American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Japanese Exchange

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1986

The Japanese Exchange

Rosamond C. Andrews

NEW YORK TO Anchorage to Seoul and back to Tokyo is the cheap way to Japan from the east coast, and thus my route of choice. My flight is not only circuitous, it’s premature; I’m arriving two days earlier than the rest of our “team,” but I figure I can use the time recovering from jet-lag. Although this “Japanese-American Alpine Club Exchange” officially begins on October 14th, Andy Embick, our leader, has suggested that I call our hosts when I arrive on the 12th, since they will be aware of my schedule, and may make arrangements for me.

Twenty-six non-stop hours of travel have thoroughly crushed my taste for adventure as I hit Narita Airport, and all this red-eyed, sweaty traveller wants to do is collapse. In a zombied trance, I perform the disembarking rituals: waiting, luggage, waiting, customs, waiting, currency exchange, waiting, telephone, waiting, bus. The Japanese Alpine Club (JAC) secretary sounds surprised to hear from me, but within a few hours they have me comfortably lounging in a downtown hotel room. Various officials telephone, assuring me that tomorrow, when I’m rested, I’ll have visitors. Feeling decidely pampered, I zonk out for fourteen straight hours.

For the next two days I am kept under the constant supervision of a kind of rotating entertainment committee, whose members see to it that no need of mine goes unmet. I eat, I boulder, I sightsee, I sleep (and sleep), and by the time the rest of the exchange team and I are gathered for a welcome reception at the JAC house two nights later, I’m feeling refreshed, in stark contrast to their bleary- eyed appearance.

The reception gives us our first taste of Japanese formality: most of our hosts wear coats and ties, and stand politely as we are introduced, in turn, by name and climbing record. Our team consists of Andy Embick, Glen Dickinson, and John Weiland, all Alaskan climbers who helped put on the first half of this exchange in Valdez; Mark Wilford, a Colorado climber; and myself, from New York. At times Lynn Hill, Ron Kauk, and John Bachar were rumored to be the sixth member of our group, but for various reasons none of them materialized, so we are a team of five. Andy is very concerned that the lack of a major “star” will disappoint the Japanese, which makes the rest of us feel indignant or inadequate, but the Japanese custom of refilling one’s beer glass after every sip seems to dissipate the tension. Our first week’s itinerary in hand, we are whisked off to our luxurious quarters to rest up for tomorrow’s journey to the granite pinnacles of Mount Ogawayama.

The focus of this trip is rock climbing, so next morning we sort through our mountains of luggage, selecting the essentials for a week at play on rock. At breakfast, Andy insists on full Japanese fare, to the incredulity of our host, Mr. Suzuki, who orders bacon and eggs. The rest of us show our provincial colors when we discover what a Japanese breakfast is (mostly raw), and that it can’t be served with coffee (“cohi”), and follow Mr. Suzuki’s example.

By mid-morning, we’re underway, departing from the JAC house in a procession of vehicles. In addition to our official JAC hosts, we are accompanied by a large group of climbers not associated with the club. Apparently the JAC is not exactly a hotbed of rock-climbing activity, and counts few hard free- climbers among its members. In fact, the Japanese climbing community seems split on the issue dividing climbers in so many countries today, with old-guard reluctance to recognize free-climbing as a legitimate branch of the mountain world alienating the droves of young climbers consumed with the free-climbing passion. Club members or no, though, plenty of young climbers seem anxious to climb with the gai-jin (foreigners), and it’s a large group that heads for Ogawayama.

It’s not far from Tokyo to Ogawayama as the crow flies, but everyplace is far from Tokyo as the traffic moves. We spend the first two hours creeping away from the city, due in part to road construction. Just as the traffic begins to thin, the surrounding country grows more mountainous (only 15% of Japan is level enough to permit agriculture), the roads turn steep and winding. By the time we arrive at Kinpusano, the mountain lodge where we will stay, I’m amazed that there are any rock climbers at all in Japan, especially since most live in Tokyo and commute to the cliffs on weekends.

Mount Ogawayama and the hills around Kinpusano are ablaze with autumn colors, and the sight begins to stir us from our auto-induced lethargy. We stumble into the lodge foyer gaping at our surroundings, and nearly commit the classic shoe faux pas, until someone stops us, looking alarmed, and pointing to a box of house slippers. Upstairs we discover that one sheds house slippers to enter sleeping quarters, and exchanges them for toilet slippers at the entrance to the bathroom. (Toilet slippers say “Toilet” on the toe.) Our rooms are light and spacious, with tatami floors, paper walls, and closets stuffed with futons, quilts, and bedding. In the center of each room sits a low table and cushions, the only furniture. Transformed to giddy children (“It’s so Japanese!”), we drop gear, change, and rush out the door to boulder.

