As we search for bigger thrills and harder adrenaline rushes, more and more people are pursuing a break from the norm with “extreme” sports.
The media have jumped on the bandwagon and all the paraphernalia that comes with it. TV programs typically feature the young and hip pushing their bodies to the limit to a thumping bass-laden soundtrack — and managing to make it look effortless.
Let’s face it, extreme is cool.
Rock climbing is one such sport on offer. It has been gaining popularity in recent years, but misconceptions of the perceived brute force needed to haul yourself up abound — think Tom Cruise hanging by a pinkie hundreds of meters above the ground.
In reality, however, climbing is more about agility, flexibility and endurance. A skilled climber will more often than not resemble a graceful gymnast rather than a muscle-bound he-man.
Indoor climbing gyms are a good place to get a taste of what it’s all about. There are currently three gyms to be found in Tokyo. One is REI, located in Machida in the western part of the capital. The other two belong to the T-Wall group of climbing gyms.
After establishing its first gym in Iruma, Saitama Prefecture, in 1992, T-Wall set up two Tokyo facilities — near Kagurazaka in Shinjuku Ward and Kinshicho in Sumida Ward.
As a testament to the growing popularity of the sport, the latter two branches of T-Wall have gained approximately 11,000 members in total since opening in 1998.
All T-Wall gyms feature walls to practice bouldering (4-meter walls where ropes are not used), top-roped climbs (8- to 11-meter walls where the rope is in place) and lead climbs (where a rope is secured on the climb up).
Walls try to reproduce the effect of climbing outdoors by using rock-shaped “holds” for hands and feet.
Climbs are classified according to difficulty, indicated by a numbered grade, and to help the climber decipher the mosaic of different holds, climbs are color-coded.
Toshimichi Kusano, 33, is a staffer who helps run T-Wall’s Kinshicho gym. He explained that T-Walls started up because in the past there were no indoor gyms to be found in and around the Tokyo area.
Busy Tokyoites were hard-pressed to fit in an outdoor trip, something that needs time and patience to organize. Added to this was the frustration that the weather doesn’t always comply with a climber’s plans.
“Climbers wanted a place to practice when the weather was bad or they didn’t have enough time to go outdoors,” Kusano says.
“Mountaineers and ice climbers also wanted a place to keep in shape when their sport was out of season.”
Kusano has been climbing for 17 years. He started out with an interest in mountaineering and says climbing just followed naturally from that. “I like being outdoors. Climbing is a chance to be in nature,” he says.
Englishman David Stott, 26, is also an experienced climber. Only in Japan a short while, he found out about T-Wall through a climbing magazine.
Although shocked at the price difference between Japan and Britain for a day’s indoor climbing — Japan is two to three times more expensive — he was glad to have the opportunity to practice.
“Of course I want to be outside, but it’s difficult (in Tokyo), so this is convenient,” he says.
T-Wall is not the sole domain of experienced climbers. But to the uninitiated, it is the ideal place to start.
Akiko Tanaka, 20, is a newcomer to the sport. She decided to have a go when a friend persuaded her to try.
“I wanted to try because it was something different and I thought it would be cool. At first I was a little scared, but I soon started to enjoy it,” she says.
When starting out, climbing can be a relatively expensive sport. Indoor gyms require a harness and climbing shoes, but these can both be rented from T-Wall for under 400 yen each.
“I had no idea what equipment I would need for climbing,” Tanaka says. “But everything can be found here.”
T-Wall also provides beginners with a short introductory session to ensure they climb safely and get the most out of the experience.
“I was very nervous when I started. The introduction gave me the confidence to do it,” Tanaka says.
Confidence is a key aspect to climbing well. A first-time climber will often cling desperately to the wall afraid to look down. Once the initial fear has been overcome, however, the adrenaline starts pumping. The first look of misgiving gives way to a Cheshire-cat grin of satisfaction and achievement.
People who pass by Kinshicho’s T-Wall often stop to peer at the curious spiderlike creatures clinging to the wall. “What are they doing?” one man asks. “It looks like fun.”
And that, according to T-Wall, is part of its philosophy. Anyone can start up climbing regardless of age or strength. The main thing is to go for it.
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