INTERVIEW: Toru Nakajima

Toru Nakajima on Flat Mountain, ~9a+  © Nakajima coll.
Toru Nakajima on Flat Mountain, ~9a+
© Nakajima coll.

A couple of years ago, after he had made his now legendary visit to the Peak district where he stunned the gritstone community by repeating and making first ascents of some very bold lines, I made an interview with Toru Nakajima.

His ticklist that time included climbs like

Meshuga, E9 6c, Black rocks, climbed in a slight drizzle
Nocturnal emission, E9 6c
Black out, E9 6c, Burbage south, first ascent, solo
Simba's pride, E8 6b, Burbage south, solo
Elm street, E8 6c, Millstone, solo
Brad Pitt, 7C+, Stanage, Flash

He was 15.

The following year, at 16, he skipped school and returned for a brief visit to Cornwall, where he, again, impressed the local community by making some rare and bold repeats.

Climbing this kind of routes at such a young age must surely mean he had been practicing it back home since he was, well... even younger? Japan must then be an Eldorado for British trad climbers, no?

After his latest visit to the UK, we didn't hear much about Toru. I noticed he had done an 8c+, then a ~9a+, but I didn't know any details. Then, this early autumn, he was suddenly in Colorado for a short visit. The conditions weren't good and in the beginning Toru suffered from altitude sicknes, but this didn't stop him from quickly repeating problems as hard as 8B+.

I decided it was time to ask the now 19 year old some questions again:

What is it that attracts you to climbing? What does it give you? Does this change over time you think?
My favorite style is bouldering now. But I love everything that have a relation to free climbing.
I try some new trad route and boulders in Japan. Climbing gives me many things, joy, thrill, impressions, and friends. They have not changed since I started climbing.

Toru Nakajima on Kakusei, ~8C?  © Nakajima coll.
Toru Nakajima on Kakusei, ~8C?
© Nakajima coll.

Rumors have it you have been trying the slab to the right of Bansosha, ~8B+, at Ogawayama, which is said to be much harder. Can you tell me anything about it? Maybe you have done it already?
There are two problems to the right of Bansosha, Kakusei and Huminsho. These problems are harder than Bansosha. I did Huminsho when I was 15 years old. I think Bansosha is V13 [8B) and Huminsho is V14 [8B+], and Kakusei is harder. No one has been able to make a third ascent of Huminsho or second ascent of Kakusei. Tokio Muroi made the first ascents of both of them

.

I also heard you repeated Flat mountain, 9a, one of the hardest routes in Japan. Can you tell me something about the routes you have done and want to do in the future?
Flat Mountain was first climbed by Yuji Hirayama in 2003, and he graded it 9a/+. It is a 30m beautiful limestone face. The lower section of the route is 5.12c [7b+], and the crux is a V12 [8A+] including an impressive dead-point, from a two-finger under-cling to a sloper.
The upper section is around V7 [7B]. I tried it more than 10days. I don't know how hard it is, but I heard that Sachi Amma said it is harder than Papichulo, 9a+, at Oliana, Spain.
I am not so interested in hard sport route because, there is no good rock where I can put up new routes in Japan.

I saw on facebook, you are very close on Asagimadara, which you say is around ~8C/+! Who made the first ascent of this one?
The first ascent of Asagimadara was made by Tokio Muroi who is one of the strongest climbers in Japan. He doesn't use crashpads and he has also made first ascents of some hard trad in Japan.

Have you put up any bold climbs in Japan?
I have not done any hard bold climbs in Japan yet, but I am trying a very hard bold climb now.

Do you ever get scared while climbing?
When I fell from the upper section of Ulysses' Bow [on an onsight attempt], I thought my backbone was broken. My backbone escaped unhurt. I was lucky.

Toru Nakajima on Asagimadara, ~8C/+  © Nakajima coll.
Toru Nakajima on Asagimadara, ~8C/+
© Nakajima coll.
You impressed the strong locals in Boulder, Colorado recently by making a number of quick repeats of some of the most difficult problems there. What did you think of the area and how would you compare the style, rock and grades to what you are used to?
Boulder and Colorado was wonderful! Especially, I was impressed by the location of the boulder areas. Luckily, I could do some hard problems even tough the conditions were quite bad. I think this part of the US and Japan have more or less the same style and rock, but the location of the bouldering in Japan is not so good. And it is difficult to compare with grades because we use the original Japanese grading system for boulder problems.
I am thankful to the people who helped me.

In the last interview I made with you, you mentioned climbers in Japan are generally more focused on competition climbing than climbing outside. Would you say this is a trend that has continued?
I think that trend has continued. But the population of climbers who enjoy climbing outside is increasing. Free climbing has become more popular in Japan, and some young strong climbers who prefer climbing outside has been appearing.

You used to compete successfully yourself Is this something you are still interested in?
I am not so interested in competition climbing. I would much rather climb on rock around the world than participate in a World Cup.

