Dai Koyamada is arguably the most successful Japanese rock climber of all time, pushing forward the boundaries of what's possible in bouldering and sport climbing both domestically and internationally. Climbing since the 1990s, Dai secured his position at in the upper echelons of the international bouldering community in 2004 with his first ascent of The Wheel of Life in Australia V15. He has continued to push his own limits; a prolific developer, he is still establishing new problems across his native Japan up to V16.
You've been at the cutting edge of climbing for the past two decades. When you look at your career which are the boulder problems that stand out for you as defining moments in your climbing?
When I look back at my career, Action Direct in Frankenjura, Germany is the most impressive line. Actually Action Direct is not a boulder problem but it definitely was the outstanding turning point in my climbing career. It had a strong impact when the line was established and I had dreamt about climb it for long years. I succeeded in sending it in my second trip and I was really glad when I did it. I’m still the only Japanese person who has sent Action Direct as of now. Action Direct had been the icon of hard routes and through it Güllich established an eternal existence. And by sending this route, I realized the deep meaning of making the first ascent of natural rock.
Speaking of boulder problems, Dreamtime, a legendary problem in Switzerland, is also impressive to me. Fred Nicole is still focusing on hard boulders, so his way of expressing himself through climbing and his energy inspired me a lot.
I also want to pick The Wheel Of Life in Australia, but I have too many to pick, actually.
When I look at current accomplishments, I should say Nayuta which I made the first ascent of this year. This was the hardest project ever in my climbing career. It might be difficult for me to work on the harder projects than Nayuta now considering my age, but I have so many projects to work on. So I can’t quit.
Climbing at your limit can take its toll mentally. What do you think has motivated you to continue to push yourself to that extent throughout your career?
I have some factors to motivate myself. First, I am a professional climber and sponsors pay me for my performance. Professional climbers should have to climb with obligations for them to make certain achievements. In other words, we should act in a way that has a certain influence on the climbing industry. However, this is just a small part and I think it should be small. Because sometimes such motivations grow too big and turn into obsessions. We can't keep the motivation ourselves for decades under such obsessions. So I think the most important thing is to have motivations which come from inside of me. For me, it is my desire to explore my true potential or to make first ascents of wonderful lines. I have never lost this motivation so far. Actually, I quit competitions because I found it was not the climbing which I really wanted to do. Competition is not the only style of climbing. I think recently young Japanese climbers have a narrow view towards climbing and it's quite sad to me. Back to the topic of motivation, I think that motivation is not the thing we purposely create, but it's the natural desire to climb rocks in front of us. Without this, I couldn't have climbed for so many years.
Why do you think that the younger generation have focused on the competition side and indoors? Do you think the growth of indoor climbing and social media has had a negative impact on the sport outdoors?
Why do Japanese young climbers prefer to competitions or indoor climbing rather than outdoor climbing? I think that young people generally tend to compare themselves to others and want to confirm where they are among them. Whether they are talented or not, usually young people are exhibitionists or headline-seekers. So it is the easiest way for them to meet their desires to appeal to others. I think the same things happen in every country.
When looking at the phenomenon happening in Japan now, I assume that’s because Japanese people are mentally immature. Climbing is basically more creative and philosophical. It may appear to be simple but in fact it’s deep practice. However, people who are mentally immature consider climbing just an activity to rank people. It’s OK when they are young. But unfortunately some adults also think this way and they try to instill such an idea into young climbers. Thanks to their education, there are many strong young climbers in Japan now but they can only define climbing within the competition field. I mean, in this context, adults are such people who are coaches and officers in organizations or authorities. They are crazy about establishing their positions and promoting their organization by using young climbers with a lot of money. Therefore, they imprint in young climbers that winning at competitions is the best way to be evaluated, and control them with money. Unfortunately such a bad system is rampant now.
I think the Olympics is the one of the major factors to lead such behaviors. After the announcement of climbing’s inclusion in the Tokyo Olympics, a lot of major companies got interested in climbing and enormous money flowed into the climbing industry. Now it’s like a climbing fever in Japan.
Behind the current big success of young Japanese climbers, there is such a background. Now Japan has become a country with many climbing gyms. New gyms are open every month. Also the unique Japanese climate is the other factor of indoor climbing fever. Only a few months are suitable for outdoor climbing and most climbing areas are located in remote areas and usually long drives are required. It’s similar with other countries; climbing at indoor gyms is now becoming about the exercise or fitness and fitness based climbers are the majority. I have considered climbing gyms as a place for training to demonstrate high performance at outdoor crags. In my opinion, a climbing gym is a one of the important tools for outdoor climbing so climbing at gym is a good thing. However, nowadays fewer people think like this. Their climbing experiences are within competitions or an artificial wall. That’s it. But the Japanese gym culture is so unique which should be highlighted. There are a lot of gyms to train efficiently. This is the largest reason why Japanese climbers are strong. I briefly mentioned about current situation of gyms and young competitors in Japan. To be honest, I don’t agree with the current situation. Of course, not everything is bad. However, I hope young climbers climb more freely and more creatively and don't only focus on competitions.
When it comes to those projects outside, how do you approach them? You have climbed many hard long projects with many moves; how do you break down projects like that?
The most important factors when working on projects outside are patience and time. Especially in Japan, the weather is not stable and changes day by day. So when I'm on big projects, I usually secure a certain amount of time to concentrate on the projects. Inevitably I need a place to stay near projects. It's always difficult to find it, though.
