Koichiro Kobayashi, known as “Koba,” is a “paraclimbing legend.” Koba went blind at age 28 from a degenerative eye disease and at age 31 decided to take up climbing. He has since racked up a number of gold medals around the world! Koba envisions a world where various groups of people can live together without being worried about their handicaps. To pursue his vision, he established a Tokyo-based non-profit organization called Monkey Magic that promotes free climbing among those with visual impairments. Koba believes climbing “is a lifetime sport that people with disabilities can enjoy throughout their lives which increases exercise opportunities, promotes self-reliance and social participation by empowering, and improves quality of life.” Koba is joined today by his guide, Naoya Suzuki.
Erik and Skyler speak to Koba and Naoya about their journey into paraclimbing and how they work together in this adaptive sport. They speak about all the different techniques they use together on a technical level to communicate and get Koba up the rock face. One example is that Naoya uses the “clock method,” and explains which hold to grab by saying 1 o’clock or half past 2 etc. They have traveled the world together and discuss the challenges of entering the World Championships and what being on that level of competition means to them.
Koba also reflects on how he heard of Erik back when he was beginning to go blind and the inspiration that meeting provided. In Japan, the blind people he had met stayed away from sports and being active. But, Naoya bought Koba Erik’s first book about his ascent of Everest and he was blown away. So, he reached out. Naoya and Koba came to the U.S. and met Erik together and they have all been close ever since.
Trust is an integral part of their relationship. Naoya reflects on times Koba has lost competitions, essentially on bad calls he has made, and how Koba never blames him. They make mistakes together but:
“I trust him. No matter how much he makes mistakes, I feel big passion from him, so I trust him.”
After Koba climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with Erik and other blind people in 2005, he was inspired to start a climbing gym in his home country of Japan for folks with disabilities. The climbing is an essential service he offers but Koba recognizes that the social aspect is almost even more impactful. Going blind can lead people to isolate and stop going out but Koba realizes how important it is to meet new people and be connected with others.
Koba talks about how climbing has become like a friend in his life and his pursuit of the sport has led him to find satisfaction. He does not need his sight to feel fulfillment in his life and to have the love of his community around him. From his climbing community to his wife to Naoya, Koba has met so many supporters in his life since going blind that he has discovered that: “blindness made him big.”
As Erik puts it, “sometimes even hardships end up giving us gifts we might never have gotten otherwise.” In Koba’s case that is the gift of discovering the climbing community, his own talent, and the relationships he has built.
——- EPISODE TRANSCRIPT ———
Koba: I knew how much climbing is great for person, for people. So, after my sickness, I continued climbing. The climbing is like friend, so this friend will be my side until my die.
Erik: It’s easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn’t get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I’ve gotten the chance to ascent Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon, and I happen to be blind. It’s been a struggle to live what I call a no barriers life. To define it. To push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. In that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in and the summit exists a map. That map, that way forward, is what we call no barriers.
Dave: Today we meet Koichiro Kobayashi, also known as Koba, who is a paraclimbing legend. Koba went blind at age 28 from a degenerative eye disease. He has since racked up a number of gold medals from around the world. Koba envisions a world where various groups of people can live together without being worried about their handicaps. To pursue that vision, he has established a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization called Monkey Magic that promotes free climbing among those with visual impairments.
Dave: Koba believes climbing is a lifetime sport that people with disabilities can enjoy, which increases exercise opportunities, promotes self reliance, and encourages social participation. Koba is joined today by his guide, Naoya Suzuki.
Dave: Well, everyone, welcome to the No Barriers podcast. This is Erik Weihenmayer, and we’re just here today in golden Colorado. I’m alone today. Jeff and Dave Shurna abandoned me, so it’s just myself, little old me, and I decided to bring in a guest host, Skyler Williams. We work together. How you doing, Sky?
Skyler: I’m great. Thanks for having me.
Skyler: You know, we’ve been having an internal podcast for the last 10 years, but now folks can hear us banter back and forth together.
Erik: Yeah. Skyler and Pauline have been behind the scenes, so we’re going to bring you out into the light of day, Sky.
Skyler: All right. Nice. Thanks.
Erik: Yeah. We’re giving you a pay raise, too.
Skyler: Oh. I didn’t know about that. I’m going to follow up.
