TLDR: Bouldering standards in Tokyo are high, and the famous local problems demand not only technical mastery, but also an all-encompassing readiness. If you decide to come, be prepared to try hard. If you come prepared though, you may yet find the rock willing to negotiate.
I’ve long heard that Japan’s outdoor bouldering scene was steep in every sense of the word – grading, demands and skill. This year, I’ve finally found an opportunity to verify this for myself. I mean, what’s the worst that could happen, right?
So this year, I took a trip to Tokyo for bouldering from 20 – 28 September with a party of 4. This travel window landed us over a local long weekend holiday period and also a seasonal transition from Autumn to Winter.
This was good news for us tropical nuts – temperatures were mild (between 15 – 25 degrees, most days) and seasonal rains were giving way to the cooler and drier conditions, just before Winter’s embrace had fully settled.
We brought our own climbing gear, personal belongings and 1 crash pad each. In total, we each had about 2 medium bags and a pad. Surprisingly, all our luggage could just about fit into the back of our rented SUV. Well, I say “just about” to mean that a 3.5-hour drive out of Tokyo was still tolerably comfortable despite the packed interior.
Our travel party comprised of friends from the Singapore climbing community – we all knew each other, and in fact, I was a late addition to the crew. Randall, Kai and Bryan were all established climbers in their own right – each bringing a different flavour, sense and interpretation of climbing to the table. Among us, we had 2 sport climbers, 1 (national) speed climber, 3 almost-exclusively-boulderers, and 1 very awesome photographer.
Perhaps the most crucial element that allowed us to thoroughly enjoy our time in Tokyo was having a local Japanese friend-in-climbing: Ishida-san. He is a passionate boulderer, Tokyo local, and all-around nice guy. Without him, our sausage party train would most likely have run off its tracks within hours of our arrival.
Ishida-san’s local knowledge, infinite generosity and kindness, brought us a range of priceless experiences, both on and off the rocks. We owe him many thanks for being our tireless interpreter, guide, host and friend. Every pearl of laughter, every shutter snap, every golden moment was gifted by him as much as by Japan itself.
Leg 1: Hello, Ogawayama
Ogawayama valley park is home to a wide collection of famous local boulders, some of which have been cemented in the Japanese YouTube’s bouldering hall-of-fame as being “must-try” benchmark problems for any boulderer in Japan looking to make a name for him or herself.
On this note, even if you can’t complete a benchmark problem, I would highly recommend that you “must touch” them. Interacting with these problems can help to build an appreciation for the intricacies of outdoor bouldering, and show you what your next step in mastery must be.
At the very least, it will highlight your inadequacies and foster mad respect for the local legends who first established these bouldering areas and lines.
Our first day in Ogawayama was greeted by fog and drizzles, so we spent it hiking through the damp valley forests, visiting and identifying suitable bouldering areas for our first climb in the coming days. Even in the rain, the stoic blocks of granite we visited appeared majestic and full of mysteries that whispered of dreams and personal sacrifice.
Connecting with nature through bouldering is one of my favourite things to do. Even though I can’t travel as often as I’d like, climbing trips like these to Tokyo never fail to stir up something inside me that both calms and excites, inspires and marshalls my spirit.
Since we couldn’t get up to much climbing, we spent the rest of the day settling into our accommodations: Kinpusan Sanso, a mountain park inn nestled in lush Kawahake valley; and exploring the valley’s nearby amenities and restaurants.
Our first night in the valley passed in a blur of colours, vending machines, ready-to-eat supermarket snacks and bentos, finally ending at a table-top BBQ dinner restaurant, locally famous for serving only fresh produce from the valley farms.
One of my favourite things to do (like, ever) is to go through the public bath (onsen) experience in Japan. After a day of hard climbing or long travelling, nothing comes close to the sensation of soothing your aches and tired joints with a long and comforting soak in a hot tub.
While living in the mountains, we had the opportunity to take part in the onsen experience daily. Even though we have some commercial onsen spa facilities available in Singapore, they have always felt somewhat complicated in comparison to their simpler Japanese counterparts. The essential onsen experience is meditative, restorative and above all, simple. I regularly find myself yearning for that sense of simplicity back home.
