In a recent Instagram post, Sachi Amma wrote about a boulder problem and stressed style over grade.

“This boulder called 上弦 (Jyo-gen) is V7 highball and crux move is at the very top. I tried with #nocrashpad style but I could not climb it. It was so scary,” he wrote. “Still hard to answer why I chose this style. Just all the experience resonate with me. At the same time it drops so many questions in me.”

This push toward climbing in a traditional way that is inherently more minimal, leads the modern-day climber on a more dangerous and mentally challenging path. The ascents of the past were done in those styles because of the constraints of their era, whether that be gear or ability. It forced a different perspective of these “hard” ascents, and it seems at least a few contemporary climbers are hoping to experience some of that phenomena.

Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s most famous tourist and shopping districts. Photo: Colette McInerney

The second path concentrates on hard ascents, with a focus on indoor climbing and competition. Similar to the U.S., the growth of climbing gyms has exploded in Japan over the last 10 years thanks in part to a bigger interest in bouldering and sport climbing. In the city of Tokyo alone, there are 50 gyms. The immense number of people in the metro area combined with a working culture—most have little or no vacation time and punch the clock five to six days a week—suggests the necessity of a huge gym culture.

Tokyo gyms range from brand new, bright, and shiny indoor spaces to old but well-kept facilities that resemble oversized woodies, stacked with steep angles and bad holds for the advanced climber. Many newer gyms offer only bouldering, but bigger facilities on the edge of the city have more space for taller walls, toproping, and lead climbing. I found that each gym had a core group of “membership” climbers who would climb together a few times a week, bring in new friends, and have snacks and tea during a session.

“Ropes are for old people; bouldering is what all the kids are doing. It’s mostly because of the accessibility; there aren’t much beginner-friendly trad climbs in Japan,” Naoya Naito told Climbing magazine a few years ago. Naito is a longtime climber, and he owns 10 climbing gyms in the Tokyo area. The accessibility of bouldering and indoor climbing has brought a boom in youth teams and comps. Yuta thinks that climbing’s inclusion in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will have an even greater effect on the rise of the youth and indoor climber.

“I think climbing being in the Olympics will definitely get more people focused on indoor climbing and competition,” he says. In his eyes, appropriating climbing into mainstream culture means that more new and youth climbers will focus on indoor and comps.

The popularity of climbing in Japan is the reason why climbing is in the Olympics in the first place. The International Olympic Committee vetoed climbing as an Olympic sport in 2013, but the host country of the Games is allowed to pick a few sports to include, and thanks to a broad appeal in Japan and internationally, climbing made it in.

Sasha DiGiulian warms up on a V4 at Ena. Photo: Colette McInerney

“We have good routesetters that are good at what they do. Good setting makes good climbers,” Toshi says, and I found the biggest difference between U.S. and Japanese gyms was the quality of the setting. Easy routes involved more than just power and strength, more than just taking one hold and reaching to the next. Japanese setting involved teaching a basic technique or style of climbing based on footwork, balance, and creative problem-solving skills. The setters mixed “advanced” holds, like bad slopers or giant volumes, in with better, more positive holds on beginner climbs. It became clear in the gyms of Tokyo that better climbing technique beats strength every time.

“The Japanese are not really that physically strong of climbers,” says Handa. “We don’t have the same amount of power as other climbers do.” Handa stands 5’5” and weighs about 130 pounds, which is slightly smaller than the average size for a Japanese man. His petite frame means he prioritizes hand and finger strength and footwork, instead of explosive, big movements. “Plus, the real secret behind insane finger strength… chopsticks,” he says with a laugh.

“I don’t think climbing is so different in Japan compared to other countries. We can find good training methods online, so everyone is able to try out these new trends,” Toshi says. “I think most Japanese climbers look up to competition climbing, because there are not as many rock climbers as gym climbers, and gym climbing is easier to understand for beginners.

Gym manager and filmmaker Iku Serata thinks there’s a trait inherent to the culture that turns Japanese climbers into crushers.