Erik: But see, the reason we’re doing this podcast today is because it was just too good of an opportunity. My friends are in town and I really wanted to interview them because I know people will be really fascinated by their story. My friend Kobayashi, Koba, or little monkey, and Naoya-
Erik: … who is a climber, and Koba’s friend and climbing coach. So it’s really exciting. These guys are a team. So, why don’t you start, guys, by telling us why you’re in town, here? Why you’re in the US?
Koba: We participate climbing competition at the [inaudible 00:03:43] last Saturday, March 30. We got the silver medal this time.
Erik: Silver medal in the-
Erik: … in the adaptive climbing?
Koba: Yep. Adaptive [inaudible 00:03:55] championship.
Erik: So, that is just so interesting. I bet people don’t really even know anything about this, right?
Erik: So, there’s a competition in rock climbing, it’s held indoor gyms, usually.
Koba: It is.
Erik: And it’s for all kinds of disabilities, right?
Erik: And so, describe what that competition might look like. What would be the competitors?
Naoya: Well, Naoya speaking. Thanks for having us, first of all. Thank you so much. I’m Koba’s coach. Friend, and partners. We’ve been participating this USA adapt national championship for three years… Three times, actually. I’m not quite sure how long they’ve been doing this, but anyway. It’s a paraclimbing national championship, the biggest here national championship, in the US. And the reason why we decided to participated in, first time that we were here was about five years ago I believe. 2015. Just after the No Barriers at the Park City. After seeing you guys, we flew over to Georgia, I guess. And then our first competition in the US, that was amazing. There were many different categories.
Naoya: Of course, as some of you probably know, Koba is blind, and Koba is in category B, B blind, blind category. Good thing about American competition is that there’s only one big category versus the World Championship, they divide it into three categories. B1, B2 and B3. Some of you are probably familiar with those categories. B1 is totally blind, B2 is low vision-
Erik: Partial, partial blind.
Naoya: Yeah. Yeah. But anyway, what we love about how those USA national championships does for the blind people is it doesn’t matter about the categories. Blind, just a blind. Low vision, you’re completely blind, but Koba is a completely blind. Some of them are low vision. But it doesn’t actually matter, and for us it doesn’t care as well. We compete on the same route, same problem-
Koba: Same point.
Naoya: Yeah, same point. And the way how we did it compared to the World Championship is totally different, because we love it, actually. Three hours, no stop. You can climb anything you want. 50 or 60 routes. You can choose anything you want. The route setter actually recommends, if you’re blind, do this, do that. It doesn’t mean you can’t do other routes. You can actually do all of them. The thing is you just point. You just get the highest point as possible and you’re going to be… Yeah, that’s how you set the ranking.
Erik: So, the adaptive, there’s all kinds of disabilities too, beyond blind.
Naoya: Oh, yeah, that’s right. There are so many.
Erik: There’s amputees, right?
Naoya: Neil Rogers. Toe amputees and arm amputees and leg amputees, and wheelchair, and what else?
Erik: You told me about a guy climbing without any fingers.
Naoya: Yes. There are some people without fingers, and probably one thumb, but basically no fingers.
Koba: No hands.
Naoya: No arms and stuff. But it doesn’t matter, and they can still climb.
Erik: Doesn’t matter. Yeah.
Naoya: Yeah. No, no, no. There’s a little bit of excuse, like, “I can’t climb,” but there’s one, “I have no arms,” but people climb anyway.
Erik: Yeah. There’s this friend of mine who doesn’t compete, but he’s Pete Davison, and he lives in… I think he lives in [inaudible 00:07:31] but he’s missing his arm from the elbow.
Naoya: Oh, okay.
Erik: He climbs 5.11. He climbed El Capitan.
Koba: Yeah. Sure.
Erik: Even blind it blows my mind, how does he do that?
Koba: There is actually the way. There are ways.
Erik: There’s always a way.
Koba: There always a way. Yep.
Erik: Do they use adaptive, any devices or anything like that? Or is it just using your body?
Naoya: No, actually, they use prosthesis. How do you call this?
Erik: A prosthetic. Yeah.
Naoya: A prosthetic. Yeah, yeah.
Erik: Uh-huh (affirmative).
