Having scoured the globe for rocks to climb, imagine my excitement when I discovered a priceless gem not far from my new home in Japan.
Before moving to Japan, I spent hours searching for places where I could get on some rock. I wanted to be well prepared before I arrived, so I could get out and explore some of Japan’s best rock climbing areas. I was having trouble finding information in English but, as luck would have it, I bumped into a Tokyo-based climber at my local crag shortly before leaving for Japan.
“There are many boulders waiting for you in Japan, so hurry and come on over,” he told me, smiling ear to ear.
His name is Jack Nakane, and he gave me his e-mail address and asked me to contact him once I landed.
I arrived on a Friday in late July and, by Monday, I was itching to go climbing. I picked up the phone to call Jack, and my eagerness was met with an equal amount of excitement on the other end of the line. He mapped out a plan for us the very next day. He would introduce me to one of the most inspiring rock climbing areas in Japan, Mt. Mizugaki.
After a two-hour drive from Tokyo and a quick, though interesting, stop at my first conbini (convenience store), we arrived at Mizugaki’s main parking area. Although heavily jet-lagged, I was awed by the beauty and variety of formations and spires that lay before me. The sun was high, the sky was blue and my energy took off like a wild horse.
“Let’s get the pads,” I said to Jack.
He just laughed and opened the hatch to his car. Jack took me to a sector with hundreds of untouched rock waiting for a bit of a scrubbing from a brush, a technique climbers use to remove excess moss and to add friction to the rock. He showed me around, pointing out what he considered some of the best boulders in the area, asking me what I thought.
“I am super tired, but I want to come back here with you as often possible. I love this place. What’s the name again?” I asked.
I must have sounded like an overly excited kid, because as soon as the words left my mouth, Jack laughed, adding I was welcome anytime.
Two years and too many trips to count later, a great friendship has formed and the high friction granite at Mizugaki has affected me in ways I did not expect.
On the Rocks
Mt. Mizugaki is located within scenic Chichibu Tama Kai National Park. The houses, shops and other buildings with which the country is over-saturated are nowhere to be found here in the mountains.
Although over the past two years I have kept busy helping develop new bouldering spots, the area is most notable for its sport and traditional climbing. That said, the bouldering at Mizugaki is some of the best I have seen. The variety of features and handholds is impressive, ranging from basketball-shaped “slopers” to razor-sharp two-finger pockets that leave your skin screaming.
There are many areas from which to choose, no matter your climbing ability. The main bouldering area is located just up the main trail that leads to the breathtaking spires of which you catch a glimpse from the parking area. This trail splits several times but, with a little guidance, you will find your way, and even if you take a wrong turn, nearly all the trails lead to some fantastic climbing or bouldering.
The well-worn trails are wide and immaculately maintained. To make it even easier, most of the developed boulders are within a 30-minute walk from the main parking area through beautiful cedar and evergreens.
Some of the main “problems” you’ll encounter are Mizugaki Lie Back V3, Frequent Flyer V5 and Kumite V10. They are surrounded by numerous other problems and “blocks” that will keep you busy for days, if not weeks.
The route climbing is not to be overlooked, with literally hundreds of routes from which to choose. Kasameri, located on the farthest reaches of Mizugaki, is an ideal spot for intermediate to expert climbers. Don’t miss Razors Edge 5.10c/d, Alligator, Alligator 5.11b, Sandal of Gold 5.12a and the excellent Top Gun 5.13a.
If you are new to climbing, I would suggest going to Mizugaki with an experienced climber who can show you the ropes and help locate the best climbs for your level. Shoku Ju Shai, the lowest area on the southwest side of the mountain, is a good place for newbies. Yet, even here, like the rest of Mizugaki, there are plenty of traditional and sport routes, so be sure to bring some cams if you want try some of them.
The climbing at Mizugaki is fairly straightforward; after one trip you should get a feel of geography, and then you can really start exploring these misty mountains. Regardless, there will undoubtedly be several climbers in the main parking area ready and willing to help if you need some pointers.
I’ve found Japanese climbers to be very helpful and considerate. They’ll often take the extra time to personally show you where to go. Be friendly and, before you know it, you may meet some new climbing buddies.
While Mizugaki is a special place for me, there are other excellent climbing areas as well. Ogawayama, located on the northern side of Mizugaki, offers the same quality of granite, but is much more crowded.
Mitake, in the Okutama area (and technically still in Tokyo) is one of the closest climbing areas to central Tokyo and one the most overused climbing spots I’ve seen. I have been to several areas in the U.S. and Italy that rival Mitake for popularity, but some of Mitake’s holds are as polished as a marble countertop.
Japan has a long, rich alpine history and, like in the USA, for many years alpine climbers considered climbing on boulders as a waste of time. Yet, the climbing scene evolved into more technical climbing, and climbers started using the smaller blocks of rock as training ground for testing difficult feats before heading out on larger expeditions.
It was not until the 1980s when bouldering found its place among the climbing scene. Today it is a fun and popular way to learn how to solve problems, and Mizugaki has many problems to solve on the rock.
As a climber who has spent much of the past five years traveling and climbing, I can honestly say the rock quality, routes and climbing community is on par with other established climbing areas around the world. Yet what makes climbing in Japan special is the influence Japan itself has on the climbing scene. This you have to experience for yourself and, if you come to Mizugaki, you just may discover why I’ve been in love with the area since that first hot, humid day in late July.
Japan is the land of convenience, and Mt. Mizugaki is no exception. The main parking area boasts a well-equipped mountain hut with running water, cleaning stations, fire pits, bathrooms and home cooked meals from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. excluding holidays. They even serve ice cream during warmer months, and I have found some amazing ceramic art and glassware.
There is an official guidebook for the route climbing at Mizugaki in Japan’s 100 (Book 3), which can be bought at any mountain shop or online via Amazon. If you are in the Tokyo area, stop by Calafate in Mejiro, widely considered Japan’s top climbing store where Jack, the knowledgeable manager, will show you where to grab the guidebook, answer any questions and, if you need climbing gear, Calafate will have it. Web: www.calafate.co.jp
My favorite time to climb in Mizugaki is October to December. I will go for two or three days and really unwind and enjoy it. It’s not uncommon for me to travel with my 2-year-old son and boulder with friends for a couple of days. I have seen the odd black bear, but they are generally fearful of people and have never been a problem, and the campground is surrounded by an electric fence for extra peace of mind.
I recommend going to Mizugaki during the week and using the pay camping at the main parking area. Since Rock and Snow published a story on Mizugaki, the crowds seem to have doubled on weekends, with the worst crowds on Sundays.
If you travel by car, the Chuo Expressway is your preferred route. Head toward Kofu, exit at the Sutama Interchange and head north on Rt. 41 until you reach the Rt. 601; then it is a straight shot to Mizugaki. Right off of 601 there is a home supply store and a grocery store, if you need any last-minute supplies.
If you forget anything, nearby Kofu City has everything you need, including Pirania, a great local climbing shop. Web: www.pirania.jp. Note that, while the drive to the mountains is quite fast and easy, beware heading back to Tokyo on Sundays when the two-hour drive can turn to six.
Eddie Gianelloni is an AMGA (American Mountain Guides Association) climbing guide who hails from the flat state of Louisiana, which could be why he has such an affinity for the mountains. He has traveled the world in search of new places to climb, spending time in Thailand, Sardinia, Italy, Austria and too many areas in the USA to name. Photography has grown from an obsession to a profession and, when not climbing, he works as an adventure photographer in Japan.