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Crazy Good

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Alex Puccio threw back her head and howled, to a returning cacophony. She had just flashed the last problem in the women’s finals at the 2018 IFSC Bouldering World Cup in Vail, winning gold on home soil. A great story—but there was another in the lives and routines of the silver and bronze finishers. Quieter stage presences than the brawny and open Puccio, Miho Nonaka and Akiyo Noguchi of Japan were podium fixtures this past season—both took medals in all seven bouldering World Cups of 2018. As for the men’s field, the Japanese climbers Rei Sugimoto and Tomoa Narasaki wore gold and bronze, respectively. They too had an outsized number of podiums in 2018.

Upper: Rei SuGimoto celebrates the top that would clinch him gold at the Vail World cup, 2018.

The Japanese are dominating. In the big picture at Vail, when the qualification fields of 58 women and 91 men were whittled down to finals of just six of each gender, a whopping eight of the 12 were Japanese, and four of them earned medals. While Japanese competitors represented just 10 percent of the starting field, they accounted for 66 percent of both finalists and medalists.

“The Japanese are crazy good!” Jernej Kruder wrote in an email. Kruder, from Slovenia, was the overall champion—followed by Narasaki and Sugimoto in second and third—for the 2018 Bouldering World Cup season.

All begged the question: How are they doing it? Sure, Japanese climbers have been among the elite in our sport for decades: Yuji Hirayama was onsighting 5.14b when Alex Megos and Adam Ondra were 11-year-olds, and Dai Koyamada was proposing V16 when a 14-year-old Daniel Woods still hadn’t even contemplated getting that spider tattoo. But Japanese ownership of the bouldering World Cup podiums is a new phenomenon. While they are no slouches in lead either—Keiichiro Korenaga finished third overall in the 2017 IFSC Lead World Cup for the men—bouldering is where the Japanese team shines. Noguchi won three events this year, and Nonaka one, while she and Noguchi finished one-two in the overall IFSC rankings. Narasaki was first in Moscow, Sugimoto at Vail, and they were two-three overall, with their teammates Kokoro Fujii and Tomoaki Takata in sixth and seventh (and Yuji Fujiwaki just outside the top 10 in 11th) overall.

As an observer, I figured at first that the phenomenon probably had something to do with superior training: that Noguchi, Narasaki, Nonaka, Sugimoto and their teammates simply condition their bodies better.

Only Sugimoto answered a correlating inquiry. Sugimoto, who started climbing at age 8, said that his weekly training routine consists of two days of physical non-climbing training, three or four days of bouldering, and one session of mental training with a coach. That’s a punishing regimen, yet no more intense than other World Cup climbers like the Canadian boulderer and lead climber Sean McColl or the German powerhouse Jan Hojer.

Miho Nonaka crimping her way to gold in Meiringen, Switzerland, 2018.

Theory number two. Perhaps the number of Japanese sensations has something to do with the prevalence of climbing gyms in Japan? Japan boasts about 600 climbing gyms. The U.S. has some 600, too. The difference is that Japan has about 200 million fewer people and is about 25 times smaller in area. The real clue, and what may bolster theory number two, is that due to expensive real estate and restrictive building codes, over 90 percent of the Japanese gyms are exclusively bouldering, according to Naoya Naito, owner of seven climbing gyms called PUMP.

Naito explained: “Because of the difficulty [in differentiating gyms in] scale and size … the culture to differentiate with quality and variety of problems took root in this country.” Competition between gyms forces setters to be innovative with what they have, seeking more difference between the facilities.

Takako Hoshi, the slight, soft- spoken assistant coach for the Japan National Climbing Team, concurred. “In order to draw people to come,” she said, “the gyms have to have really interesting and nice routes. So some of them have this competition style, and also really nice styles with volumes. Some of them are very hard in a different way. Some, like Dai Koyamada’s Project Climbing Gym, have a wall plastered full of holds. So athletes can go to different gyms and try all different kinds of routes.”

Still, access doesn’t breed ability; it alone cannot explain the Japanese brilliance. Watching Akiyo Noguchi break the beta on the women’s third finals problem in Vail—stemming wildly out right and palming on a blank Entre-Prises wall, eventually going full horizontal as spectators gaped—was a thing of beauty. Seeing the raw power of Tomoa Narasaki as he campused off overhanging one- and two-finger pockets on the men’s second finals problem felt like watching a character in some physics-defying video game. Skill and power like that, even among the preternaturally gifted Chris Sharmas of the world, or climbers who train ad nauseum, require a je ne sais quoi—perhaps some strange monomania? A diet of sushi? Hello Kitty?

Dai Koyamada’s Project Climbing Gym, holds cover every square inch of wall available.

Kruder told me: “When it gets to the top 10 climbers, [it] doesn’t matter anymore where you are from, but what is your mindset.” So maybe one answer lies in cultural and societal idiosyncrasies that have evolved in Japan over centuries. Hoshi, who lived abroad in China for 17 years, has an unusual perspective into Japanese culture both as a part of it and an outsider. Hoshi spoke of shugyo, a concept she describes as “training like a monk.” There are six different Japanese words that describe types of training, and while four of them are easily translated, shugyo is harder to encapsulate. In essence, shugyo is an all-encompassing approach to daily life: it is about constantly seeking to better oneself, in all aspects, so as to achieve balance between the spiritual and the physical and, ultimately, eke ever closer to enlightenment.

Hoshi tried to explain how shugyo extends to even the simplest areas of life with an example. “In Tokyo, it is very hard to get around the city. You have to plan ahead to go from point A to point B. Train times are exact and complicated. So nobody wastes time. So climbers, when they get to the gym to train, know that they cannot waste any time. They take it very seriously.”

Akiyo Noguchi (left) and Miho Nonaka Puzzle out sequences together.

Ikuko Serato, co-owner with Dai Koyamada of Project Climbing Gym, further identified modesty as a strong component of shugyo. “We are taught to be modest to our own ability and technique. Being modest seems converse to being aggressive … but I think it has an effect on the strength of Japanese climbers.”

Also present in the idea of shugyo is an utmost dedication, an apprenticeship, to a single pursuit. Climbers elsewhere might fit in a climbing session between slack lining or a rip of the bong, but in Japan climbers seem more singularly focused on climbing.

Sugimoto said, “Even if they are not professional … some people train every day. When I see the gyms in Europe or the USA, it seems that people there enjoy climbing as one of many hobbies. But many Japanese climbers only think of climbing.”

Sugimoto also brought up the concepts of konjo and kiai. In “Samurai and Science: Sports Psychology in Japan,” from the book Cultural Sport Psychology, Yoichi Kozuma writes, “Konjo has been loosely translated into English as ‘guts,’ but it has a much deeper meaning, including high physical endurance, courage under adversity, and the tenacity to face pain and hardship for the good of the team.”

Sugimoto said konjo affects his climbing: “When training is hard, and I want to give up, I tell myself kiai”—the short sound made by martial artists, e.g. hi-yah. “Then I manage to do that training and finish it. I push myself. Then I’m also able to exceed my limits when competing.”

While parsing philosophies like shugyo, konjo and kiai and how they manifest in Japanese climbing can seem abstract, there are smaller, concrete ways to see the tenets in action. In the U.S. we say, “Come on!” to urge a climber upwards—a harsh imperative, though meant encouragingly. Analogous phrases like the French “Allez!” have a similar tone. Yet the Japanese term “Gamba,” as Sugimoto pointed out, means, “Do your best.”

This article appeared in Gym Climber 1.