Freelance journalist and local climber Francesco Bassetti shares some of his favourite places to rock climb in Japan.
Words by: Francesco Bassetti
Think about climbing in Japan and the first thing that comes to mind is probably flashy volumes, dynamic moves and competition climbers. However, poke your head out of the countless (and admittedly excellent) gyms scattered across the country and you will soon discover that – whether you are a boulderer, sport climber or crack fiend – there are some world class spots waiting to be discovered.
Although most people travelling to Japan will come for the temples of Kyoto, the flashing lights of Tokyo or the allure of Mount Fuji, add climbing to that list and you will get a unique peek into rural Japan, with its beautiful scenery and cultural wealth. From a welcoming climbing community, to local food and hot springs after a hard day’s climbing there are countless reasons why climbing in Japan is a special experience.
Keita Kurakami on Toumyou (The votive light) 5.13d/14a R, Sakuyukawa © Satoru Hagihara
The best season to go rock climbing in Japan
The best seasons are undoubtedly spring and autumn when there is a wide range of crags and exposures to choose from, although both winter and summer also have some good options – just make sure you avoid the rainy season which is typically between early June and late July.
Renting a car is recommended for most areas as it will make getting around a lot easier. Although the climbing community is exceptionally welcoming do bear in mind that crag access in Japan can sometimes be an issue and that some areas are found on national parks. Please talk with locals before visiting crags and act accordingly.
Soichiro Fukuda on 3rd pitch of Sky Rocket 5.13c, Daidarabocchi, Mizugakiyama © Satoru Hagihara
Rock climbing in Mizugaki and Ogawayama
The beating heart of climbing in Japan is without a doubt the area around Mizugaki and Ogawayama. This vast expanse of granite, just a few hours’ drive from Tokyo, contains the highest concentration of both single and multipitch trad and sport routes, as well as boulders, in the country. Although both areas are located in the western end of the Chichibu Tama Kai National Park, their access and lodging points are different and should therefore be treated as separate locations even if you can move between them easily with a 45 minute drive. Both are busiest in the summer as it’s one of the few climbing areas in Japan where you can escape the heat, but spring and autumn is when you will find the best conditions and the most beautiful colours – although camping can get pretty chilly.
Toichimen central wall, Mizugakiyama © Satoru Hagihara
When it comes to free climbing in Japan, Ogawayama became increasingly popular throughout the 1980s when stories of the Yosemite made their way to the island nation, inspiring a new generation of free climbers. Here, among the towering granite spires there are over 700 sport and trad routes and well over 800 boulders. The trademark Ogawayama style is slabby and slightly vertical routes that make for technical and demanding climbing where every route is an adventure. Possibly the most famous and popular sport climbing sector is the iconic Mara Iwa, a stand alone pillar with five-star routes on all sides which cater to all levels.
The starting point for most climbing in Ogawayama is the Mawarimedaira Camp Ground, where countless climbers pitch their tents and discuss beta around campfires, surrounded by nothing but the forest, stars and granite spires. Finding your way around Ogawayama’s crags can be challenging (particularly as there is no English guidebook available yet) but embrace it: it’s part of the experience!
Yuji Hirayama on Pharaoh 5.13b, Fudosawa, Mizugakiyama © Satoru Hagihara
If Ogawayama’s slabs are a bit too much for your feet, then make the short drive over to Mizugaki. Currently living a new heyday of climbing and development Mizugaki is hugely appealing for bouldering, sport and trad routes as well as some of the most scenic multipitch routes in the country.
“A looming citadel hemmed in on all sides by countless crags,” says Naito Naoya, local developer and author of the Mizugaki guidebook (also available in English) whose detailed descriptions and beautiful photographs have made exploring the area a slightly less daunting experience.
“Nowhere else in Japan is there such a surfeit of rock, it would take an unimaginably long time to climb all the routes left to us by more than 35 years of development. The 600 or so routes at Mizugaki each overflow with the ideas and feelings of their developers and ascensionists, a feeling available to anyone who comes here to take them on,” - Naito Naoya.
Kazuto Hoshi on Imjin River 5.11d, Otonosamaiwa, Ogawayama © Satoru Hagihara
For sport climbing in Mizugaki the main cluster of routes is found in the Kasameri area where there is a wide range of grades and climbing styles, from slabs to vertical faces and athletic overhangs. If what you are looking for is cracks then head over to the Tochimen area, a true symbol of free climbing in Mizugaki. Multipitch routes like Haru Urara, Bergere and Senjitsu no Ruri are found here and are an important part of Mizugaki’s history, not to mention the 70 metre slightly overhanging Tochimen End Wall which is rightly regarded as one of the best crack areas in Japan.
When climbing in Mizugaki most people choose to camp at the Mizugakiyama Natural Park Campsite which is found at the feet of the imposing granite spires and ridges that dot Mount Mizugaki and puts most crags within walking distance.
Youhei Nomiyama on Akirameruna (Never give up) 5.13?, Sirokabe face, Futagoyama © Satoru Hagihara
Other rock climbing areas to explore in Japan
Climbing in Japan is not just about the granite of Mizugaki and Ogawayama. With time, a car and some inside knowledge you can choose from some excellent limestone, conglomerate and volcanic rock.
The imposing overhanging limestone of Futagoyama just a few hours from Tokyo springs to mind. Here living legend Yuji Hirayama is bolting new routes in an effort to help boost local tourism and add to the rich array of high-quality sport routes that made Futago the fulcrum of hard limestone sport climbing in Japan in the 1990s.
Youhei Nomiyama on Santouka 5.12d, Koyasuriiwa, Mizugakiyama © Satoru Hagihara
Another example is Bichu, just over an hour’s drive from Okayama, where you can find the highest concentration of limestone sport routes in Japan in a quaint rural setting that is as far removed from the hustle and bustle of Japanese megacities as you can imagine. Not to mention Mt. Hiei in Kyushu, made famous by Dai Koyamada’s 8c boulder Horizon, which has huge potential to become another top level granite destination for crack climbers and boulderers alike.
Japan may not have an endless supply of rock but its vibrant climbing community and long history of climbing mean that it should make most people’s short list of must visit climbing destinations.
* * *
The Climbing Travel Guide © Mapo Tapo
About the author: Francesco Bassetti is a passionate climber and ski mountaineer. He started climbing a decade ago in Mexico under the mentorship of David Candelario, only to take his experience back to the Alps where he became an honorary member of the prestigious Chiodo Duro climbing team. He currently lives in Japan exploring crags across the country. If you'd like more content like this, you can follow him on twitter.
* * *
Cover photo caption: Youhei Nomiyama on Santouka (5.12d), Koyasuriiwa, Mizugakiyama © Satoru Hagihara