I emerged from Mitake Station, on the Ome Line, just after 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning amid a throng of day-tripping hikers easily identifiable by their heavy boots, seam-busting backpacks and seemingly standard issue trekking poles.
Peppered here and there within this tribe was a less common, but just as identifiable group. Climbers, sporting easily removable footwear, foreswore the hikers’ paraphernalia for light-but-unwieldy crash pads that they carried like oversized suitcases or else strap to their backs.
I found the taciturn Masatoshi Nakamura in his characteristic baseball cap and hoodie standing near the station gate, with a couple of other gym goers from Gravity, his indoor climbing business, already waiting with him, a few folded crash pads leaning against the handrail. After rounding up a few stragglers, Nakamura led the short walk to the Tama River, its wide banks strewn with boulders of various shapes and sizes.
Mitake, about an hour and half outside Tokyo, was first explored for bouldering by Isao Ikeda in 1982, and it has since become the metropolis’ most popular bouldering area thanks to its easy accessibility.
We found a number of climbers already on the scene, as well as several groups of elderly picnickers watching them with minimal interest. Occasionally a handful of kayaks would pass by on the river.
We warmed up on “The Slide” before moving over to “Melted Soft Cream,” each time carefully placing the crash pads in case of a fall. Climbers have a fondness for imaginatively naming rocks and routes, but despite the cute labels these boulders are as unforgiving as one would expect from a 10-ton hunk of granite.
The most famous Mitake boulder, though, carries the more appropriately intimidating moniker of “Ninja Gaeshi” (“Ninja Rejecter”), so named after the steep castle walls designed to repel raiding troops.
The next six hours passed with singular focus. At times I hung from my fingertips, my feet pedaling at slippery slabs of granite. At others, I slapped white chalk marks against the unyielding stone while standing like a ballerina on jibs the size of ¥10 coins.
Of course I didn’t climb for six hours straight. I spent considerably more time examining each route, planning my sequence, and goading my companions along with cries of “Gamba! gamba!” as they sweated and struggled on the rocks.
Climbing is a sport that rewards perseverance, and success or failure on a route often comes down to the fine mental line between determination and doubt. While battling a rock may seem like a solitary endeavor, encouragement from fellow climbers and intelligence on how to complete a particular problem are an essential part of the climbing culture.
Rock climbing as an alpine sport goes back at least a couple of centuries, but began to mature independently in the first half of the 20th century as mountaineers in Europe and North America developed new equipment and novel techniques to scale steeper routes.
By the 1950s, climbing was considered its own sport, and it has steadily grown in popularity ever since.
The term itself encompasses several, at times overlapping, subdivisions of climbing methods determined by what gear is used and how. But when most people talk about rock climbing, they mean some form of free climbing, which relies on physical ability alone to scale a wall. Different configurations of ropes, belays and anchors serve safety purposes, but do not directly aid the climber in an ascent.
Bouldering, climbing shorter routes without the aid of a rope or harness, has been getting more and more popular in Tokyo in recent years, largely because, when compared to other forms of climbing, it’s the cheapest and easiest to try. All you need is a pair of climbing shoes and a chalk bag, both of which can be rented at the gym.
Consequently, bouldering gyms have been popping up like mushrooms around Tokyo of late, and cater to a wide range of abilities by setting routes of varying degrees of difficulty.
Nakamura opened the Takadanobaba bouldering gym Gravity six years ago with the aim of providing a space where people could relax and refresh after a stressful workday. Compared to other gyms, the routes here more closely resemble those found outdoors.
A lot of hobby climbers rarely venture out, but to my mind there’s no facsimile for climbing on real rock.
Kanto’s humid summers make the Mitake boulders too slick to climb, and winter brings snow to the mountain valley, but even outside of the climbing season I’m occasionally drawn to Mitake to take the twice-hourly funicular up Mount Mitake to the tiny village of Oshi, where a footpath winds through a collection of mountain lodges and temple retreats to Musashi Mitake Shrine.
Though the current structure dates back to 1877, this shrine crowning the mountain’s 929-meter summit was founded in 1307 as the center of worship for the surrounding area.
A network of trails beyond the shrine leads to neighboring peaks along ridgelines and through steep ravines. By far the most beautiful route leads down into the Rock Garden, an assortment of mossy boulders scattered along a narrow stream at the bottom of a gorge. The largest of these boulders, Tengu Rock, sits a few dozen meters above the brook where a pair of watchful bronze tengu (legendary goblin priest from the mountains) are perched at the top.
A heavy chain is bolted into the rock for hikers to haul themselves up and leave small coins before the statue for luck. The trail is also popular for the two small waterfalls that empty into pristine pools of crystal clear water. Ayahirono Fall is marked as a sacred space by a simple wooden torii and, when I visited one fall, two freshly cut bamboo shoots stuck into the pebbly sand. In the winter, a web of icicles form alongside the falls and snow blankets the countless stones that dot the valley.
Above the basin, the ridge trail to Mount Odake has some of the best views in all of Kanto. Though still technically Tokyo, the steep and forested terrain feels a lifetime away from the daily grind of the city.
Climbing is a sport of obsession, however, and even on these hikes I find myself contemplating every boulder and cliff, wondering how I would climb it.
This preoccupation also brought me back to the Tama River banks on a cold, brilliant day this winter. After renting crash pads for ¥1,000 apiece from Maunga, a secondhand outdoor store, my companions and I followed the stairs back down to the crags.
Winter was settling into the valley by then, and there were far fewer climbers out than I’d seen before. Even sticking to the sunny rock faces, we still spent our fair share of time blowing warm air into our cupped and stinging hands.
After lunch we ventured further upstream, past the kayaking course and to the opposite bank to a boulder called “Derashine,” which has a wide overhang along the main face.
Many of the routes begin under this low stone ceiling, forcing climbers to arch their backs and climb out from underneath.
Every boulder has its own unique shape, its own distinct character, and if you spend enough time crawling over one you develop not so much an appreciation for its individual nature, but something closer to reverence.
There are times when you forget about the climb entirely and simply wonder what natural forces conspired over however many thousands of years to give a stone such singular form.
We had “Derashine” all to ourselves and spent the afternoon climbing every single line before stringing them together to make epic, blood-pumping traverses. Each time we finished a route, a cheer rose up, occasionally startling the kayakers nearby.
We were three grown men clambering around a boulder like a bunch of children on a jungle gym. The only sound besides our own voices was that of the river as it carried all our worries somewhere far downstream.
Mitake can be reached from Shinjuku Station in under 90 minutes on the Chuo Line with a transfer to the Ome Line at Ome Station for ¥920. The bouldering area can be reached within minutes of the station, and buses to the Mount Mitake cable car depart from the bus stop southeast of the station every 30 minutes.