The transition from Lo Manthang to Tokyo was epic. In 48 hours we’d gone from a town in which the entire water supply was frozen to a city where every toilet seat was heated. The contrast is hard to fathom and seeing the two polar opposites of humanity in such a short space of time was difficult to comprehend. It’s still hard to comprehend that 2 members of humanity could live such vastly different lives. I wondered what a cave dwelling resident of Chhosa would make of the never ending flashing lights of downtown Tokyo.

But arriving in a first world country certainly had advantages. Being able to bathe in an onsen was great and the first couple of days were spent in a Ryokan which had very hot natural hot spring water flowing directly into a private bath. It felt very luxurious even though it was one of the cheapest we could find.



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These little guys were on our pillows – attention to detail!

That was the second big shock: price. From $4 a night for both of us to a minimum of $80 a night was a hard thing to swallow. Japan isn’t a cheap place to visit. We’d known that, but facing it when your benchmark is Nepal/India made it even more painful. We ate a lot of instant noodles!

Tokyo is sort of like any big city. It has the quiet suburban streets and then it has the louder than life I’m going to shout until my throat bleeds central area of Shiobara and Shinjuku. It’s a real melee of the old and the new. Between extremely narrow houses built 3 or 4 stories high there are huge open spaces with ancient temples. The number of temples is astounding, probably a higher density of temples than pubs in Norwich. It’s a real novelty to see the intermingling of the ancient and the modern, especially where the contrast is as obvious as it is in Japan.

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Downtown Tokyo isn’t all flashing lights

One of the first things we noticed after arriving in Japan was just how clean it is. It is perhaps the cleanest place I’ve ever seen. The next thing I noticed was the signs. There are signs everywhere. For everything. Walking through the airport terminal everything was signposted in extreme detail. I can’t remember when it first dawned on us, but it appeared as if Japan was a nation of OCD sufferers. It’s as if every single function, product, or service has it’s own supremely proud product manager, who wants nothing more in the world than to make sure his/her function is as best as it can possible be. This might be a little hard to understand so here are a few examples:

1. Walking along a residential street in Tokyo on our first day I looked up to a balcony and saw some washing hanging on a line. There was several shirts on hangers on a line. But every shirt was exactly the same distance from every other shirt. It was definitely no coincidence  just an insight into the mentality of the Japanese. (I thoroughly endorsed it by the way)

2. Driving in a foreign country can sometimes be hard. I’d never had a problem and Japan was only mildly more difficult because there aren’t many signs in English once you leave the main cities. But it was whilst driving that I noticed some little things which reaffirmed the OCD psyche.

a. I kept seeing signs that had a corner symbol on them along with a number. I saw several of these signs at which point it dawned on me what they were. They weren’t speed limit signs! The number on each sign was the radius of the corner you were approaching. Imagine. It’s genius. You’re driving along an unknown road and up ahead is an unknown corner. How fast can you go around it? Well, if you know it’s radius you’re quids in. Once you know you can drive 100km/h around a 65m radius corner you know that (ceteris paribas) you can drive round every 65m radius corner at the same speed! Amazing.

Does it encourage speeding or safe driving? Photo not mine.

 b. All drivers know what tends to happen when they round a corner… they come a little closer to either the inside or outside line. Well, when you’re roads are narrow and you’re going into a blind corner you don’t want to come around it to find you’re a bit too close to the centre line and so is the person coming the other way. So the Japanese have a solution! Of course they do. When the road starts to bend they put chevrons on the edges of the line, so visually it forces you to stay centres between the lines. I mean, who thought of that? And then who implemented it? It’s a great idea in my opinion.

