FULL METAL ALPINISM: JAPAN IS NOT WHAT YOU THINK

simply put; the world knows almost zero about climbing in japan. even the most educated climbing geeks struggle to name a single route in japan, with even the names of japans peaks eluding them.

the mark of a climbing culture is what its members achieve out in the world of ‘big’ climbing – ie on vanguard routes where their climbing peers can evaluate just how good the climbing is – and tho Japanese climbers have a history of high end results, the climbing that formed them is largely unknown.

can’t read Japanese? then chances are Japan’s alpine climbing is a totally unknown world to you

a degree of this hole in the climbing worlds collective knowledge goes down to language; japans climbing information is mostly written in Japanese of course, but the real reason is the Japanese attitude towards climbing. the climbing industry is simply quieter in showing it. indeed Japan has sponsored climbers and significant producers of sponsoring companies, but the heroes of Japanese climbing are not athlete-celebrities telling us what to wear on Vimeo. so, in an attempt to answer the many emails iceclimbingjapan gets asking ‘what is Japanese alpine climbing all about?’ a condensed version is provided here.

Kaikomagatake: more than one climber has noted how its not what they expected of Japan’s mountains

first off, Japan has a lot of climbing. +/-80% of the country is covered in mountains, with dramatic topography hewn by a blend of volcanic, erosive and seismic activity that lends itself to rock types and formations that cover most climbing demands. japan has 21 mountains over 3000m with another 33 over 2500m, most with starting base levels below 1000m giving a lot of climbing in excess of 1500m height gain.

being a deeply featured landscape with profound weather conditions, Japan’s mountains are complexes of ravines and narrow ridges, hiding a huge area of ice and alpine potential. few peaks have an obvious set of faces and approaches, more often having dozens of options that follow an array of features deep into rarely visited regions. its normal for even the most-visited peaks to have entire faces and sides that go unaccessed for years.

approaches in Japan can be the decisive factor: steep, complex topography keeps Japan’s alpine objectives remote and esoteric, requiring more than just a passing degree of interest

walls

japan has about a dozen walls of +250m, with a handful reaching 450m. tho little of these rank as the common idea of big walls, most of them sit within alpine topography that makes them closer to an Alpen or Alaskan comparison than to Yosemite. huge approaches lead to exposed granite faces that go to summits via complicated routes. theres little of the developedment that surrounds famous wall areas in the US and Europe, most japanese walls are remote require total self-sufficiency.

rock

below Japans walls is a large cannon of multi-pitch routes dispersed across the entire country. routes between 3 and 12 pitches cover the huge amount of stripped faces from high alpine buttresses to the endless sea cliffs. routes are found in nearly every corner of Japan, with an impressive collection of 5.13 upwards routes put up by Japans core of hard climbers. Japan has relatively little of the focal valleys as found in Europe, being closer to the US style that centers climbing around peaks and the UK version of isolated crags. despite a huge amount of attention go to places like Ogawa-yama, most of Japans rock potential is untapped, with enormous possibilities in all across the country for new routes. even Mizugaki-yama on the back side of Ogawa-yama sees minimal attention considering the vast amount of rock of exceedingly good quality and easy access. if japan is known for any sort of climbing its bouldering, with guys like Dai Koyamada doing as much at home as he does around the world. every weekend finds a legion of pad-carrying boulderers jamming up the train carriages out to the bouldering areas, draining the 7-11s of coffee and onigiris on the way.

ice

that Japan is barely known as an ice destination is an anomaly. with the right climate, latitude and topography it should be obvious to anyone looking at a map that Japan ticks all the boxes. from remote valleys and alpine faces, to road-side cascades and ice-park style areas, ice can be found all over the upper half of the archipelago between November and April. as an untapped repository of ice routes, Japan conceals areas comparable to the famous locations in Europe and Nth America with comparable areas to Lofoten, Hyalite, Alaska and parts of the Alps – minus the crowds.

classic alpine

the connected alpine routes of japans high ridges and buttresses are an entire culture onto their own, having been the center of Shinto and Buddhist activity for centuries. even the hard technical routes are usually approached to some extent via ancient trails that lead to shrines and ascetic practice areas, with some peaks like Kaikomagatake retaining some of the active Shugendo facilities.

classic mixed ridges and gullies flank dozens of Japans alpine peaks, ranging from suicidal lines to straightforward semi-technical routes.

the Yatsugatake massif: one of several centers for Japanese Alpinism. photo: Kylie H.

mixed

more than once Japanese mixed has been likened to Scottish mixed – tho with better weather and more reliable temperatures. strafed and rimed rock on exposed buttresses with no bolts are all over Japan. this tho belies the ‘athletic mixed’ climbing also found yet barely developed that awaits exploration across the winter-affected regions. volcanic geology and cold conditions results in endless extreme rock formations that are connected with sections of ice. much of it is unclimbable in summer, making for true mixed lines.

culture

Japanese climbing culture is relatively free of the bickering and aggressive navel-gazing found elsewhere. the culture as a whole is both respectful of climbing as a pursuit, and tolerant of new ideas on style. perhaps the absence of industry pressure to define ‘climbingness’ alleviates the egos that flare over matters of style and apparent ethics.

despite having climbing concurrent to the rest of the world, Japanese climbing is still very ‘Japanese’. a degree of recent climbing styles have been copied from the west with many Japanese climbers having travelled to climb, but much of the base culture is deeply rooted in Japans own attitude to the mountains.

Japan’s mounatins have been active places for centuries, going into and climbing them has a cultural element different to the West

even amongst teenage boulderers, an attitude of organic attachment exists to the mountain geography – for many Japanese being in the mountains is as important as what happens in the mountains, and the sense of being out there is to be cultivated with certain ways of doing things. the Japanese don’t try to extend their ultra-urban attitudes into the mountains by bringing home with them, they recognize ‘mountain time’ as being almost the default setting. this is noticed in all sorts of ways, from the attention given to eating when in the mountains, to the distinction between where the mountains begin and civilization ends. many Japanese climbers have distinct psyches they switch into when in the mountains, sometimes seen as a ‘purer’ version of the self, with appetites and reactions allowed to flow more organically than the weekday Tokyo personas they so dilligently maintain.

the future

international attention on Japan as a climbing destination is still a fair way off. Japan is not a 3rd world destination needing a hand from the western climbing industry to develop and exploit its potential, and nor is it a place with nothing else to offer. Japan is more than happy to remain obscure, with its climbing available only to the few willing to find it. foreign interest indeed exists, with a small number of motivated climbers dropping by each year happily knowing they dont have to compete with hustlers and crowds to climb what they want. japan is free of difficult redtape, extorionate fees and the climbers bubble that exists elsewhere. despite world-class climbing the usual accompaniments that go with it are happily absent and for those who like that its a true alternative.

being able to climb hard with minimal hassle gets rarer and rarer every year, making Japan an ever-more valuable destination to escape the pressure of a climbing world saturated with exploitation and the race-for-the-prize. that entire vallys of alpine climbing remain unspoken of and intact speaks as much for the blinkeredness of the worlds climbing media as it does for Japan’s ability to keep things well managed despite trends elsewhere.