龍泉洞 - Dragon Spring Caves

My weekend was a blur of mountains, autumn leaves, valleys, rivers, caves, cliffs, sleeping bags, stink bugs, falling rocks, bruises, scrapes, crushed bananas, singing birds, gurgling streams, clinking carabiners, naps in the dirt, and where do I stop?

Friday Night - The Plan

Maybe I should focus on the start.  In the middle power-napping my way through the beginnings of a cold I received a phone-call from Suzuki-san, the fellow I met at the local climbing gym some weeks ago and the one who has been doggedly been trying to get me out to do some real climbing over the weekend.  The weather and stars were finally on our side this weekend, and he let me know he'd be by to pick me up in three hours, eight on the dot, and we'd be driving through the night to Iwate Prefecture's Iwa-izumi-cho (岩手県、岩泉町 [Kanji-nerds: Boulder-hand prefecture, boulder-spring city]), famous for the nearby 龍泉洞 - ryuusen-do, Dragon Spring Caves.  We'd climb at a climbing area consisting mainly off higher difficulty routes (5.11 and up), which is another way of saying, over Matt's head.

Have at the map to get a feel for how deep in the country-side we went - zoom in and look at the size of the town under the 'B' on the map, that's Iwa-izumi.

View Larger Map

Sadly, things didn't go exactly as planned that first night - we ended up getting more or less very, very lost, which worked out alright for photos. We spent the night sleeping in the back of the minivan and woke up to the site of an actual mountain, with actual snow on it (first snow for the year for me).

Saturday - Japan's Outdoors

Iwate and the van

The black van there is the thing we crashed in the first night, with Mount Iwate in the background.  The van was small enough that we had to open the back hatch for my gaijin-sized self to fit.

岩手山 - Mount Iwate
岩手山 - Mount Iwate

Anyways, we hit the road again early Saturday morning and after awhile found ourselves surrounded by the most gorgeous fall leaves I've ever seen.  I'm not sure we could've timed it better. The photos hardly do them justice, particularly when you consider these were taken from the car.

If you've got an internet connection that can handle it, click through on these photos and have a peak at the full size versions.

紅葉 - Kouyou - Fall Leaves
紅葉 - Kouyou - Fall Leaves

Eventually we made it to Iwaizumi-cho and rocky cliffs started coming into view in every direction.  Some of the trees here were hitting colors of red I didn't know happened. The town was pretty darn small, but it did have the industry in town to take advantage of sightseers come to see the famous caves and the countryside.  On our way up to the area we passed a hot springs hotel, which meant I wouldn't have to pass the whole weekend smelling myself.  Woohoo!

Trees, trees, trees! Oh, and the mountains they sit on

The Cliffs at Ryuusen-do


Right.  This is what we just spent the last 12 hours in a car for - it's climbing time.  We've got our gear out, the sun is shining, the trees are lovely, the rock looks like some great limestone. Birds are chirping and the echoes of the stream below as it giggles its way to the sea set the tone for the scene.

The climbing area is broken up into four major cliffs.  We started at the first one you come to on the way in.  Up and down a few hills, then up a ten foot cliff into a cave is the next area. It's a huge open cave with a gorgeous arete and nothing but beastly routes.  Think Killer Cave at Sinks Canyon, but bigger.  Down another cliff and some stupidly steep trails lie the other two walls. Almost all of the trails have ropes tied at their top to help you get up and down.  Without the ropes, it would be very hard to get around out there.


A salute to a lovely camera

Since he had been driving the whole time, Suzuki-san had first dibs and went up the first route nearly as quickly as I lowered him down.  I led it next, and, well, tragedy struck.  I kicked off a head-sized boulder from the cliff about ten meters up (look at me, using meters - I'm so international), but no, it did not hit Suzuki-san; he was well clear.

Rather, that rock fell directly into my backpack.

Rock and backpack tumbled another ten feet or so (back to feet now, I think I just like round numbers) until they were snagged by a tree. I finished the lead without worrying about it too much, but once I got down I ran over and checked out the interior of my bag. To tell it quick, the picture to the right is the last one my camera will ever take. Also: my poor bananas!

When we moved further into the valley my jaw dropped.  The view was unbelievable. It would be just the sort of view a person might show to another and say "Look!  Japan isn't just train tracks and concrete!  Look at what a deep red the leaves reach, the oranges, yellows, and greens besides them, how thick the woods are! Look are how steep the mountains are, how rumpled they are; try counting the valleys before they disappear into the blue haze of the air, thick with the water from the falls and the ocean."

Y'know, the perfect place to take a picture to say, Yes, I've seen Japan.  Essentially, it wasn't unfortunate that a great camera was broken - it was unfortunate that pictures couldn't be taken and shared on a site like this.

Where was I?

So, after our warmups, Suzuki-san led a 5.11+ on the arete of the cave that was a blast to climb afterwards (on top-rope).  I top roped a few other silly-difficult routes, but mostly tried to pretend I didn't have a cold.  Suzuki threw down on a ridiculous problem in the cave, hanging out more-or-less upside-down for bits of it.  I knew he was good when we met at the gym, but holy cow.

The first day ended as things got dark and we went to off to the onsen.  I bought 100 yen "towel" (towel must be Japanese for dishrag, but hey, 100 yen) and enjoyed a good hot soak to clean out my head and sooth the aches.  We bought ingredients for a hot meal from the teeny local grocery store and then cooked it on the porch of an abandoned house near a park. I'm fairly certain anyone who saw us would have assumed we were homeless.

The temperature dropped somewhere below freezing that night but not by much.  I woke up to the call of nature and while I was doing the deed saw the clouds had parted and realized that I hadn't seen stars in just over a month, and had never really seen them in Japan.  That was a pretty terrific feeling.

Sunday - More Climbing

We were on the path to the cliffs again by eight the next morning and were the first people out there.  I had somehow faked my way through the cold I was carrying since Thursday (yay drugs!) but was now feeling weak from the medicine instead.  Still, we had put up about five routes in the first hour and a half out there, and I was in much better form than the previous day, leading all of them.  Of course, Suzuki was both leading them and then downclimbing while he cleaned... Show off.

I climbed a silly number of routes, including a terrific one with a good fun flake like I like as well as a few places to throw down some stems (woo stems!), but nothing really stacks up to the last route Suzuki did.  It was a 25 meter monster that started on the arete of the cave and moved along the mouth of the cave until it peaks out way up above that.  5.13ish, very pretty.  He climbed it three times that day.

On the drive home, I slept.

Matt Enlow

Matt has a camera, a home on wheels, and this website
Down by the river