Bouldering in Ogawayama
The shady forests of the Kawahake valley have sheltered many of its boulders from both the harsh heat of summer and relentless seasonal rain and snow. As a result, the gradual erosion and gentle weathering have sculpted many of their boulders to reveal stubborn crystals, refined feature edges into delicate lines and smoothed fissures into well-formed finger cracks.
Some boulders bear features with the precise purpose of facilitating climbing. It’s as if the rock was formed and gifted by a benevolent climbing deity – puzzles and games to entertain her ardent believers and fans. Even boulders that appear featureless at first slowly yield their secrets to the numerous patient, persistent and faithful.
We noticed several distinctly subtle features of bouldering in Ogawayama:
- Good footwork and technical skills are a must. Footholds in this region often take the form of fingernail-sized crystals, knuckle-sized bumps, or contoured friction dishes that require adept foot skills to make use of. Many intermediate to advanced problems were literally impossible to start or complete if you could not master their crucial foot placements.
- While Ogawayama has a very good collection of boulders in a variety of styles, most problems in this region seem to range between highly technical slab climbs, challenging vertical face climbs, and more tricky slightly overhanging faces. You’ll find many of them requiring high levels of finger-tip strength, good body positioning control and divine footwork. Compared to other regions, Ogawayama does not contain a wide selection of high and steep boulders or climbs that cross many big swooping features.
- The Japanese grading system overlaps with both the Hueco V-grade and Fontainbleau grading systems. The three systems are not identical, but they compare similarly. However, we generally found the local grading systems to be a little on the stiff side. I.e.: most climbs will feel harder than they are graded.
- Boulders frequently have many problems packed onto the same wall surface, and some of them have specific rules about including or excluding certain rock features. The official bouldering guide will be your best asset here.
- Ask a local boulderer if you’re in doubt – they’re usually a very friendly bunch! Speaking Japanese would be extremely helpful for getting around, but most local climbers you meet at the crags can speak some amount of English and are very happy to help you get oriented.
- Sharing the bouldering space at a boulder is a special social ritual. When joining an existing group at a boulder, it’s not only considered good etiquette to volunteer your crash pad for use (instead of trampling all over someone else’s) but also to address the climbers in waiting before approaching the wall. Think about it as an acknowledgement of the informal queueing system, and being polite and mindful that someone else has put in the hard work to clean up and prepare the bouldering area before your arrival.
- Always brush down the handholds and footholds before and after your climb. Brushing before helps to ensure that you climb on rock that is in the best conditions possible. Brushing after you have completed your climb shows that you’re considerate towards other climbers waiting their turn and mindful about minimising environmental impact from chalk marks.
Verdict: Back To School
We were thoroughly schooled in footwork in Ogawayama. Having spent most of our days bouldering indoors and training in gyms, we had neglected to practice and refine our skills – not enough, and definitely not to the level that these boulders demanded.
Our first days in Ogawayama were spent largely acclimatising ourselves to the demands of bouldering on granite. We repeated as many easy problems as we could find, taking care not to slip or slide off either handholds and footholds in order to preserve precious skin and shoe rubber. Slowly but surely, we found our feet and started exploring more challenging intermediate climbs.
We tried our hands (and feet) on local classics like Ahab Sencho (2 Kyu, ~V5 / 6c+), Right Spire (3 Kyu, ~V3-4 / 6A+), visited the Ogawayama Jump (3 Dan, V10 / 7C+) and sampled as many boulders daily as we could before we moved on to the second leg of our trip.
If you enjoyed reading about this, stay tuned for the second part of this series.
Let’s Go Bouldering
From 7 November to 1 December this year, BM Co-Founder Jansen Ko and Team BM will be travelling to Khon Kaen for a bouldering trip, and you are invited! Join us and boulder outdoor with us.
Located in Northeastern Thailand, Khon Kaen city hosts a large field of sandstone boulders that offer a range of problems for beginners to advanced climbers. Local club members and international visitors alike have been impressed and inspired by its nearly limitless potential for high-quality bouldering.
This bouldering trip will allow you to revel in the experience of outdoor climbing with friends, supported by the experienced of Team BM staff while you soak in the peaceful and refreshing vibes of Thailand’s lush forests.