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For Japan's seniors, it's never too late to learn rock climbing

A climber is pictured at the Rock Craft Kawagoe climbing gym in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture. Climbers say they are thrilled when they complete their climb. (Mainichi)

"Come on, go for it! There's a place you can put your foot to the right," shouted 73-year-old Yoji Karigane as he looked up at 71-year-old Katsuaki Mizutani.

    The septuagenarians were taking part in a climbing session at Rock Craft Kawagoe, a climbing gym in the Saitama Prefecture city of Kawagoe. Rock climbing might be thought of as a sport for the young, but in Japan it has also attracted a following among seniors, with the Japan Free Climbing Association launching a "masters" tournament in 2015.

    For many beginners an ideal place to start is an indoor climbing gym. Mizutani visits Rock Craft Kawagoe three times a week.

    "When you get a hold that you've had trouble reaching, you're like, 'Yeesss!'" he said. Karigane, a climbing friend of his, chipped in, "You get a sense of achievement when you raise the level of difficulty step by step." Being a sporting activity, climbing not only relieves stress but keeps you fit, he says.

    Tape of various colors is stuck next to each hold to signify the level of difficulty, and climbers ascend using the designated holds. There are two types of climbing: bouldering, in which climbers scale the walls without ropes, and top-rope climbing, in which climbers use a harness and a rope fixed to the top of the wall. This allows beginners to enjoy the sport, too.

    Kenshichiro Morishita, 69, a standing director of the Japan Mountaineering Association encourages the elderly to climb. "Climbing is good for seniors," he says. Many indoor gyms lend out shoes and harnesses, and so if someone is wearing clothes that are easy to move about in, they can begin. Even if they're not confident about their muscular power or physical strength, they can begin from a lower level of difficulty, and start at their own pace with rules like resting for 10 minutes after a single climb. Climbers are tested on their ability to ascend without excessive use of energy, controlling their movements, so not only do they build muscular power, but they also slowly train their sense of balance, flexibility, and their minds.

    "It's a sport in which you can get your own sense of achievement, even if it's small. You might be able to do it until you're 80," Morishita says with a laugh.

    Another person who climbs at the gym is 65-year-old Yoshie Shimada, a resident of Niiza, Saitama Prefecture. She started going there after learning about the appeal of outdoor climbing two years ago.

    "When I climbed to the top, I was moved by the feeling that even I could do it if I tried," she said. "Once you start, age has nothing to do with it, and among my group of friends, those in their 60s are the young ones. Women are patient and flexible in the hips, so it's good for them."

    The key to becoming a successful climber is repetition. If asked, the gym staff will teach climbers the basic movements, and there are also classes for seniors in various areas. Rock Craft Kawagoe's regular climbers range from elementary school students to those in their 80s and even climbers who don't know each other will greet and teach one another.

    "Beginners should choose a gym with a good atmosphere like this," says Mizutani -- advice echoed by the gym's other users.

    As there are many people who have a long climbing history but find it hard to enter tournaments dominated by young people, the Japan Free Climbing Association in 2015 started the Japan Masters Climbing Tournament. Participants include those in their 80s who started in their 60s, as well as skilled climbers referred to as "legends." There are even some events in which people with little experience can join.

    The third masters tournament will be held on April 29 this year at Matsuyamashita Park General Gymnasium in Inzai, Chiba Prefecture. Inquiries can be made (in Japanese) with the chairman of the Chiba Prefectural Free Climbing Association, Toshio Metsugi, on 090-1791-9145.

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