How do you train?
Mainly, I train at a bouldering gym. I make hard problems and try them. I don't do anything special. I think the important thing is not only to climb a lot, but also to try problems that have a special factor for me. I look for my weak point while working on problems, and make problem which are hard for me. Since I am not a competition climber, I think my style is good for me.

I guess you are still an unknown name to most climbers in Europe or the US. What is it like in Japan?
Maybe I am known in Japan. But I am not known well because I don't participate in competitions frequently. And I live in a rural area where there are not so many chances to meet climbers who live in city.

Last time we talked, you didn't have any sponsors. What is it like now?
I am supported by The North Face.


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12 Dec, 2012
Did it move? I thought it was at Black Rocks?
12 Dec, 2012
He's right that there's a limited amount of 'developed' rock in Japan for someone like him to put up new routes. However, there's a ton of undeveloped stuff which if cleaned up would be amazing. A few of the guys I used to climb with in Japan would go out and try some of this "off-piste" stuff. One of the guys I climbed with (American Japanese, probably best natural climber I ever climbed with) said that he was amazed by the lack of newly developed places in Japan given the potential. Two main problems appear to be: a) Japanese seem prefer to redpoint hard developed stuff than break new ground. b) there is a debilitating safety first culture, which probably puts off climbers from exploring. To give an example of the latter. The area know as Yugawara, where the first ever 7a+ put up in Japan is (and probably the best 7a+ in Japan), has been closed off for about 4 years. I think in fact I was one of the last people to get to climb this. The reason - rockfall from another small crag about 300m away!
13 Dec, 2012
Are you talking about Japanese climbing or Japanese society in general? I'm reluctant to disagree with your personal experience of Japanese climbing, SARS, as it could well be grounded in different areas to mine, but I have to admit that I haven't really noticed this... Ancient rusty old ring bolts, in-situ pitons that are so degraded you can snap them with your fingers... These things are not at all unusual in Japan, and it tends to be implicit in suggested timings on many alpine routes that you'll be running it out unprotected on steep exposed terrain between climbing sections. It's certainly a huge pity about the crags at Yugawara, I used to enjoy going there myself, but I'd be surprised to hear that it's closure comes from within the climbing community. I'd definitely say that anyone who enters Ichi-no-kura-sawa on Tanigawadake had better be prepared to step well outside of any safety-first national culture...
13 Dec, 2012
I confirm a part of Yugawara, from Tentomushi (=ladybird) Rock Area to New Area, covering Shomen-heki (=Front Wall), seems to be still banned for climbing at 2012. Source (in Japanese): the JFA news: http://freeclimb.jp/news/news2008_1.htm and Izu-Joyama blog: http://izujoyama.blog10.fc2.com/blog-entry-8.html The cause of the ban was, reportedly, due to a massive rock fall in the Tentomushi Rock Area in January 2008. Other areas, including bouldering areas, in Yugawara are open, apparently. Just remember to follow the local code, such as, brushing off the chalk after bouldering sessions. I agree the first half of the problem (b) SARS mentioned: there is a debilitating safety first culture. That is annoying and I consider is harmful on balance even for the society itself. But I see climbers' attitude there is somewhat different from the social standard (after all who would want to be a climber if they strictly follow "debilitating safety first culture"?), and in that sense I don't quite agree on the second half of your statement (b). Allegedly Mt Tanigadake, which encompasses infamous (or superb) Ichinokura-sawa, has seen more death toll than any other mountain in the world... It is presumably because of the combined factor of its harsh weather particularly in winter, proximity to the massively populated area (30 million, Tokyo) and relative ease of access, as well as the exploratory spirit of early mountaineers. I suppose those many fatal accidents did not help overturn the safety-first culture. Masa
13 Dec, 2012
My point about safety first culture was more to do with non climbers. Why is the Yugawara area which holds Spiderman (the afore mentioned 7a+) closed? Because of the rockfall at Tentomushi and the fact that the crag lies within a plum park. By the way, 'massive' rockfall is a slight exaggeration. Tentomushi is a tiny are about 15ft wide and < 30 ft high. Sure the rock that fell was big enough to hurt/kill, but anyway the Spiderman area is way away from the actual plum park - and only climbers go to that part of the area. Jogasaki, my favourite sports crag in Japan, was also almost closed because someone (I think a hiker) decided to try and descend into the crag area (an abseil is needed). Unfortunately one of the rotten fixed ropes broke and he died. The local authorities response was to almost ban climbing in the whole area. An amazing location - better than any sports location in UK. Fortunately this was avoided with careful negotiation with the Japanese climbing federation. Another non climbing example: if you see revolving doors in Tokyo you'll notice most of them don't work. Why? Because a long time ago a child died after being caught in the door. The Japanese response was to stop all these doors revolving. So my point was, the lack of exploration of new areas is quite likely to do with this culture. That climbers are banned from opening up areas, in effect. As for my first point - it's a slightly different point but also a truism. Having climbed regularly (ie every weekend) outside with Japanese - locals who couldn't speak English just to frame the picture - I rarely saw onsight attempts. It was almost always get to the crag, warm up, and then jump on the 8+ project for the rest of the day. This is not a criticism, just an observation.
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