The bouldering proves limited, but everyone’s relieved to be moving, and Mark puts on a good display of dynamics, despite (or thanks to?) a bellyful of beer. Amidst the oohs and aahs we try to learn names, but we’re outnumbered by at least four to one, and there are two Fujiwaras, a Nakayama, a Yamazaki, a Yamakawa, a Yumiko, a Miwako, etc., and even my inherent linquistic talents are overtaxed. I resort to smiling a lot, and methodically begin memorizing— one name, one face.

The mountaineering tradition of Japan is long and distinguished, but rock climbing, especially free-climbing, has just begun to gain popularity. Japanese climbers applied mountain ethics to rock, oblivous of the advancement of free- climbing standards elsewhere, until 1979, when Naoki Toda and Noriyuki Hir- ata returned from Yosemite with a film of John Bachar in action. Since then, the ranks of free-climbers have swelled rapidly, and standards now approach those in the rest of the world (in 1985, Isao Ikeda climbed a route rated 5.13 at Ogawayama). Given the limitations of geography and culture, these achievements are especially impressive. The physical climate is soggy, cliffs are inaccessible, and climbing walls don’t exist. Probably more important is social climate, a custom-bound culture which frowns upon the freewheeling lifestyle of the full-time climber. Only a few Japanese climbers to date have chosen such a socially unacceptable path, and many find that even arranging long vacations is problematic. In general, time and expense limit the ability of Japanese climbers to travel abroad, and discourage visits to Japan by foreign climbers. The net result is a sense of isolation from the rest of the climbing world, and a keen desire for foreign reaction to their cliffs, routes, and grades. In 1984, three of the world’s top climbers—Jerry Moffat, Chris Gore, and Ron Fawcett (all British) visited Japan, by invitation, to climb, and their feats were reported in the climbing press. But the desire for interaction with outsiders remains strong, and creates a warm sense of welcome for those who do make the journey.

Perfect weather hails us next morning, and after a fun-filled hour of breakfast identification (raw egg, pickled cherries, seaweed, fermented soybeans, yum yum ….) the mob-like procession heads for the cliffs. There we are introduced to a partner, asked what grade we want to climb, and shown a route to lead. The fare is typically granitic: cracks or slabs, protected by Friends or bolts. (The latter are horrendously antique in appearance, and somewhere in passing Mark informs me that they’re rumored to be good for about 300 kilos, which really spices things up.) Our crowd includes not only spectators, but a small army of photographers who scurry and rappel around us, creating a distracting impression that we’re doing something important. Stars or no, we’ve been assigned celebrity status, and must accept the resulting risk of public humiliation. I suffer my share once I get past the 5.10 grade, but as long as I get up the climb, I’m next assigned a harder one. Eventually I manage to struggle up Schizophrenia, a 5.11c face/corner, with one fall, and pleased with my efforts, I suggest a break.

Yumiko Muroi, my partner for the day, sits smoking a cigarette while I hungrily devour a lunch I’d never eat at home—bologna and Wonder-type bread. Yumiko is causing me serious face-saving problems by failing to imitate any of my weakness for gravity. Since she’s only 4' 11", my standard whine about my lack of reach seems inappropriate, as do age complaints, since she’s six years my senior. So I mutter consolingly to myself about jet-lag as we make the long, uphill slog to the base of a new cliff and Yumiko’s route, Pot Mantle, 5.10d. Her turn to lead is long overdue, so after another smoke, she’s off. Yumiko’s no dawdler on either end of the rope, and before I know it, it’s my turn. The route is a nightmare of awkward mantles, the worst of which nearly stops me altogether. The required move seems to involve putting one foot and both hands into the same large solution pocket (“All right for a midget,” I snarl), and standing up. Problem is, there’s a small pond in the hole (she never mentioned it), I can’t stand up without underclinging its top, or pulling on one of the minute faceholds above, and I can do neither with soaking wet hands. In a sequence of moves resembling an enraged bird bath, I force myself to a standing position, and mantle on to join Yumiko at the top. My bruised ego is not comforted by learning that she’s not up to par, thanks to a late night of partying in the climber’s hut (“I like too much the beer,” she confesses).

Back at Kinpusano, we joyfully partake of the ritual after-climbing bath in the inn’s furos or communal tubs. We’ve noticed that our hosts don’t ask if we’d like to take a bath, but rather politely insist, “Now you take bath.” We wonder if there’s a connection between this approach and the story we’ve been told of a recent illustrious British visitor who declined all bathing invitations on the grounds that it would be bad for his calloused fingertips, causing his hosts severe olfactory distress.

