Bouldering's steady climb in Tokyo
If you've ever been seized by the urge to scale a wall like Spider-Man, only for your survival instincts to intervene, rest assured that getting vertical in Tokyo is a skill that has already been mastered by thousands of casual climbers.
In the past five years, "bouldering" -- an urban-friendly style of rock climbing -- has been catching on in Tokyo and across Japan. Unlike traditional rope climbing, which requires lots of training, equipment and space, bouldering calls only for a vertical obstacle and the will to conquer it.
Shuichi Iwabuchi, a 36-year-old salaryman who lives in Tokyo and writes a climbing blog, got into bouldering five years ago when he found himself short of a rope-climbing partner. Since then, he has noticed an increasing number of young Japanese people taking up the sport.
"Bouldering is a fun way to get exercise and release stress," says Iwabuchi.
"For rope climbing, you need gear like a rope and harness, rope-work technique, and most importantly, a partner. But for bouldering, all you need is climbing shoes and a climbing gym or rock -- that's it," he concludes.
Iwabuchi attributes the recent boom, in part, to bouldering's rising popularity around the world and a new generation of young international-class Japanese climbers that has garnered a fair share of media attention.
Inexpensive and easy to start
At the sixth annual Bouldering Japan Cup held in February 2011 in Nagasaki, 21-year-old world champion Akiyo Noguchi took her sixth straight title. Atsushi Shimizu, 23, pushed the top Japanese male climber (and ranked third worldwide), Tsukuru Hori, 21, into second place.
Meanwhile, in the past few years bouldering gyms have been springing up left and right. In 2006, there were only five gyms in Tokyo. Now there are 40, with 10 new facilities opening just last year.
Because bouldering does not require much space -- the walls are only a few meters high -- gyms can be located in central areas near train stations. And, as the sport is inexpensive and pretty straightforward technique-wise, getting started is a cinch.
Climbers pay a one-time registration fee that runs from ¥500 to ¥1,500, and each visit after can cost from ¥1,000 to ¥2,000, depending on time of day and place. Shoes can be rented for a few hundred yen.
One popular gym in Tokyo that opened 20 years ago, T-WALL, recently expanded one of its venues and opened a new one last summer (for a total of four) to accommodate the growing demand.
Yoshihiko Terashima, T-WALL's president, chalks up its popularity to the sheer convenience of bouldering indoors in the city center.
He says it is great for getting in shape and slimming down but warns that novices should realise that bouldering’s not without risk, despite the thick crash pads set up to cushion a fall.
A sense of accomplishment
"For beginners, first we explain the most basic moves, and then we give them problems so they can try it out," says Terashima.
Walls set up at different angles are studded with 'bouldering problems,' color-coded artificial stones that track various routes up a wall, which challenge climbers to chart a course according to their own level.
On reaching the top, they can either jump down onto the pad or climb down in reverse.
Another gym that has made a name for itself, B-PUMP has four branches around the Kanto area. Its newest opened four years ago in Ogikubo, Tokyo.
Bouldering is most popular with twenty and thirty-somethings, explains Takashi Yasaku, B-PUMP's spokesman, with four times as many men as women taking part. But he predicts that when women get wind of bouldering's potential for weight loss, their numbers will skyrocket.
"While the main benefit for the body is getting toned up, the mental payoff is the sense of accomplishment of getting to the top by clearing the problems," he says.
Take it outside
After honing your climbing skills, taking it outside is the next logical step.
"I actually prefer outdoor climbing because it's nice to do it in nature, breathing clean air," says Iwabuchi. "For many climbers, the purpose of the gym is to train so they can try out their skills and strength on an outdoor rock."
The mecca of al-fresco bouldering for Tokyoites is Mitake, two hours from central Tokyo by train. Its best-known boulder, Ninja Rock, is a prime gathering spot for climbers who try to negotiate its natural crags.
But the learning curve, not to mention the boulder itself, is steep, which is why enthusists say it would be best suited for a ninja -- or, perhaps, Spider-Man himself.