“These two aspects [physical and mental] are always mixed together so I don’t think I can talk about these separately,” she says. “Japan climbers train very hard. It means they are hard workers. They always feel the essence of shugyo from it. Historically, we believe in a virtue of hard work. Whether they are conscious or not, I think this thinking may exist on base of Japanese mind.” Shogyu is a philosophy wherein one can find enlightenment through training and toughening the body.

Maybe I didn’t find the one reason why Japanese climbers are so strong, or figure out the complicated subtleties of the culture, but I did see the principles of shugyo, gyo-gi, and omotenashi everywhere I went. Train hard, be polite, and offer hospitality—that’s enough to make anyone a better climber, on and off the wall.

A view of Mt. Fuji on the way to climb in Mizugaki. Photo: Colette McInerney

Japan Climbing Beta

Getting there and getting around

Fly to Tokyo because everyone should experience the world’s most populated metropolitan area. From there, you can reach both the Mitake bouldering area and Ogawayama via public transportation. “A combination of trains and a rent-a-car will expand your range,” local climber Nobuhiko Fukuda says. If planning a long trip to climbing spots around the country, rent a car. If escaping Tokyo for a few days, rely on trains. But when in Tokyo, use taxis. “Most train stations in Tokyo are labyrinths.”

When to go

Fall (October through early December) or spring (March through May). “Autumn will be the best season for both climbing and food (and sake),” Fukuda says. Most campsites close between December and the the end of April. Avoid the summer rainy season.

Where to stay

In Ogawayama, the mountain lodge Kimpu Sansou provides swanky accommodations, including breakfast, dinner, and an onsen (hot bath) for 6,800 yen per night per person (about U.S. $65). Rooms fill quickly, and the reservations website is in Japanese. Ogawayama’s campground, Mawarime Daira, provides toilets and coin showers for 700 yen per night per person (U.S. $7), and you can use the onsen at Kimpu Sansou for 400 yen (U.S. $4). The campground in Mizugaki costs 1,000 yen per night (U.S. $10).

Where to climb
Ogawayama, the hub of Japan’s climbing scene, is known for bouldering, but has sport, trad, and multi-pitch lines too. You’ll find it 120 miles west of Tokyo, in a valley littered with granite faces and blocks. For bouldering, local climber Handa Yuta recommends Two Monks (V10), Ooin-ru-kawanonagare, Bansousha (V15), Rampage, and Heaven’s Gate; for sport, Excellent Power (5.13a) and Ninja (5.14a); and for trad, Banana Crack (5.11d, 2 pitches) and Super Imjin (5.12b). Check out ogawayama.com for detailed information in English. Mizugaki, a less popular area, offers similar but arguably superior climbing just north of Ogawayama in the neighboring prefecture (a prefecture is like a Japanese province). Mitake has more high-quality bouldering and can be reached in two hours from Tokyo via train. You can rent pads for the riverside boulders in a store 50 meters from the Mitake train station.

What and where to eat

“Try okonomiyaki, a kind of Japanese pancake. No one should miss it. My favorite shop is named ‘Hassho’ [in Hiroshima]. The combination with beer or sake is nothing but perfect,” Fukuda says. Visit Fujimoto for the best grilled meat in Kawakami village, only 20 minutes from Mizugaki and Ogawayama. Kiyosato, a resort 40 minutes away, has more restaurants; try houto and soba noodles.

Best rest day

Onsen hot springs. Need we say more? “Try visiting Akihabara,” Fukuda says, referring to the Tokyo district. “It is a paradise if you love anime or manga. 

Remember to bring

Fall and spring get chilly, so pack warm clothes and a down jacket. Travel with cash, since few places take cards in the countryside.

Insider tips

People in cities like Tokyo and Kyoto typically speak English, but those in the countryside may not. English guidebooks are scarce as well, and most informational websites are in Japanese. Ask locals for help online and in person once there, but be polite and patient. Research local customs to avoid gaffes and offending people. There are, for example, multiple ways to address people. The most common way is to say their last name with san at the end; there is no tipping; and always remove your shoes in favor of slippers when entering a home. Also, “You should always ask before using someone’s mat (crashpad),” photographer Colette McInerney says. “And you should never step on anyone’s pad with your shoes on. This is considered big-time rude!”

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