Rain arrives overnight, cutting short our stay at Ogawayama. We pack, pile into the van, and begin the drive, an interminable blur of sharp-curved mountainous miles, during which all the gai-jin eventually turn a bit green. When we finally reach our quarters on the east coast of the Izu peninsula, nine hours later, we collapse, exhausted, to our futons, except for Glen, who parties with our Japanese friends in the next room.

Izu is both a popular tourist area, and the home of the Jogasaki sea cliffs, a 10km stretch of compact sandstone up to 25 meters in height. Our first day is spent at the Family Crack Area, an easily accessible inlet with short cliffs on either side. It’s quite a scene, with about forty climbers packed into this tiny space, but the climbs and the atmosphere are good, and I’m slowly learning to blank out the crowd when I climb. The Japanese are inclined to show their appreciation of a well-executed lead by a warm round of applause, which also helps dispel self-consciousness. By day’s end, we’ve done nearly every route in the inlet, Mark’s impressed everyone with a few on-sight 5.10 solos, I’ve garnered quite the flight record, Andy’s demonstrated hand-taping, cold-water swimming, and various other eccentricities, John’s mastered the use of Friends, and Glen’s begun to recover from his hangover. We return to our lodging, a private inn belonging to a company connected with someone in the JAC, and complete the daily rituals—bath, dinner, beer, bed.

Our second day is spent at the Seaside Rock area, accessible via a kind of jungle rappel onto the beach. It’s a bigger area, which features several hard roof problems. Noriyuki Hirata has decided that since I’m from the Shawangunks, I will love them, so after a couple of warm-ups, I reluctantly head toward a big ceiling that doesn’t look at all like my kind of climb. Like many roofs, it’s not actually as big as it looks once I’m on it, but it is hard (5.11d, they say), and on my best attempt I melt off the final bucket and admit defeat. Mark comes along to pick it off with ease, and it’s obvious that he’s climbing well enough to appease the Japanese desire for a star, if it actually existed.

The final day at Jogasaki is dominated by a return visit to the Family Crack Area, where we “demonstrate” free-climbing to a class offered by the JAC. We each choose a climb to lead, while fifty or sixty people watch. The scene is more reminiscent of a circus act than.a climbing scene, with rounds of applause, ropes dangling everywhere, Andy doing handstands, and climbers on every available square foot of rock in every imaginable climbing position. I create some excitement by falling off (to a chorus of gasps), while Isao Ikeda (Japan’s top climber) creates another kind of excitement by stepping onto the rock shirtless and putting his latissimus dorsi into action. A quick stop to do a slimy route directly above the sea brings the climbing day to an end, for our group is scheduled to visit a rotenburo (outdoor hot spring) before dinner. On discovering that people go naked at the rotenburo, I decide it would be unsuitable (sorry) for me, the only female in a group numbering close to forty, to attend, and opt for an afternoon of reading.

On the heels of Jogasaki comes a three-day stint in Tokyo for receptions, slide shows, magazine interviews, and the like. It’s a hectic succession of “hurry-up-and-wait” situations, which strains our ability to function as a group, probably because some are waiting a lot more than others. Our hosts have offered to accommodate our individual requests for how we want to spend our remaining days in Japan, so once our commitments are met, we begin to peel off in separate directions—John for the Golden Temple of Kyoto and slopes of Mount Fuji, Andy and Glen back to Ogawayama and to Mattan-heki, Japan’s largest wall, and Mark and I to some new face-climbing areas.

Mark and I leave Tokyo with our guide and kamikaze driver, Shigeki Na- kayama, one of the original group to visit Valdez. Our first stop is to be Mit- sutoge Wall, a face-climbing area near Mount Fuji, which has seen much recent climbing development. An hour’s hike takes us to the Shikira Kuen, the four- season lodge, which will serve as our Mitsutoge base. The lodge-keeper is honored to have foreigners as her only guests, and supplies us with special snacks and meals throughout our stay.

