The metallic clink of climbing gear keeps me awake as we bounce along the narrow mountain road. The tricked out climber van’s defrost is running at full tilt to stop the cool morning air from fogging up the windshield. Even with our pre-dawn start, the hands on the clock near their way toward 7:30 a.m. “We aren’t going to get a spot”, my partner says to me with a slight head shake. I can hardly believe the statement. No way could a 40-car climber’s parking lot be filled so early on a Sunday morning. I mean, this is sport cragging we are talking about. As it would turn out, this was to be my first lesson in Japanese climbing culture, and there would be many, many more to follow.
The Japanese Way:
Life in Japan seems to be dominated by two main themes, the first being social etiquette. Polite manners, orderly conduct, and respectful efficiency are just some of the many unwritten societal rules that play a part in nearly all aspects of life, climbing included. The second is a ferocious dedication to all that one does. In Japan, there is little room for half-hearted efforts. With work as with climbing, the Japanese tend to put in long days and take little time away from their commitments.
We stroll along through the forest at a leisurely pace, enjoying the bird songs and bright green leaves of spring. The familiar weight of my climbing pack feels good and the uphill hiking pleasant after months of the Finnish flatlands. My partner, Sasaki-san, and I had met in-person for the first time less than 36 hours ago. A friend of a friend, Sasaki-san kindly offered to be my guide and liaison into the unknown world of Japanese climbing. The day’s objective, Horai, is arguably Japan’s most famous sport climbing area.
Arriving at a single-pitch sport climbing crag at 8:30 a.m. anywhere else in the world will almost surely get you first-dibs on any route you desire. In Japan though, it will put you about the middle of pack. I took in the scene before me; a dozen or so routes existed with a handful of them already hosting the day’s first challengers. There was already six rope teams on hand, and more arriving every minute. “Is it always this crowded?”, I ask. A friendly nod was my response.
Keeping with the codes of etiquette, after exchanging morning greetings with others at the crag, Sasaki-san lays a small tarp on the ground near the outskirts of the cliff’s clearing. Next, he unrolls a foam sleeping mat and places it on top. Looking around, I see many other similar setups. One, I note, even has two napping climbers on it. He motions for me to set down my gear and have a seat. The tarp, I will later come to understand, is an ingenious system used to keep the cliff clutter-free. All one’s personal belongings stay in single, confined area, eliminating the classic yard-sales and pack explosions that so often infect popular crags in North America.
Sasaki-san exchanges a few words, smiles, and bows with a team climbing a pocket-filled 5.9. He then comes to inform me that after these climbers, and the team of sleeping climbers, we will warm up on this route. “On really popular routes, people even write their names on a ‘waiting list’ at the base of the route”, Sasaki-san tells me. Polite, orderly, and efficient, even at the crag.
During the wait, Sasaki-san takes the opportunity to introduce me to some of his fellow climbers. I do my best to stay reserved, not wanting to unknowingly break some rule of conduct, but the warm greetings and sincere interest I receive melt away my initial hesitations. As the day progresses the rope teams begin to dissolve and more of a community feel emerges. Those who wish to climb more do so. Those who wish to rest and conserve energy for their projects, belay. Laughs are had, gear is shared, and the hours pass pleasantly. I begin to understand that for all its differences, at its core, the basic ideals of cragging – enjoying climbing in the company of others – remains the same. We all hike out, en mass, with the last hints of daylight.
On a Friday evening, one week later, I arrive back on the doorstep of Sasaki-san’s home. Being that the Japanese live in an extremely work-oriented culture, the only time for climbing is the weekend. Unfortunately, the forecast calls for rain everywhere within a 5-hour driving radius of Sasaki-san’s home. Not to be dissuaded, and even after a full Japanese work-week, we pack the van for another pre-dawn (4:45 a.m.!) departure. Our destination is an off-the-beaten-track area called Nabari. Known for its stiff grades and long, splitter cracks, it is an area that sounds right up my alley.
Sasaki-san informs me that this weekend will be a busy one at Nabari; a “hanami”, or sakura party, has been scheduled. During a few weeks each April, the whole of Japan is filled with the beautiful, pale-pink flowers of the sakura. The spectacle is celebrated by both gaijin and locals alike. A standard hanami usually involves meeting friends in a park, and sharing food, alcohol, and, of course, views of the cherry blossoms.
The group rendezvous at a convenience store not far from the cliff. Last-minute weekend supplies (beer) are purchased and the caravan departs. Hopes are high as the sun breaks through the clouds and reveals promising burst of blue sky. Though, with one look at the water-streaked wall from the parking lot, all these hopes are dashed. No matter, we are heading up anyways. In Japan, everyday you climb, you climb like it is your last. At the cliff, lines are scoped. Some are lead and some have top ropes set up on them. Wet rock and muddy climbing shoes become the standard complaints. After two desperate leads, I am thankful for all those wet cracks I climbed while living at the New River Gorge. In the end, the rain wins out. A heavy shower that moves in forces even the most committed to call an early end to the day. We head to a small, local park and establish camp.
After a quick dash back into town for a relaxing dip in an onsen, we return to camp and begin the festivities. As the rain pours down, the party continues, protected by two large tarps and fueled by good spirits (both in the personality and alcoholic respects). After a couple group sing-alongs of Country Road, I am one of the first to call it a night at 2:00 a.m. The Japanese are dedicated. In the morning, I awake to the sounds of voices and the pattering of raindrops. By 7:30 a.m. I am out of the tent, and one of the last to do so. Between rain showers, camp is broken down, and my new friends begin to depart.
On the way home, I join one of my new friends in a last-ditch attempt to find some dry rock at a bouldering area whose name translates to “Old, Beautiful Mountain”. Surprisingly, we are successful and get a few hours of granite crystal pitching in before obligations force us to call a close to our event-filled weekend.
While both the quantity and, even more impressive, the vast diversity of climbing that Japan has to offer should be enough to attract almost any climber to visit, it was the unique relationship between the social and climbing culture that truly captivated me, and set this experience apart from any other.