Friday, June 17, 2016

Ogawayama - Japan


Watching the big boys go at it was a great experience!
Stepping off a plane in Tokyo is pretty routine, you cruise through customs, pick up your bags and then head down to the train station to catch the express into the city. And this is where it goes straight to defcon 5. The train station is like stepping into a human ant farm. There are people everywhere, scurrying around you, past you and almost over you. However, amid the chaos is unbelievable organisation. Tourist information booths help the bewildered fools find their way to the correct train and offer advice on how best to make it to your destination. Tokyo is an enormous, sprawling metropolis, unlike any city I have visited before. But the train system makes it a breeze to get around, even with zero Japanese and a heap of luggage, the trip is not too arduous, though a packed Tokyo train is quite an experience. The words jammed in like sardines barely does it justice. You cannot move and it is a fight to not get caught up with the human tide as people try to decamp, just hold a handle, plant your feet and let the tide break around you. We arrive at our ryokan feeling a little washed out, it's evening time, I'm hungry and a little bedraggled. A ryokan is a traditional guesthouse, you sleep on tatami mats, the rooms are tiny, but its cost effective, comfortable and they have their own version of an onsen (Japanese bath) upstairs. We get freshened up and hit the streets to find some food. I'm not quite sure what the story is, but it seems that there is a restaurant or a hairdressers in every second shop, so if you have hair (unlike me) or are hungry (definitely me), you have enough choice to make you walk on and on just to see what is available. The options for food are endless, mostly you can be lead by pictures, but every now and then its great to just jump in, go native and see what happens...

After a couple of big days in Tokyo, having the sensory overload that one expects, as well as checking out some sweet sumo action, it's time to head to the blissful countryside and get to grips with some blocs. We had a little trouble with car rentals, mostly that we couldn't rent a car from any company without an international drivers license. Now, I have rented cars in at least 10 different countries all around the world and have never had to show an international license before. But, if there is one thing that the Japanese love, it's rules. And, the rules say that you must present your international license to hire a car, so it's back to the train for us. I was pretty pissed and a little apprehensive about catching the train, it involved 3 changes and then a phone call to the hotel in the mountains to ask someone to come and pick us up. I needn't have worried though, a little prep with google maps and a subway ride to Shinjuku station and we were on our way. All up it was a pretty pleasant journey, great views of Mt Fuji and very clean and comfy trains. We made it to our destination and exited the train. We were essentially in the middle of an industrial farm town. I went off hunting for supplies, as we had been pre warned that lunch and breakfast food was in short supply up in the mountains. I got robbed blind by a seemingly lovely old lady who cackled through the whole exchange, but ended up with most of what we needed. Next up was the phone call that I had been dreading. I was unsure what I was going to say and how well our little parley was going to go, but after lots of nodding and saying hai, I hung up and hoped for the best. 20 minutes later our ride showed. Result! Kimpu Sansou was to be our home for the next week and on first impressions it was a little like stepping into the Shining. It was a large place, devoid of other guests, big, old and airy. Holy Shit. What had I done? But, after a cursory glance at our room, we dropped our kit and went to check out the boulders.

I gotta admit that I was a little underwhelmed to begin with, the boulders seemed few and far between and there were no real lines to speak of. I had purchased the guidebook in advance from Japanese Amazon, but it didn't help much, since it was entirely in Japanese with only a few pictures and indecipherable topos. Lucky I had purchased two copies by mistake and at an exorbitant cost... We only had an hour or two of light left and hadn't organised to hire pads until the following day, so we took the opportunity to scope out the hotel a little better and make use of their bangin Onsen, resplendent with mountain views. Dinner followed, a banquet of assorted classics, miso to begin, some sashimi, a whole char grilled fish, some other side plates and of course, the obligatory rice. A couple of Asahi and some sake to boot and I was primed for bed. Morning comes early to the mountains and that's not some romantic, coloured view of alpine starts or anything. It starts to get light at around 3am, which is not something that I am used to, especially when the curtains look and act like rice paper. So by 7am I was itching to get cracking.

We hit the blocs early and started warming up. First thoughts were of a mix between Squamish and Castle Hill, big rounded blocs, with soft texture and not much friction in places. Warming up was fun, we found some great little classics and seemed to get by ok. There were a couple of things that I had spied some local crew having a lash at that looked a little harder, so we went and had a look. Temperatures were rising, but it didn't seem that warm, but when I went to try the first, highball classic, I was dismayed to feel just how slick the holds felt. I had a few goes and had my ass kicked off each time. I started to feel a little despondent, I was weak, too much ramen, too many asahi and anyway, my wrist hurt, so whatever. Oh and the conditions sucked. I had a little chat with myself and decided I would give it a couple more goes. Maybe give it a brush and then give the holds a couple of minutes to cool off and then have another lash. Turned out, it was a good idea and I soon found myself reaching for the top holds and standing on top of the bloc. That's more like it, time to try some harder things. We did a few other bits and pieces before retreating to the hotel for a bath, beer and dinner. As we were dining, a random English guy wandered in and started having a little yarn with us. Thankfully he had some good knowledge of where some of the more popular blocs were and gave us a bit more of an idea of the areas where we should be heading.
The buffet at the Hotel was pretty awesome after a big day, the Asahi was better though.
My favourite problem from the trip, no idea on name etc, but a great line.