3. Navigating the Tokyo subway can be confusing. I think if you come from a subway serviced city then you have some familiarity with the whole thing and it’s a bit easier, but the Tokyo subway has taken it to another level to help people find their way AND make their journeys more efficient. When you change lines there are signs telling you how many metres it is to the next platform. Most Londoners know that the change at Green Park between Piccadilly and Jubilee is a LONG walk, and that you can often skip it depending on your journey by going to Westminster. Well, I only learned this through experience, by measuring how long the changes take and then optimising my journey to account for any extra stops. But that’s me and I’m a bit OCD myself. So you can only imagine my excitement when I realised they do this for everyone in Japan! What this means is that when you are debating which station to change at, you can look at the distance between stations as well as the time it takes to get between stations (also signposted on every line!) and make an informed decision. Yeah, I was really into it.

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Everything you could possibly need to know

Furthermore, for lovers of next level efficiency, it’s always important to board a train in the carriage which will result in you being close to the exit point at your destination. Londoners do this through experience. But the Japanese have handy charts in every singe underground station showing which carriages to board so that you can ensure you are at the optimal place for either an exit or for a line change. Again, I was so into it.There are many examples like this which we came across and they all hinted at a very special mentality, one which I hadn’t come across in my previous travels.

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You don’t need to speak Japanese to understand this!

After not climbing for 2 weeks in Nepal I was getting rather desperate so Em and I planned to head out to some of the more famous bouldering and climbing areas to try and get in shape for our arrival in Australia. All we needed was transport and some guidebooks. Transport was fairly easy to remedy, although horrifically expensive but we justified it by sleeping in the car and telling ourselves the budget then covered accommodation AND transport. The guidebooks proved less easy to find. Well, that’s not entirely true. We found them in a climbing gym, but we didn’t understand a single word of them. This was quite a shock, although perhaps in hindsight it shouldn’t have been. Searching for information on the internet was similarly difficult because it was all in Japanese. The only resource which had some decent info was the blog of Jonas Wiklund. On there we found some general directions and figured if we could find crags then we could find routes, especially if they were bolted.

Upon arrival we got news that the classic bouldering areas of Ogawayama was under snow and going there would be a silly idea. We knew this was a risk of being in Japan so early in the season but this was how the trip planned out. Mizugake was a possible contender depending on weather, but the only area info online was for a sector that we couldn’t go to for access reasons. The other sectors either didn’t have topo’s or were in Japanese only guidebooks. Being somewhat desperate to get out on the rocks we headed out to Mitake. We knew how to get to the rocks (thanks to thousand cranes) and we also knew that pad hire was possible. A recipe for success.

Mitake

Mitake has never been sold as the most amazing bouldering. It’s very convenient, being close to Tokyo, and it’s only a short walk down to the riverbed where the boulders lay. We arrived on a Friday afternoon and the pad hire shop was closed so we pushed on padless. We came across one other climber who didn’t speak a word of English but was happy to share his pad. We did a bit of climbing but it was nothing special. I was climbing like a sack of rice drenched in saki and my skin was similarly soppy. Nepal really had taken away any semblance of form I had picked up after 2 weeks in Hampi.

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Good morning world! We camped down near the boulders, probably illegally.

Mitake is a very small bouldering area, with several mostly small boulders spread in a 1km stretch of a riverbed. The boulders are above the water most of the time, but the combination of water washed boulder and a massive overuse of the crags have rendered a lot of problems very polished. The one large boulder in Mitake is the ninja boulder and the easiest way up is the classic V5, supposedly the most climbed v5 in Japan. It shows. The other problems on the boulder start at v9 and go up to v11/12, but they are made of up only 3 or 4 straight up lines and then traverses into those lines.

As a bouldering destination Mitake is great to have nearby. It’s not a destination worth travelling to, but I’d been under no impression that it was. It was simply good to be able to climb a little and move on rock. So our fleeting session on Friday afternoon hadn’t excited us greatly but I was keen to get back out on Saturday with some pads and try to do as much as possible.

