barely mentioned and rarely visited by climbers, Japan, for all its punching weight on the international scene, is a unique winter climbing location obscured by myths about costs, access, topography, food and girls underpants.

japan is off the circuit for winter climbers – except the Japanese. how many climbers can name a single classic Japanese ice or mixed route? via Alpinist magazine and the pilot d’ors the world regularly oohs and ahhs over what Japanese climbers do, but interest and information on where they spring from is scant or ignored even though a century of Japanese alpinists have made important contributions to serious climbing. In parallel to the eastern Europeans hogging the former soviet states, Japanese teams have had the lions share of access to Tibet and China, and recently have been making waves in Alaska, Baffin and the Indian Himalaya. but unless your understand Japanese its all pretty inaccessible.

within Japan is a long history of alpine climbing built on top of a culture obsessed with going up mountains. that 80% of the country is mountainous, with cold temperatures coming from Siberia and dozens of peaks over 2000m its an obvious place for climbing to develop.

kaikomagatake japan ice winter climbing information

one of the homes of Japanese hard climbing: Kaikomagatakes Eastern faces and buttresses

as a travel destination Japan is a different story: mythology about prices, the cultural barrier and not being on many popular flight routes puts Japan outside many climbers ideas. Lonely Planet gives Japan only cursory attention. this is not a bad thing as it keeps the climbing areas uncongested, but it does mean dedicated climbers find it hard, with more than one big name climber writing the country off as ‘too hard’ – even when they’ve previously been to places like Kyrgyzstan (tho that may say more about their reliance on foreign organizers than the local logistics…). even the star climbers who do visit as part of their sponsorship deals don’t get far, tending to focus on restaurants in Tokyo between presentations at flagship stores than getting much time in the mountains. notable exceptions exist: Albert Leitchfried and Markus Bendler made it here a few years ago, and Will Gadd has dropped by, but the names of climbers who couldn’t get beyond the initial idea is long.

甲斐駒ケ岳 kaikomagatake close up

a closer look into the eastern routes on kaikomagatake

theres a reason for this beyond language, disorientation and time: the alpine climbing in japan is hard.

despite being a culture obsessed with convenience, Japan has very little of the roadside winter climbing found in Scotland, Europe and North America. yes, there is a huge amount of ice and mixed in Japan, but almost all of it is a day-long approach, usually with >1200m of height gain. getting good at ice in japan means getting good at lugging packs, bivvying and sorting logistics – all things that translate well to the greater ranges and all things that filter out the unmotivated.

japan winter climbing information yatsugatake

yatsugatake: the usual starting place for winter climbers. a mix of easy and nasty

Vanguard Japanese climbers tend to emerge from university climbing clubs where they are fostered with the classics of Japanese climbing, many of which involve long approaches, terrible rock, dodgy protection and lots of snow. the stereotype of an over-protective safety culture doesn’t extend to winter climbers, and an acceptance of suffering quietly on bitter alpine faces is a hallmark of serious Japanese climbers. in Japan there is rarely a warm pub scheduled in to the end of each trip – its more likely they will scratch on till the small hours, have a change of clothes waiting and eat and sleep on the first train back to Tokyo on the way in to work.

To get anywhere climbing in japan that’s simply what it takes.

likewise Japan has little of the ‘climbers scene’: theres no Ouray, Chamonix, Canmore or Aviemore where climbers congregate and bond. winter climbing in Japan is mostly lonely, self-sustained trips into uninhabited mountains, tho you can sometimes see the lights of trains in the valleys below, you are beyond their influence. away from the one or two standard climbing areas, the hard climbing locations are serious domains – routes are long, temps are low. tho ‘classic’ most of Japans celebrated routes see few visits a season, in part because of the time it takes to get in and out, and in part because winter climbing is spread across such a large and convoluted region.

ice climbing spring tanigawadake yunozawa

tanigawadake: late spring ice pack ‘schrund

the sort of climber who comes to japan is the type who wants serious climbing in barely known places. yes, theres plenty of introductory stuff to keep new converts happy for a week or two, but true Japanese alpinism – the stuff the Giri Giri Boys grew up on – is the higher alpine routes deeper in the mountains.

the differences from Europe and North America are the approaches (often longer and steeper – Japan has few ropeways anywhere near climbing areas), the crowds (even the popular areas are uncrowded), the formations (Japanese routes are more linked icefalls topping out on peaks and less escarpments with wedding cakes) and the style (less sporty crag-style ice, more pack-hefting ‘mountain’ routes). something in common with Europe in some places is the network of huts and lodges, and common to American climbing are the forested trails leading to complex ranges. Japan differs instantly from Scotland and Wales with the long windows of clear, cold weather, amount of snow, length of routes and height gain, but has something in common with the mixed element on complex rock formations. its been said by more than one climber that Japanese mountains in winter have similarities with the Tatras and Caucuses.

for japan you need to be ready for the cold. most climbing is above 1900m and days oscillate between about –5 and -35c on peaks that see little direct sun shine for months.  its not the coldest place on earth, but when most trips are multi-days on north sides of mountains its cold enough to not just shrug off. routes are often gnarly and involved, with a lot either very exposed to the continental or pacific winds or deep in gullies. possibilities for winter climbing include lots of ice ranging from Scottish style gullies and buttresses to European style pillars and Alaskan style alpine routes. dozens of old school aid routes await winter ascents, and esoteric link ups of long alpine routes are everywhere. in a short time you can climb a lot – if you know how.

organization-wise, Japan has a long-outdated reputation for being ultra-expensive, which stems from the ‘bubble years’ when they had money to burn. these days its not expensive if put into perspective with what you are paying for. transport runs reliably and on time between downtown Tokyo and remote trailheads, food is healthy and varied and accommodation is of a high standard. taxi drivers don’t rip you off, roads are cleared of snow efficiently, people are service oriented and things are designed to work. also, no one extorts you for dubious fees and entry permits (unless you include road tolls in that description…), you can camp almost anywhere, theres no rednecks, gypsies, or double pricing and no one wants to steal your stuff. in Hokkaido you can stay in 4 star hotels with hotsprings an hour from the ice, and its straightforward to get from the airports to the trailheads in about 3 hours.

despite stereotypes the Japanese eat more than instant noodles, seaweed and raw fish ovaries.

what big names like the Giri Giri Boys bring from their Japanese roots is a dedication to alpine climbing that is not based on trends, egos and big attitudes. being a culture that is careful in what it displays, world class alpinists develop quietly, taking quiet risks and seeing little fanfare. the attributes of respect, discipline, depth of vision and craftsman-like applications of skill are taken seriously in Japan.

and girls underpants in vending machines? yes its true, but like the ice climbing its not what you think.

reproduction without permission and acknowledgement is plagarism. write your own stuff. iceclimbingjapan2012