Every parking space has a car parked in it, so we pull off to the side of the road. The scene is pretty much the same every weekend. Men, women, and children of various shapes and sizes check and double-check their gear before they burden their backs with the heavy load. My wife or other climbing partner looks at me, “Scuba diving is too much work,” one of them will usually say. I just agree and load my own back. We follow the next herd towards the water, but when they turn left at the entry point, we continue on.
Although the emerald-colored ocean appears quite appealing, we came here to scale the multi-colored limestone cliffs, not to dive into the deep blue sea. The Okinawan climbing community is a nice mix of American Service members, DOD civilians, family members, and Japanese nationals of mixed climbing ability levels. Every week an email goes out informing climbers where the core of the group will climb. Luckily, Okinawa is fairly small and all areas are close enough for day trips. With the email sent, individuals start to make their own plans, mostly in the form of organizing carpools so single military members without vehicles can play too, or to save on gas costs. The small, tight-knit community is extremely helpful and supportive and it’s not unusual to have a climber in the group on Saturday who’s only been on the island for three days.
Barbara Treadway, a Kinser Elementary school teacher has been climbing for tens of years. Her climbing resume includes half the major climbing areas in America, with trips to Thailand, Australia, and China to keep things interesting. She routinely picks up Marines on Schwab or Hansen, the northern end of the island, to make sure they can climb while on the island. “It’s nice to see how Marines and local climbers instantly accept one another because they are climbers,” Barbara explains. “On the cliff, climbing is all that matters. You don’t think about your job or any of your problems.”
On any given Saturday or Sunday, it’s pretty obvious that climbing transcends any cultural differences among the group. Both American and Japanese, or the equally cross-cultural match of civilian and service members, climbers instantly accept one another. regardless of their individual differences, or even climbing abilities. “Climbing gives me an in into the community. Normally, once I find the climbing and the climbers at a new location, everything is alright,” say Mrs. Treadway while tying the rope to her harness.
Last month, Shingo, a mainland transplant who’s been climbing for five years, established a new route. In honor of the climbing group, he named the route “International.” Since starting to climb with the Okinawa climbers, Shingo has decided to start studying English again, not just so he could more easily communicate with his new partners, but so he could read and understand American climbing magazines too.
To “really improve his English,” he’s planning a climbing trip to Yosemite. American climbers who have scaled the big Yosemite walls readily give him advice on where to climb and what to do while in the Yosemite. At the end of the day, climbers gather in nearby soba shops and exchange climbing stories. Watching from a distance, the conversations look more like a dance reversal than anything. Hands and feet reach for imaginary holds, while the faces grimace or smile in memory of the various moves. An onlooker could think that this is due to a lack of common language, but the reality is that the same conversation would look and sound exactly the same in any other country. These conversations bring climbers together regardless of their culture and language.
Beta for Climbing in Okinawa, Japan
Okinawa has five major climbing areas and two climbing gyms. All these areas offer excellent climbing at superb locations. The most popular location for seeing climbers in action is Gushi Chan beach on the southern end of the island. Dedicated climbers flock to the beach to practice on the various boulders. It’s not unusual to have thirty climbers there on Sunday.
Another popular climbing location is Usa Beach, located on the north end of Cape Hedo beach. This is the best location for spectators to see climbers. The cliffs are located a short walk from the parking area. The pleasant stroll on the beach will also give onlookers a different perspective of Cape Hedo. Climbers are friendly, so strike up a conversation, who knows, they may invite you to try climbing and you could end up on the email list too.