Naoya: And some of them, they might use something which I have no idea, but anyway. During a competition, I’m always focusing on Koba. Navigating right and left and right and left. That’s what I do. So I don’t see other competitors unfortunately, for three hours.
Erik: You’re focused.
Naoya: Yeah. Focused. Yes.
Erik: So, you have a… Most climbers just… Because people may not even be climbers in our audience. They climb by colors. So you’re looking at a certain color and you follow those colors up the rock, right?
Naoya: Sure. Yep.
Erik: But for blind, obviously, you can’t do that.
Naoya: Zero. Yep.
Erik: They set the route out for you. And how, Naoya, do you coach Koba?
Naoya: What I do is it’s what we call a navigator. What I do is I use a clock method. One o’clock. Two o’clock. Three o’clock. Four o’clock. This is how I give Koba a direction. But also I name it distance. Like super close, far, super far, maybe farther than you thought. Those kind of communications. Also, I describe a shape of the hole. “That’s the sloper you might love. You hate. Plimper, like a pinch.” Those kind of, “Two fingers, one finger, pocket, go for it.” I don’t climb. Not climbing. You climbing, so just go for it.
Skyler: Yeah. Absolutely. I’ve done it a lot with Erik in terms of-
Naoya: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Skyler: … calling out different holes, and the hands on the clock, and that kind of stuff.
Naoya: Right. Right.
Skyler: I’m curious to know, for you guys and the communication style in the competition, is it how many routes you climb? The difficulty? A combination of those two things? How does the competition actually work?
Naoya: Well, it’s actually a… It’s called zone. Used to be called bonus. There’s a certain place there is a special tape that’s indicate as the bonus, but now it’s known as the zone. Zone One, Zone Two, Zone Three. So, once you pass the Zone One, you get the point, and there’s another Zone Two. Used to be called a bonus, but now the International Climbing Committee, they never call the bonus any more.
Erik: And you said you can try it as many times as you want to, you get the points.
Naoya: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly.
Erik: Ah, I see.
Skyler: And does it get progressively more difficult?
Naoya: Yeah. Exactly. It’s more difficult.
Skyler: Higher and higher?
Koba: Exactly. Exactly. That’s how they point.
Skyler: So in a three-hour competition, you go through one route and score three points, and then the next one you might score two and move on-
Naoya: Exactly. Exactly.
Skyler: … and then one, or some combination of them both?
Erik: And you must be so crushed by the end of that three hours.
Naoya: Exactly. This comes, probably, how Koba and how I did it, is there’s a scorecard, and we know exactly what route is the highest, that means the most difficult route. We try to find, “Okay, Koba, this is the most difficult. You should try it.” Which is really hard. I think… They never mention about the grading, but from my understanding, probably the highest or the most difficult they have this time was probably 12+.
Erik: Which, for non-climbers, is extremely hard climbing. So, that’s a nice segue because we are not just talking to any old blind climber here, we are talking to the world champion blind climber, in the world.
Erik: That’s so awesome. Tell us about winning the World Championship.
Koba: World Championship. It was last year. 2018. September, isn’t it?
Koba: In Austria, Innsbruck.
Erik: Innsbruck, Austria.
Koba: Yes. Yes. Yes. So, World Championship is totally different regulation from the National Championship.
Erik: Yeah, from the USA.
Koba: Yes. Yes. It is the qualification and final, and we tried to do it on the qualification, and then just want to do it. One chance to find out.
Erik: Oh, so it’s totally different judging and-
Koba: Yes. Totally different.
Erik: Oh, wow.
Koba: The final route was, I think, same difficulty as National Championship in the United States. It, thinks, 12-
Naoya: I think it’s 12+ again.
Erik: But small holds on a big overhang?
Koba: A big overhang.
Naoya: Actually, big holds with the 130 degrees, which is what-
Naoya: 140 degrees-
Koba: … degrees-
Erik: You’re climbing up a roof, essentially, for people’s imagination.
Koba: Yeah. First part was 110 degree, second part was 120 degrees. The biggest part was 140 degrees and-
Naoya: [inaudible 00:12:37] what can I say?
Koba: Yeah, so [inaudible 00:12:38] centimeters, but it’s really long. And rest part was also 120 degree.
