Learning to Climb in Japanese

There can definitely be something said about communities sharing a common activity. No matter where you find yourself living, like a country half a world away whose language you have only a basic understanding of, there are always communities of people doing things who will support others doing that same thing for no other reason than the shared activity itself. When you enter one of these communities you tend find fast friends and with those fast friends you share in the frustrations and accomplishment of your shared task. Judgment, language and confusion take a back seat and for time you’re sharing the activity. And people from all walks of life with a variety of interests and preferences just exist and be for a short period of time.

I’ve found one of these small communities in a small bouldering gym near my small apartment in Kitakyushu. The name of the gym is Climb On and it hosts four separate walls with varying pitches and multiple routes for all types of climbers whether you are a first timer, someone still learning the ropes (like myself) or someone used to chalking up and breezing through V double digits.


My first visit to Climb On was much like nearly all my other firsts since being in Japan. It began with a surprised look on someone’s face followed by incredible hospitality, attempts to speak in both English and Japanese, a slight hint of confusion, complete and utter befuddlement and finally accomplishment of a goal as simple as ordering food. The proprietor of the gym was kind throughout the exchange and helped me understand exactly what was available and what I was shelling out the money for. Afterwards he brought me to the first wall introduced me to the rating system at the gym showing me how the levels progressed from beginner (routes or “problems” outlined by white tape) that appeared simple enough to the master level (outlined with brown tape) that appeared so bafflingly difficult I doubt I could have clung to the first hold.

I began to climb maneuvering around the beginner routes and easing my way into novice, taking breaks to sit back and watch some of the other climbers, all of whom brought shame upon my lack of skill, and speak with proprietor with the limited language that we shared. Being in a climbing gym climbing became the topic of the day, I spoke of the areas I had climbed at (really just Joshua Tree, one route, an easy one and the bouldering gym near my house in the states) and he spoke about the places he wanted climb, Yosemite, and where to find good climbing in Kyushu. He mentioned Oita for bouldering and Nagasaki for sport climbing but also mentioned Hiraodai had a few routes large enough for sport climbing and requiring all the gear to go with it.  We then spoke about climbers and I mentioned Ashima Shiraishi, an 11-year-old climbing phenom of Japanese descent and he looked a bit surprised I knew who she was and asked if she was famous in America. I said kind of, she did have a story in the New York Times.

We exchanged Facebook handles and I left soon after with chaffed hands calloused fingers and palm pads worn to blood. I’ve been back about two-three times a week since and have found each time I get a little stronger and gain a little more trust from the fellow climbers.

Last Monday I attended a tournament at the gym, I was not thinking of participating but once I arrived I was encouraged and accepted a spot on the roster of the “fun” level tournament that was for those of us who were just climbing for fun and could not boast of any real climbing skill.

I struggle to think of anything as supportive as this contest was. When the “Master” class climbed the rest of us became supportive spectators shouting out “nice” and “gamba” each time a new hold was grabbed. The sound was contagious, rising to a raucous level and maintaining it as the language spread throughout the small crowd like a virus.

When the “fun” competition began the shouts were turned to us and I even heard my name followed by “gamba-desu” a few times. The highlight was a very young girl not even into the double digits of age who put me to shame. At the end of the night she was in the tiebreaker for the first place of my bracket. As she climbed the sound reached unprecedented levels while she literally leapt, her tiny hands gripping the holds with ferocious strength, from hold to hold. She did not obtain the first place position but in that moment surrounded by the voices of my fellow climbers I truly felt apart of something that transcended both culture and language. Though I shared very few words with the crowd we all shared in the excitement of this young girl’s attempts. In this moment the true heart of a community shines brightly and it requires no other kindling other than the shared experience. It is in a community like this one that what is a foreign land for many of us gaijin becomes a little bit more homey. When you find a few like-minded individuals sharing a common goal, no matter what that goal may be, you find a way to express yourself outside the limits of your vocabulary.

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Author of this article

Shane Minter

Shane Minter is a first year ALT living in Kitakyushu with interests in adventure sports and Literature with a big L who mildly keeps a blog at http://osakinishitsureishimasu.wordpress.com/

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