Saturday morning was a completely different story. Never have I seen such a density of climbers around single boulders. Even the small 2.5m high boulders had crowds swarmed around them, as people flailed around on the ultra smooth rock. If there was one thing we definitely hadn’t needed that morning was bouldering pads, every boulder had an indoor level of foam all around it. Oh well, live and learn. We waited our turns and started warming up, but the combination of slick rock, cold temps, and bad skin made it hard. We sampled several of the smaller boulders and there were good moves to be found, but eventually we made the inevitable journey to the Ninja block.

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Early morning – before it got too busy

The previous day I’d done the V5 without a pad and today there were about 20 pads under the boulder. There were even more people! The scene was unlike anything I have ever seen. The issue was that every line crossed over every single other line, so the waiting time per go was unbelievable. Four individual problems were being attempted, Kani (a left to right traverse finishing in the V5), Mushi, a straight up V11 that started in the middle of the boulder, the V5, and another V9 ish thing.

So all 4 problems overlap in some way, meaning that only 1 person in the mob could climb at any one time. With 30+ climbers this means that it could be nearly an hour between attempts if everyone was quick. During the whole afternoon I saw a guy have only 2 goes on the traverse line. I just couldn’t get my head around it. It meant working moves was almost impossible, but after getting far too cold I decided I couldn’t deal with the take a ticket climbing system and just nipped in to try some moves as soon as one person fell off and the next person was chalking up. It wasn’t really my scene to be honest. In addition to the many climbers flailing around there was an entourage sat in camp chairs with portable heaters. It’s hard to imagine that these people had all commuted from Tokyo for an afternoon’s bouldering. They had enough kit to be on an expedition to Greenland.

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I’m the ignorant green hoody walking on the pads!

I’ve been bouldering for about 12 years now and I’ve seen many things, but I’ve never seen a scene where a sea of crash pads are effectively kept vacant at all times. All the people who were queuing didn’t stand waiting, ticket in hands, on the pads. No, they stood either on bits of carpets just off the pads or on the ground (sand – slightly wet) itself. I don’t know if it was politeness gone crazy, or some other cultural thing that I completely missed, but I always thought bouldering pads were for keeping your shoes clean. Fair play if you have dirty feet or there’s 10 people and 1 pad, but that wasn’t the case. I hope I didn’t offend anyone by standing on the edge of their pad whilst waiting my turn.

Eventually my turn did come and I had a burn on the v10 traverse. I made it through the slick slopers by a combination of luck and complete overuse of power reserves. My feet slipped off, my sequence was basically non existent, and by the time I reached the v5 end section I was feeling both embarrassed  a little pumped, and my fingers were cold. Still, it was none of these things that caused me to fall off. It was the fact that the rock texture is close to glass (think raven tor – but worse), and even my supposedly sticky anasazi’s can’t do all the work. As I reached up at the final semi tricky move, the applause of a 30+ crowd already ringing in my ears, I slipped off and with that slip I was done for the day. I wasn’t particularly exhausted, I just couldn’t be bothered to wait another hour to have a go.

Mitake was an interesting experience. It was great to actually go climbing on rock, but it’s not an international destination. Every one knows this, so I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s not very good or particularly vast. It is what it is. Bouldering on rock within an easy commute of Tokyo. That’s pretty great in itself. International visitors probably don’t go there because they go to the good areas like Ogawayama, Mizugake, and Horai. But that wasn’t an option for us due to the weather, so simply being able to climb was satisfaction enough.

Fortunately, Mitake wasn’t the only rock we managed to climb on in Japan. We were battling the weather, both at a macro and a micro level, so certain areas were under snow and other areas were simply doused in rain. We thought we’d take a drive over to Horai, albeit without a guidebook, to do a bit of sport climbing. Thousand Cranes described the parking lot and I figured if we got there we’d follow our noses to the crag and then I could simply pick lines based on what looked reasonable. It’s worked in the past!

