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.
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.
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.
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.
tanigawadake: late spring ice pack ‘schrund