TLDR: Just as the type of rock, size and features on boulders change between locations, so too does the nature and style of climbing. Mizugaki hosts some tall, powerful and beautiful boulders that demand a different form and level of mastery. Spoiler alert: they’re all still hard as week-old dried sushi rice. Better get scrubbin’ if you mean to be crushin’!
Between the Peaks
Oagawayama sits comfortably among its closely nestled siblings. In fact, Mount Mizugaki lies adjacent to Ogawayama, casually peaking out just beyond a lush valley fold. Together, the surrounding peaks form an undulating blanket of green speckled with spires of grey and brown.
Looking across the valley, I imagine children playing under a huge and rich green bedsheet draped across low-hanging laundry lines – frozen in time, each crest and fold full of happiness and hope.
This region is home to much more than bouldering. Throngs of nature-loving locals and tourists visit these mountain parks regularly for their hidden lakes, day hikes, magical moss forests and peaceful forest trails. We had the opportunity to visit some of them on this trip too.
Before leaving Ogawayama, we took a rest day trip out to one of the numerous picturesque ponds (lakes, really, by Singapore’s standards) in the valley. Shirakomaike lake is a popular local attraction and hosts its own lodge with a seasonal cafe.
On our arrival, the weather was a little overcast, with intermittent drizzles, but our mood was light and lifted by the lush greenery. After days of boulder-wrestling, taking a leisurely walk through a temperate forest boardwalk was a welcomed change.
The air was fresh and cool as we walked through the forest, towards the central pond and lodge. Periodic drizzle lightly teased our jackets through the canopy, echoing our footsteps on the boardwalk. The dampness of the mossy undergrowth tingled our lungs, sparking playfully with each occasional breeze that swept through the forest.
It was peaceful. We felt light. What a treat to be away from the city.
Just as our crew arrived at the Inn, the rain conspired to improve our mood and grew heavier. Perfect timing and conditions to settle down for a hot cup of cocoa and chat about the coming days in the valley.
I could go on about the thoughtful cosiness of the Inn – how the oak and maple interior artfully paired with some cleverly curated pieces of vintage and modern furnishings to invoke a sense of homeliness that embraced incoming visitors and enhanced every sip of our cocoa, but it was soon time to go.
We would have a chance to explore the valley again, on another rest day during the second leg of our journey into the adjacent region of Mount Mizugaki. On that day, we would make an attempt to scale the mountain itself.
Leg 2: Onward, to Mizugaki
For the next leg of our journey, we booked into Marusho Ryokan, a charming double-storeyed 5-room traveller’s hotel located 30 minutes down the road from our mountain lodge in Kinpusan Sanso. The was constructed in traditional Japanese style, with a modest bath and a large communal dining hall.
We were greeted warmly by the elderly owners on our check-in day, and no effort was spared to make us feel welcomed and part of the family. Over the course of our stay, I’ve learnt to derive a good measure of comfort from the owner’s deep booming voice and his wife’s tireless and meticulous conscientiousness. If I had stayed any longer, I would have started growing attached to this place.
We didn’t have to travel very far from our accommodations to the Mizugaki climbing areas. Well-built and maintained mountain passes kept Kawakami town connected to its adjacent valleys, making it a breeze for visitors like us to plan our travels and navigate between attractions.
Each morning, we would drive out to the Mizugakiyama Natural Park’s main car park of choice, unload our crash pads and take a quick hike uphill to the crag. There are in fact several car parking spots to choose from, depending on our bouldering destination.
This is good news for anyone looking to visit during the high season because of the wide range and styles of climbing available in the valley – from sport to trad, aid to bouldering. There is something for everyone!
Our days in the mountains were spent distributed between visiting several prominent boulders and classic testpieces. We tested ourselves on them – physically and mentally now a little wiser from our earlier “education” in Ogawayama.
Even though everyone in our crew tried hard, the boulders demanded more than effort. Frequently, they would present crux moves or sequences that required strong shoulders and even stronger fingers, or body awareness and control that was out of this world.
In this corner of the bouldering galaxy, you need to struggle against a little more than just steep walls; limited footholds increased the difficulty of available handholds, and demanded that every movement on the rock was supported strongly through available points of contact.
In contrast with Ogawayama, the problems around Mount Mizugaki were indeed more physically demanding, but the movements were also frequently more athletic in nature and aesthetic in appearance. Several problems wowed us twice – first on inspection, and again on participation.
Some of my personal highlights included:
- Indra (V9)
- A line of delicate features with a sketchy start, punctuated by a pocket, mono and crimp ledge before a modest top-out. It looked inviting because of how clean the wall looked. Climbing it felt like the closest thing to being Spiderman.
- Ashura (V7)
- An aesthetic vertical crack that slashes a boulder face, flanked by dimples, bumps and tiny features, and capped off with one of the most desperate top-outs we’ve ever seen. The hardest part is linking the parts up in one go while keeping a calm mind.
- Hibi no Kurashi / Sunset (V5/6)
- A tricky traverse off a sloping lip from right to left, featuring a series of continuous heel-hooks and gravity-defying side-leaning.
- Kotoba / The Order (V7/8)
- This punchy problem made us feel like we were wrestling our way up from under the belly of a beast. The modest edges and continuous tension required to sustain its series of 7 compressions taught us some good lessons in strength allocation and heel-hooking.
- Mono / Things (V6)
- You know about that gym problem that seemed really impressive when the resident punter hopped on and nailed the dyno? Yup, this is it; except it’s also a little more tricky than it appeared.
- Straight Face (V7):
- Short, punchy and crimpy – just the way I like it. This was the problem I finished off the trip with. The problem consisted of a series of moderate ledges, capped off with a burly mantle on a beefy right-handed pinch. Could you blame me for having a soft spot for this one?
This bouldering trip has been a wonderful experience for me. The rocks have taught me a lot about skill mastery and strength, and my failures have generously shown me the paths I must travel in order to continue progressing.
I completed only a handful of boulders at V7 on this trip, and I was surprised by how ineffective my current levels of finger strength and footwork mastery were. Even though I’ve bouldered outdoors in other parts of the world, this latest experience was by far the most humbling and illuminating. I have much to learn and to be thankful for.
The level of bouldering difficulty in Japan is high, matched only by the dedication and near-obsession of the local bouldering community. Many climbers dedicate seasons (months) at a time to honing their skills in order to progress on their chosen projects. Any progress they gain has truly been earned and duly paid for.
Still, as arduous as the process might sound, there is frequently much enjoyment and celebration among bouldering crews in the area. Even when each group is mindful of their surroundings and careful not to infringe on other visitors’ comforts, they are generally always supportive, encouraging and quick to share in anyone’s success or defeat.
Some dedicated local boulderers seem to have embraced the long process of bouldering progression, and they seem to have turned that into a craft. Watching them work their project is like watching a craftsman in action. Regardless of their current skill level, they approach their challenge with a firm commitment to do their best, tampered by a gentle awareness of not being reckless or wasteful with their time or efforts.
Even if they do not make progress, they insist on learning from and not repeating their mistake. Each attempt forges ahead with a focus that I have seldom witnessed in any bouldering gym. I reckon we could learn a thing or two from them about this.
In total, this trip to Ogawayama and Mt. Mizugaki only lasted 10 days, but it was packed to the brim with good experiences and vibes. I’m looking forward to bouldering outdoors in Japan again. I’m also looking forward to earning those V8 and 9s. Till then, it’s time to train again.
As a promise to return, I’ve written a haiku inspired by my time on the rocks. Here it goes:
Find your hands and feet
Let what stays guide what must move
Where should my heart go?