Horai

We didn’t know anything about Horai other than there was lots of climbing and we’d seen some cool pictures online. We drove to the location of the campsite and arrived very late in the night. It was raining heavily, the ground was sodden, and we weren’t sure if we were pitching the tent in someones garden. When we woke up we still weren’t sure, and it continued to drizzle. We packed up the tent, readied ourselves to leave, and then we suddenly saw a guy come out of the house/shack in whose garden we were sure we’d camped. It turns out that we were at a campsite and the campsite owner not only knew what climbing was, he knew what bouldering was! Winner! In very, very, very broken English (mainly hand gestures) he described how we could get to one of Dai Koyamada’s crags. We paid our dues and furtively set off.

Horai is a pretty spectacular place. A reservoir encircled by thick forest and rock rising up out of the forests gave us hope we were in the right place. There is only one tiny road that traverses the edge of the reservoir and when you reach the end of it you have to turn around. As far as we could tell the old chief who lives at the campsite is the only person up there. He’s got quite a spectacular view.

As we slowly tried to reassemble the hand gestures we’d been given, all of a sudden a tiny van appeared behind us, at quite some pace. We moved over to let it pass and then we realised it was the old chief. He gestured for us to follow him and off we went. He led us up to a bouldering area, parked up, got out, and then pointed out all the boulders. What a legend. That’s the way to find rock. And what rock it was. Again, my geology let’s me down, but it was steep, insanely pocketed limestone. It was quite unique. The pockets were vastly different in size and the boulders ranged from steep to roof. I’m pretty sure we came across one of Koyamada’s hard problems, but I’m not 100%. Unfortunately for us, the rock was wet. The rain had been too heavy and the forest was holding all of the moisture in the air. So whilst we’d managed to find some cool looking boulders, in a very random location, no climbing was to be had. If someone reading this knows where we were and what the problems were then I’d love to find out more. Google maps shows us as being here, and the bouldering was in the riverbed, just below the road where there was 1 parking space in the forest.

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Another random boulder we found in a different area. Hard to see but there is a stunning line on the prow.

We were quite psyched to find some rock and so we pushed forward in search of the sport climbing. Thousand Cranes led us to the car park with only a minor error, and from here I was confident we’d find the crags. How wrong I was. The car park is nestled deep in a lush valley, and the path away from it forms a hike up to a temple. I wasn’t totally despondent, but I didn’t set out with a rucsac. We headed off on a recce mission into the unknown. We came across some pretty amazing features, including a very cool riverbed that was formed out of near horizontal sheets of rock. I guess it must be a lava trail because of the way it looked, but it was very cool and unlike anything I’ve seen before. Pressing on we eventually found the temple, which was more of a rock cave with lots of small statues in it. I have no idea what we were looking at, but it was a fun adventure none the less. The path had taken us up some very steep and very rusty ladders, eventually leading us to a big arch of rock. I half expected to see bolts but nothing, perhaps because of it’s proximity to the holy site. We were having an interesting time, seeing new things in a lush forest environment, but where was the rock? Visibility was poor in the forest due to all the trees (ha!) and we kept walking along the trail, taking a random guess when faced with crossroads. Eventually, after seeing nothing crag like we gave up. We’d been defeated by a lack of English information and with no real way of getting any we boarded the car and headed to Kyoto to do some sightseeing.

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In the cave/temple we stumbled upon

Jogasaki

The next mission to find rock was way down near Mount Fuji. We’d done Kyoto and we’d gotten some pretty solid info on a place called Jogasaki which we could visit on our way back to Tokyo. This time we knew where to park AND where to walk to find the crag. We didn’t have a topo but I was still fine with that. Climbing anything would be amazing!

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Perhaps the most famous mountain in the world?

We arrived at dusk and lacking the funds to check in to a Ryokan we decided to wild camp. In the fading light and then by headtorch we found a place to pitch the tent in the forest at the top of the cliffs. Jogasaki is a seaside crag and we listened to the water crashing into the rocks below as we bedded down for the night. The next morning I woke up feeling a little unwell. About half an hour later I’d deteriorated into “I can’t move. Just leave me”. Soon after I began unloading from both ends. The rest of the day was spent trying not to move a single muscle and hoping the pain would end. We’d finally found a crag and I couldn’t manage the 100m walk to even see it. It’s funny now, but at the time I felt really bad as Emily had no one to climb with and she was desperate to pull on. Fortunately she found some random climbers at the crag and did some routes with them so it wasn’t a total write off.

