What Japan Taught Me
Written by Lucy Stirling.
Sound, calm mind
Be light in body
Have a clever mind
Master the basics”
- Gōgen Yamaguchi
These are wise words from one of Japan’s most well renowned martial artists – Gōgen Yamaguchi. His words perfectly reflect everything I learnt over in the magical country of Japan. From practising Zazen meditation and training 5 to 6 hours each day, to learning how to rest and recover properly, be patient, and go back to mastering the basics... I feel I’ve targeted some crucial aspects of training that I may have been lacking from my usual program. I know that if I continue to focus on these elements it will truly benefit my long term climbing performance.
My trip to Japan began with two awesome weeks in the bustling city of Tokyo where I competed in the Hachiōji Boulder World Cup, and lost a lot of skin bouldering in the many amazing gyms around the city with the Australian Team. I had an absolutely fantastic time but I couldn’t shake a small lingering feeling of disappointment in my climbing performance as of late. I’d been training harder than ever before but something was obviously missing that was putting me through a performance plateau. Instead of dwelling on it, I was determined to keep my chin up and focus on what’s ahead of me; Four weeks of training with a new coach in Japan was definitely something to look forward to. It had been a long time coming and I knew it would be a worthy investment to my climbing journey. I knew not what to expect over the next month, so keeping an open mind and learning as much as possible would be the best thing I could do.
Heading North to Kawagoe – our first training session:
I left the busy city streets of Shibuya and caught a train up to a place called Kawagoe where I would spend the next month training under the guidance of Kazuhiro Chiba at a cool bouldering gym called Monolithe. I was delighted to have Monique Forestier also join me for the first two weeks of my training. We were both very excited to train together and eager to learn as much as we possibly could. It was such a privilege to have the opportunity to learn from a nation that produces some of the best competition climbers in the world.
Our first and second day of training at Monolithe gym was epic. This was mainly because we had no idea what to expect, and although a five to six hour training session was certainly achievable, it did come as a bit of a shock. We arrived at the gym and were warmly welcomed by a friendly fellow who oddly introduced himself as “Harry, Harry Potter.” Harry, under the instruction of Kazu would be our coach for the majority of our time there. It was not until a week or so in that I learned Harry was a part of the Japan National Team himself a few years back and was now a very good route setter for both local and national competitions all around Japan. Harry and Kazu looked after Monique and I very well. I always felt so welcome and just like a part of the Monolithe team. I am so grateful for all their generosity and kindness throughout our time there.
Our first training session began with stretching, theraband exercises and then another whole hour of conditioning training before we were even allowed to touch the wall. This was certainly testing my patience as I was so eager to climb. After two whole hours we finally began our climbing warm up on the wall. The conditioning training was by no means easy and at this point I was already feeling a bit tired. We climbed for another three hours where Harry made problems for us and fun competition-like challenges. The last thing on the “menu” (as Harry likes to call it) was a small strength session with upper body and core exercises. Six whole hours after arriving at the gym we finished with cool-down exercises on the climbing wall. Monique and I were both absolutely shattered and certainly not looking forward to the fourty minute bike ride home that awaited us.
I was nothing but excited about this epic training load. I was eager to accomplish everything Harry and Kazu set out in the training program, despite how tired I might be. The first week was the most difficult and I was very tired and fatigued most of the time. I involuntarily made a habit of napping for an extra hour or so each day just to aid in my recovery. The second week I felt a lot stronger and had adapted to the training load quite well. The circuits we were doing already felt easier and I was keen to push it even harder.
My first experience with Zazen meditation was definitely one to remember. We arrived at a beautiful 1700 year old temple where a little elderly Japanese Monk lead us up to the doors on little wooden clogs. We all removed our shoes and stepped through the doors to sit down onto our own Zabuton (meditation cushion). The man gave us a long description and history of Zazen, all of which was spoken in Japanese which at intervals was roughly translated by our friend Yu. A loud “DONG” sounded that it was time to begin as the Monk struck a big drum.
Difficult isn’t quite adequate enough a description for my first experience of Zazen. As a person ‘blessed’ with ADHD, sitting in one spot for 30mins not once but twice was quite a challenge. Luckily I was exhausted from training the day before which meant I was able to sit fairly still, however was also overwhelmed with a sudden urge to drift off to sleep. This was quickly fixed by the little elderly Monk who came and whacked me on each shoulder four times with a long wooden paddle… and it HURT! He really didn’t hold back at all. I was then told to bow my head and thank him for whacking me and waking me up from my unfocused state. I quickly realised learning meditation would be a lot more difficult than expected and I planned to practice it as much as possible from then on.
Rest and Recovery
Over the course of my four weeks of training with Harry and Kazu, proper rest and recovery was so important for me to be able to get through each planned session. Not only did I learn when and how to take adequate rest days, but how much rest is required during each session between each rep, set or exercise. It was of course easier to force myself into a rest day when I had a coach telling me to, but in doing so I learnt that rest days are just as important as training days, not only for your muscles but also for your mind. Upon returning home I have implemented a lot more rest and recovery into my training program and I am already noticing huge benefits.
Back to Basics
After 11+ years of climbing, training, competing and self-coaching, its easy to get caught up in the web of information about how best to improve your performance on the wall. With all the focus I’ve had on muscle training and strengthening my weaknesses, I’d forgotten the importance of practicing some of the basic fundamentals of technique. This is something which was drilled into me in Japan. Before beginning our training we would spend at least 15 minutes on the wall focusing on posture, technique, breathing, footwork and more. My brain hurt trying to climb ‘perfectly’. I hated it at first because climbing is something I’ve never had to think about... it just happens. After a few weeks of practice, it became easier to climb more ‘perfectly’ without needing to think about everything at once. Having this ‘conscious time’ on the wall is now compulsory before beginning each of my training sessions.
Japan was everything I needed to steer me in the right direction with my training. I am still in regular contact with Harry and Kazu about my program and I hope to return again next year for more training with them both. I left the country of Japan in awe of their culture, perspective, attitude to hard work, dedication and it has left me inspired in so many ways. I’ll certainly be returning soon.
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