In 2016 James Pearson, Caroline Ciavaldini and Toru Nakajima headed to the Japanese island of Kinkasan in search of new climbing routes and to see how the area was recovering from a 2011 tsunami. This is their story, as told by James Pearson.
Even with the best planning, preparation and intentions things can still go wrong. We were supposed to enjoy 10 days of new-routing on perfect, untouched granite and explore this unique island.
We wanted to show off Kinkasan to the world in all its glory, with the hope that more climbers would visit this magical place – their money boosting the economy and speeding up the reconstruction process. However, the late summer typhoon had other ideas. It rained when we left the plane and while we drove through Tokyo to Yuji’s gym – aptly named Base Camp. It rained while we packed our bags and while we ate dinner. We even had to put our plans back by one day as the storm was making the ocean too rough for the ferry to operate.
Thankfully it was dry for the crossing and after unpacking our bags at the shrine we bouldered on a nearby beach for an hour before the rain came. With so much rock to see and so little time, we decided that despite the weather we would hike along the coast in search of potential lines. The rain became heavier, we became wetter and after four soggy hours we returned to the shrine, hopes high but spirits low. We’d been preparing this trip since September 2015, putting the team together, finding funding from sponsors, organising the local logistics, yet it would all be in vain if the weather didn’t brighten up.
A morning of rain gave us the excuse to sit down and record some interviews, though truthfully we had little to say as we’d done hardly any climbing. Toru Nakajima, ever the silent optimist finally dragged me out to the closest boulder spot during a break between showers and, surprisingly, we were able to climb. Toru lived up to his reputation of boldness and brilliance, making the first ascents of two of Kinkasan’s hardest problems.
Finally things were looking up. The forecast was good for the following days and group psyche could not have been higher. We began to plan our upcoming adventure and our first trip to the other side of the island – the area with the highest concentration of rock and the biggest cliffs, but had to cut them short as bad news broke.
The Shrine of Kinkasan Island was once enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, but after the tsunami that number shrunk to just 5%. The islands only accommodation, a 1970’s concrete behemoth of a hotel is now almost always empty and, indeed, for the first two nights we’d had the place to ourselves. However, on rare occasions the temple holds a special kind of ceremony and hundreds of worshipers from all over Japan descend upon it. Tomorrow night was going to be one such ceremony, meaning sadly for us there was no space left at the inn and, subsequently, on the island!
With the last ferry leaving the island at 10am, a 5am start was the only way to sneak in a few hours of climbing before being forced back for a night on the mainland.
Waking up and walking before first light never feels easy, but as we arrived at the climbing area with the morning sun glowing through the trees, all sleepiness was long forgotten.
Caroline opened up a beautiful short pitch on pristine sculpted granite and while certainly not the hardest pitch she has ever climbed, she was unapologetically complimentary about the quality of the rock, stating how rare it was to be able to open new routes without the need for extensive pre-cleaning.
With her thirst for climbing temporarily quenched, we left the island in limbo, happy, yet sad, but knowing we’d be back in less than 24hours. We passed the day visiting some of the worst tsunami-affected towns in an effort to better understand what hardships the local people had to live through and how they are moving forwards. It's one thing to watch the news from the comfort of your lounge back home; it's another thing entirely to see it first hand and speak to the people who lost everything – houses, possessions, loved ones! Suddenly our troubles with the rain seemed embarrassingly small and we remembered why we were actually here in the first place. Our personal climbing desires must come second to the larger goal of showing this place to the world. Rain or shine, we have to get out there.