The next morning I woke up feeling slightly better but Emily had come down just as hard, a delayed start by about 12 hours. The 1km walk to the car was too difficult to consider and we just lay around feeling rather awful. By mid afternoon I was able to slowly walk around and with our departure from Japan looming we decided we should push on and try to get to the crag to do some routes. Even a single easy route would be a victory. In fact, just getting out once we’d abseiled in would have been a solid result for the day. I was huffing and puffing, sitting down to try and not vomit in front of a very packed crag, and eventually mustered up enough energy to do a warm up. It felt hard, but I had made it to the chains. Even in my subdued state I could appreciate a great hand-less rockover move across a slab of wonderful rock. Following this huge success I decided to do one of the easier crag classics, Blowin in the Wind. A short wall into a roof and then some more climbing up what I hoped were jugs. At 5.10+ it should have been ok but I hadn’t eaten anything in 2 days, and everything I’d drunk had come out the wrong way. In the middle of the roof I encountered a stiff pull on a genuinely small hold, thought I could fall off, but fumbled my way to the next break and followed the jugs all the way to the chains. Remarkably I’d made it up! WOO!

At this point I was ready to just call the medal shop and order myself everything they had. I didn’t think I’d be able to do a single route and I’d managed 2, including a small roof! The adrenalin must have been flowing hard as I then decided to have a bash at the harder crag classic Pumping Iron 2, 5.12b. It looked quite short, kind of bouldery, and I figured this would be my only chance to have a go so why not? The worst outcome would be to fall at the second bolt, hit the ground, and then puke up some water onto a poor climber.

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The climber on the right in the yellow t-shirt is on Pumping Iron 2. 

I set off with no beta other than a largely one sided conversation

me: “Is this pumping iron 2?”
random: “ahhhhhh???”
me: “puuuuummmmmmppppppiiiiiinnnnnnng iiiiiiirrrrrrrooooooonnnn 2?” pointing at the line
random: “ok, hai!!” and a big smile.

It’s quite a bouldery route with no real crux, just sustained semi-crimpy climbing. I made it to the upper third and looked down to realise I’d backclipped one of the quick draws. One of the bolts had a long extender on it and by the time I’d reached the next bolt I hadn’t been paying enough attention, so now I was basically stuck. Emily shouted up, half laughing, half embarrassed  and I looked at the rope and then my wilting arms. I reversed slightly, unclipped one of the draws (I can’t remember which) and then made a last ditch dash for the top. Amazingly I made it to the chains and lowered down feeling exhausted, pleased, embarrassed, and slightly sick.

Waking up that morning I wouldn’t have imagined I’d even be able to ab down to the crag. As the sun now set I’d managed to do 3 routes and I was feeling so much better. Perhaps I’d squeezed the bugs out of my system by trying so hard on the warm up route! That night I managed to hold down some solids and I reflected on what a great crag Jogosaki is. There’s nothing really hard there, there’s not really a lot of routes there, but it’s amazing rock in a really wonderful location. It’s close enough to Tokyo to make a weekend trip a reality and if you’re in that part of the world then it’s definitely worth a visit.

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Great seaside climbing at Jogasaki

Jogosaki Info - click to expand

To be added – access, links to online topo, accommodation, etc. Note: camping at the top of the cliff is illegal so don’t make the same mistake we did.

Part of the topo:

 

The final days of illness had made me crave some familiar foods. Enough sushi, sashimi, and other fishy delights. I wanted burgers and pizza. Luckily we were flying out to Australia and I’d already sent the message saying I needed to smash a burger as soon as we touched down…