Fortunately at this moment I rent two places near projects, one is in Gifu, another is in Miyazaki. These houses are very comfortable so I'm able to concentrate on my projects. If I go to the projects in Gifu directly from my house in Yokohama, it takes 3 or 4 hours. That's too long. Speaking of the patience, I mean we need strong patience to go to the same place many times to work on projects that are so hard to try every single time. However, I think it's also important to refresh myself otherwise it puts too much pressure on me and it may badly affect my performance.
How do I approach projects? It depends on the type of projects. The most important point is to get used to the holds and moves, whether it's a long or short line. I focus on practicing repeatedly and searching for the effective sequences. To give an appropriate grade after sending it, I have to find out the most effective sequence. This is a very important task. But I always agonize over grading actually. Above all, willpower is the most important. It's a tough spirit, like "I'll do it at any cost!".
What do you think makes you agonize over the grading? Do you feel that there is more pressure now due to the spotlight you can be under from social media to get it right?
I struggle over the grading every time I make a first ascent. I think most developers may face this issue because it’s a kind of obligation for professional climbers to set the grade accurately. However, there is a question. What is the accurate grade? Is there any common scale for grading? I think the grade is just subjective opinions based on climbers’ feelings or their experiences. But unfortunately the grade gets stronger power, rather than just a simple number, and climbers are forced to be precise and objective when we set grades. When it’s wrong, we sometimes become the target of attack.
I am a professional climber so I understand the various meanings and aspects of the grades and how much influence the grade has. At the same time, I think I’m ready to face any criticism. I’m paying more careful attentions to grading because my focus area is to make the first ascents, not competitions.
People don’t like overgraded or undergraded problems. Some people often criticize climbers and they try to kick them out. Usually such people don’t know how complicated the grading process is. I just want you to know that the grades which are put right after the first ascent are just suggestions or proposals at that moment. More precise grades will be and should be fixed after at least a few climbers repeat the problems and through deep discussions.
I’d like to ask people to remember that we, professional climbers are always serious about grading and put grades with a sincere attitude. No climbers want to lose trust through overgrading. However, we should not be too modest. This is always a dilemma.
Regarding social media, I think less anonymity through media such as Facebook and Instagram are good tools and have a good influence on the climbing industries. Years ago, someone put an article about me without my permission which was quoted from my blog written in Japanese, but its translation was not correct. Then it caused argument and criticism which was totally meaningless. Most critical people are anonymous. I won't say the exact name but it’s like 8a something. I was able to refute them, but I thought it was not worth doing it. It didn’t feel good though.
Nowadays, climbers are able to express our own climbing activities by ourselves in many ways if we have creativity and ability to self-produce. So I think it’s a good thing overall.
When it comes to self-producing and creativity you have put a number of films out over the past decade that focus on showing your projecting process. Why did you feel it was important to capture and show your process of failure and learning?
The reason I show my struggles, failures, falls or practicing sequences is that I want people to know the process of how the hard problems are established. If you see films which show only successful climbing, you’ll never know the backgrounds of the problems. I think backgrounds are more important. As an audience, I’d like to see those kind of scenes of other climbers. That kind of stuff is much more impressive to me.
How do you prepare mentally for those kind of projects? Do you use any mental training techniques to help you manage the frustrations that can build?
I don’t know I can say it is mental training but my motivations mostly come from a deep attachment to the line which I discovered and the pure desire to climb it. Of course, I don’t encounter such great lines every time.
On the other hand, I also have an obligation or obsession to constantly establish hard problems. After all, I always have a strong will to complete the problems whenever I work on projects, even if it takes long time. Regarding the frustration, I feel strong frustration when I work on a certain project for long time, commuting to the same place every time, practicing the same sequence every time, and sometimes not being able to try it because of the weather conditions.
If my projects are in Japan, it’s OK. I have enough time to work on and can take it easier. But when on an overseas trip, I feel nervous because time is limited. To control and maintain high motivation, I would suggest to have many projects all the time. By doing so, you can have higher motivation to the current project and also you don’t suffer from ‘project loss’ after you complete the project. But the best way is sleep well!! No other way than sleep.
You're now in your 40s and still climbing at a world class level. How has your approach to training changed over the years?
Yes, I'm already in my 40s. I think there are no climbers who climb as hard as me at the same age in Japan. Why? I assume the largest reason is not a physical matter but other factors. When we're young, we find climbing and start climbing because it is very fun. Then we get addicted to it and obsessed with it. Our brains are filled with climbing. However, as we get old, we see another world outside of climbing and come to get involved in normal society. When people see themselves objectively, they are not able to be obsessed only with climbing anymore like they used to be. Usually many people get married, have a family and get a steady job. They have to spend more time, money and energy not on climbing.
This is what getting old is and it's inevitable.
For me, I still climb in the highest level by avoiding these things which other people usually experience. This is because I want to concentrate on climbing. If I were a talented climber, I would have had both of them. However, I'm not a dexterity person and not a talented person. People might say that I'm silly, that I gain only a climbing career at the expense of many things. But there was no other way and I'm pretty satisfied with my life so far. And I think I'll do it this way in the future.
Let's talk about my climbing.
For these years, I spend most of my time in the fields during high seasons. I go to the field almost every day to develop a new area or to work on projects. During low seasons, I focus on training in my gym. Usually 5 days a week. What I pay attention to is watching young top climbers and having a session with them. Also I think it's important to try hard problems which I have struggled with before. So I don't change hold settings very often in my gym. Recently many gyms have changed to hold setting frequently but I don't think it's a good trend. Most important thing is to keep having projects to work on. I have a lot of projects in Japan. So I don't have time to get old.