Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, business had never been better for Japan’s climbing gyms.

“The inclusion of climbing in the Olympics brought a lot of good things,” explains Yuji Hirayama, a climbing legend and owner of Base Camp climbing gyms. “People started to see climbers on TV and in advertisements, which brought many new customers.”

Hirayama has won the climbing World Cup twice — in 1998 and 2000 — and is widely regarded as the greatest Japanese climber of all time. “In the 80s, when I started climbing, there were no gyms. I had to train on castle walls,” he laughs.

The climbing scene in Japan has come a long way since then. Whereas in the early 2000s there were just over 50 gyms, there are now around 600 spread across the country.

In addition, Japan’s climbing team is widely regarded as one of the strongest on the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s (IFSC) World Cup circuit — with both the male and female athletes regularly contending for silverware.

But with the cancellation of numerous international events and the delay of the Olympics, the pandemic has put the aspirations of Japanese competition climbers on hold — and affected the operations of climbing gyms that have had to adjust to government guidelines to prevent the spread of infections.

The secret to success

Japanese climbing gyms are considered some of the best in the world and have played a central role in the rise of Japanese athletes.

So what makes them so special?

“Due to high rents, Japanese climbing gyms are often small. This forces us to come up with new ideas on how to use space and make things fun for customers,” explains Naito Naoya, founder and owner of the Pump climbing gyms, which he started in 1993.

Naoya was one of the first to recognize the potential for gyms that focus specifically on bouldering rather than rope climbing. When he opened B-Pump Kokubunji in 2002, it was one of the first bouldering-only gyms in the greater Tokyo area.

“It was a great success, and many people soon realized that bouldering gyms require less space, are easier to make and are a good business,” he says.

Climbers cheer each other on as they take turns on the world renowned boulders at B-Pump Ogikubo. | COURTESY OF FRONTIER SPIRITS
Climbers cheer each other on as they take turns on the world renowned boulders at B-Pump Ogikubo. | COURTESY OF FRONTIER SPIRITS

The lack of space also forced gym owners to focus on the quality of climbing. This meant training and employing dedicated professionals known as route setters to create routes, or problems, by placing holds in such a way as to force climbers into specific sequences of movements.

“Most Japanese gyms understand that route-setting is important and they spend time and money on this. Japanese climbers are successful because they climb on high-quality problems,” Naoya says.

The quality of Japanese route-setting has attracted climbers from around the world.

“The route-setting in Japan is really special, nowhere else have I seen route setters put so much energy and time into creating such perfect problems,” explains Adam Ondra, who has been considered one of the best climbers in the world for over a decade.

According to Ondra, a strong climbing community has also been a key ingredient in the rise of Japanese athletes on the competition scene.

“In the past I have gone to Japan because I wanted to climb on these perfect problems, but even more importantly, I wanted to train with Japanese climbers and learn from them,” he continues.

Struggling with COVID-19

The pandemic has brought about hard times for gym owners and athletes alike.

During Japan’s first national state of emergency — between April and May of 2020 — most gyms closed their doors to clients, and are still operating with restricted opening hours and numbers.

Owners such as Naoya and Hirayama report that they lost between 30% to 50% of their business in 2020, and that the decrease in first-time users was even more pronounced — between 50% and 70%.

“We had to lay off some staff, cut salaries and do anything possible to reduce costs,” says Naoya, who shut down the Pump Osaka branch permanently in May 2020 after 23 years of operations.

When one of the largest gyms in Tokyo’s 23 wards, Rocklands, also announced its closure during Japan’s first state of emergency, the community of climbers who had trained there for years mobilized to find a solution.

A social media campaign to save the gym was launched and helped inspire Tokyo-based entrepreneur and passionate climber Gou Kitahara to step in and keep it running.

“Looking at the Facebook page, I saw that there were a lot of people who were fans of Rocklands,” says Kitahara. “This helped me realize the gym’s true potential. So, I talked to some friends and we decided to invest in the project and started a crowdfunding campaign to help cover initial renovation work, rent and labor costs.”

The campaign was a great success, raising ¥8.4 million ($77,500) — ¥1.3 million more than the initial target. To Kitahara’s surprise, even people who didn’t climb at Rocklands participated.

Other gyms across the country have also received help from their clients. Dogwood, a popular Tokyo gym, launched a successful crowdfunding campaign, while climbers in Osaka created a social media page called Save Osaka Climbing Gyms that raised awareness about the dire situation many gyms have found themselves in.

Akiyo Noguchi trains for lead climbing during a practice session on her private wall. | COURTESY OF AKIYO NOGUCHI
Akiyo Noguchi trains for lead climbing during a practice session on her private wall. | COURTESY OF AKIYO NOGUCHI

A bright future ahead

Today, gyms across Japan are still trying to get back on their feet and attract new clients by providing safe spaces in which to climb. At the same time, they’re also trying to help athletes who have been impacted by the lack of competition.

“Not being able to participate in international competitions has definitely affected my preparations for the Olympics,” explains Akiyo Noguchi, who has won the IFSC Bouldering World Cup on four occasions.

On Feb. 19, B-Pump Ogikubo climbing gym held a bouldering competition — called “the SIX” — featuring six of Japan’s best female and male climbers. Although it was held behind closed doors, the innovative format and live streaming made the event a huge success.

“Even without an audience, the ingenuity in creating this competition made it fantastic. I think the SIX will be a case model for future gym events,” says Noguchi, who also competed.

With the pandemic still holding back gyms and competitors, there is no doubt the growth of the sport has been in limbo. However, a resilient community, innovative thinking by gym owners and the confirmation of climbing’s participation at the Paris Olympics, in 2024, means the future of climbing remains bright.

“Climbing is about more than just the sport; it opens opportunities and creates a sense of community,” Hirayama says. “We can give young people dreams to look forward to, and this is the greatest strength of climbing.”

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