From the lodge, it’s a five-minute walk downhill to Mitsutoge, a cliff which proves large, but scruffy, with lots of vegetation and terraces. The best routes exist on a fifty-foot overhanging wall at the base of the cliff proper, all old aid lines which have gradually been freed. They are positively littered with the worst bolts either of us has ever seen; only their abundance enables us to trust them at all. The climbs are reminiscent of steep limestone routes, with desperate clips followed by strenuous pulls on pockets, and never a real rest. Two of the prime developers of this area, Junichi Yamazaki and Shigeru Kobayashi, have joined us for the day, and anxiously inquire after our opinions on grades and quality of climbs. They point to one line of bolts, saying “We try many times, can’t do. You try please.” They depart in the afternoon, satisfied that the hard climbs are hard, the desperates desperate, and the undone undoable, at least by this team. We pass a relaxed, lazy evening with Shigeki at the lodge, giving in early to the urge to sleep.

In the morning we try to fight a lack of enthusiasm, and manage to get up a couple of climbs, but overall find the area uninspiring, and decide to head over for a closer look at Mount Fuji, which dominates the view from Mitsutoge. Like most tourist traps, though, the mountain proves far more picturesque from a distance, and our stay at the halfway point is brief. By late afternoon we’re on the road to our last stop, Maku-Iwa, a sandstone cliff renowned for the classic route Spiderman, 5.12a, featured on the cover of Mountain 101.

Maku-Iwa is not an impressive cliff at first glance; in fact, a quick scan only rivets one’s attention on one route: the clean face and arête of Spiderman. I’m not convinced I’m climbing well enough to bother with anything in that grade, especially after my first warm-up route, rated 5.10a, feels absolutely desperate. But a second route goes much better, and egged on by Mark, and the memory of my friend Russ Clune, who’s done the route telling me, “It’s a real girl’s climb, you’ll flash it,” I find myself tying in at the bottom.

On my first attempt, I clip a bolt, step over the void onto the face, make two moves, and find myself flying through the air thanks to my foot popping. Having thus inspired my belayer to greater vigilance, I set off again, and this time feel the best of my abilities clicking (Russ was right, I like this kind of climbing). At an obvious stance at the halfway point, though, things suddenly get much harder, and I begin to see my “flash” ascent melting away. After much up and down, hemming and hawing to avoid the taint of a fall, I commit myself and come off trying. My definition of success now lowered to simply getting up the thing, I continue my assault, eventually making headway, but not enough. Numerous tries later, I lower to the ground defeated. Mark, who’s rappelled near me to take pictures, has been suggesting stepping right, to the arête, but all the chalk and bolts go straight up, so I figure so must I. One of our Japanese friends goes up next, encountering similar difficulties at the mid-point. Finally he decides to give the arête a try, just as a party comes by on the trail to confirm the wisdom of his decision: straight up is a new climb, Spiderlady, 5.12d. Another chance is opened up for me when our friend discovers he has neglected to bring runners, so down he comes, up I go, and Spiderman proves easier, indeed, allowing me, in this dubious style, to “flash” across its surface. It would have been far more rewarding without the antics, but I’m not unhappy as we head back to Tokyo that evening.

Enroute to our hotel, Shigeki takes a detour he has been promising for a traditional Japanese dinner at his uncle’s restaurant. Though most of our meals have been Japanese, none has been of this caliber, as we stuff ourselves, in royal fashion, with course after course of incredible food—tempura, sushi, and soup precede two main courses. Shigeki explains that, in Japan, taste of food is less important than how it looks, but in this case the point seems moot, since both my palate and my eye perceive the meal as a work of art. We sit on cushions, in a traditional Japanese room made elegant by simplicity. Our waitress only leaves us to bring on the next round and is so deferential that we squirm with discomfort. When we finally cry “Enough,” she signals with her hands that we should fall over backwards and lie on the floor rubbing our distended bellies. We follow

her instructions, giggling, while she snaps our photos. We are the only customers at the restaurant, and Shigeki’s uncle and his assistant, who have prepared this special meal for us, greet us as we get into our car, and thank us for coming, though it is them, not we, who have been doing all the giving.

We pass the remainder of our time in Tokyo, satisfying our diverse consumer urges with purchases of camera gear, Walkmans, typewriters, kimonos, and all manner of “Japanese” junk that only gai-jin buy. Our hosts have jobs and businesses, but would never consider letting us fend for ourselves, and “attend” us on our rounds, revealing limitless reserves of patience. By the time we head for the airport, our mountain of gear has nearly doubled in size, but our hosts remain unflappable and cram it into the waiting vehicles.

Climbing in Japan is like climbing anywhere, as long as you’re on the rock. But down among the masses it’s a different world by far. Though I garnered a few good rock memories on this trip, the enduring moments will be those which featured east meeting west, times when all that might separate us melted easily away, when through the simplest forms of expression all that needed to be was said, and understood. For these many ways that it deepens my appreciation of my species, I consider climbing a true gift to my life.

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