Another classic in Ogawayama, river of forgetfulness I think it's called.















Easily the coldest swim I have ever had, but a stunning mountain river.

A sobering view of ground zero in Hiroshima



Turns out most of the better blocs were located down next to the river, all of about 100 metres from our room. Safe to say, we spent most of the next 5 days bouldering next to one of the most pristine mountain rivers that I have ever seen. The blocs are more of the river washed varietal, so the texture is smoother and some of the footers slicker than a grease trap, but it was still a lot of fun. It seemed that this was the most popular spot, especially on a weekend, where dozens of boulderers would descend and set up camp. There are some classic lines on some pretty big blocs, many of which have spicy topouts, which is one of the things that I normally love, however when the pads you have hired are as thin as a supermodel and your spotter weighs in under 50kilos, it sows a little doubt in your mind. I still had very little idea about names and grades, but that was kind of liberating. It was nice to just pick a line and start going for it, not being limited by how hard or easy something was. I got pointed in the direction of a couple of harder lines by one of the local guys who was pretty psyched to try them with me. We did one stellar problem on the bank of the river, traversing along the front side of the bloc on desperate slopers and some slick crimps before a high top out above an ankle snapping landing. It was a great feeling to have to try really hard on all of the moves. I had a nightmare with the start, good holds through a roof, but with a techy toe hook on polished rock that I just couldn't manage to make stay where I wanted it to. Being the tech wizard that I am, I eventually figured out a slightly different sequence that made the hook work for me and kept myself together for the rest of the moves. Another riverside classic done. The week we spent in Ogawayama was great, sure, it's not one of the must do destinations for any aspiring rock jock, but if you find yourself in Japan and are desperate to crush then it is one of the more beautiful places to pass a week, that is for sure. There is other climbing nearby that looks to be as good or possibly better, but without a car it was a no go. Mount Mizugaki is the name and is on the list for my next visit for sure.
Another contender for best problem!

So, down to the nitty gritty. How to get there, where to stay, blah blah blah. So, it's best to fly into Tokyo, from there it's all available to you. You can either hire a car from one of the larger train stations, ideally a little toward the west of the city, or you can catch the train and get the pick up from the hotel. Whilst having a phone conversation is not the easiest, if you email the hotel and they have a rough estimate of your arrival time, it should all run smoothly. It's best in May, but not the first week, as that's Golden Week, so much of the country is on holidays and therefore accommodation is at a premium and there are people everywhere. Ogawayama is not just a bouldering venue, there are walkers, route climbers and fly fisherman vying for space, so avoid Golden Week and visit before or after. Just remember, you are at 1500 metres, so it gets proper cold, be prepared for some chilly evenings, especially if you choose to camp, rather than stay in the hotel.
For the train journey, you need to get to Shinjuku Station, from here, it's the Chuo Line Limited Express to Kobuchizawa Station, change and then head to the Shinano-Kawakami Station which is on The Koumi line heading to Matsumoto. Get off and head for the phone booth. Trains run frequently and on time. If you are using a JR pass (which you have to buy before you get to Japan and have delivered by mai), it's free, otherwise it's somewhere in the vicinity of 6,500 yen or $75AUD one way. All up with smooth changeovers it's about a 3 hour journey. Make sure you pack lots of snack food for the week and all of the food that you need if you are camping. The hotel sells a limited amount of random as shit snacks, but best to bring your own. Also, word to the wise here, if you are staying at the hotel, the breakfast and dinners are included in the price, but you can negotiate to have both, one or neither. I suggest sticking with dinner, but giving brekkie the flick. Rather, bring some muesli etc and get friendly with the chef, who will allow you to store yoghurt and milk in the fridge. Also, bring your own coffee maker and supply. If you are like me and will murder someone merely for breathing in the morning before caffeine, you will be surrounded by corpses in no time, as they neither stock nor supply coffee. You've been warned!!! On the upside, you can buy as much beer and sake as you like for not much and it feels completely civil to have an ice cold asahi at 3 in the afternoon out of the vending machine in the lobby. Pads can be hired for around $10 a day, but they are pretty old and well worn. However, if you have to catch trains in Tokyo, bringing pads is going to be somewhat of a nightmare, you decide. Book them in advance by email.
Here's the details for the lodge, 546-2 Kawahake, Kawakami, Minamisaku District, Nagano Prefecture 384-1401, +81267992428, yoyaku@kawakami.or.jp














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