Erik: Now when you are hanging on from a hold, though, you were saying that you’re screaming out directions, but you can’t say, “Slope,” or, “You always hate those slopers.” You don’t have a lot of time to communicate.
Naoya: Actually I’m guessing all the time. My guess was… Most of the case my guess was completely wrong. I’m saying, “That might be a huge hold. Maybe not.”
Erik: Are you allowed to climb it first, Naoya?
Naoya: Actually, never. Even [crosstalk 00:13:12]
Erik: So you just have to use your eyes.
Naoya: Yes. I just see. Well, good thing is about because I’ve been climbing for years and years, I know, if I see the holes, I know what manufacturer those, and probably I can guess how they are shaped. But problem for the World Championship is it’s also, it’s the business promotion time. They’re putting new shape which I’ve never seen before so I can’t describe. I’m like, “That might be sloper. That may huge pinch. But I’m not sure, Koba, I’m sorry.”
Skyler: What you’re saying is different manufacturers’ holds are certain shapes, and you’re used to seeing those?
Naoya: Yeah. Exactly. If I say, “It’s American company, gee grip, which I’m so familiar, oh, that might be gee grip, plimp, that’s no problem, you can just shape on. Grip on the left side, that’s even better.” But for that competition, everything, 80% of those holds are super new that I can’t even describe.
Koba: So, now he had told me every word before every word he put that, “Maybe.”
Erik: Maybe. And you’re hanging, like yeah, yeah, yeah. [crosstalk 00:14:19]
Koba: So the World Championship is totally on side for me-
Erik: For you, non-sight?
Koba: Yeah. Just one time. Yeah.
Erik: I just want to make sure everyone caught that joke, because for blind people, they call it non-sighting.
Koba: Yeah, yeah.
Erik: So, how did you guys meet? Because I know trust is a big part of this relationship, right?
Erik: Learning how to work together. Learning how to reach each others thoughts.
Erik: How did you meet? And how did you develop that sense of trust?
Koba: I want to talk a little story for you. Sorry, my English is very poor, but I will try to try. Naoya and I met maybe 2002, something, just before I met you, Erik. Naoya and my friend have a wedding at the Winter Park and she invite me to her wedding party at Winter Park. And she told me, “My friend, Japanese friend, pick up you at the Denver airport.” Then that Naoya has come at the airport, and he drive a car. And Naoya and I talking about many things about climbing. And he said, “Are you getting the eye sickness? I understand you, how much you fit in the heart.” and he said, “Around a goal then. So I knew the climber that he is a total blind, and climbed the Mount Everest also. Do you know that?” So Naoya said to me, “No, no, no, no, I don’t know. Really? Total blind guy climbed Mount Everest?”
Erik: Who is that blind guy?
Koba: I don’t know. Maybe. So, he’s sitting in front of me, I think. Before come to the United States, I met some of the blind people in Japan. Everyone is getting older more than me, and they didn’t active.
Erik: They’re not active as they get older.
Koba: They’re not active. They’re not challenging like that.
Koba: I can’t believe the blind guy climbed Mount Everest, but also still tried hard climbing. So Naoya give me the big possibility for me that time. He watch me, so how much I surprised. He take me to the book store. He said, Naoya told me, “Maybe he published a good book.” So he bought me that book.
Erik: Was it my book?
Koba: Your book. Touch The Top-
Erik: Touch the Top of the World?
Koba: Yes. Yes.
Erik: Oh, okay. First one.
Koba: So I-
Erik: [crosstalk 00:17:32] book promotion as part as the podcast.
Koba: So I hold your book, come back to Japan. I try to find a website about you. I send you the email. Finally I met you next year.
Erik: Yeah. You came with your friend.
Erik: To my house.
Erik: On the way up to Winter Park.
Erik: So did you guys start climbing together right away, Naoya?
Naoya: Well, did we? Probably not, actually. I met him the first time in 2002.
Erik: You were living in the US.
Naoya: I lived in the US until 2002. 10 years. Golden, Leadville, [inaudible 00:18:11] and Boulder a little bit. I loved Boulder, Colorado, which obviously you know that anyway. Yeah. And then I met Koba first time at the airport. We talked about it, and he mentioned that older story, that he came up with [inaudible 00:18:27] true. And then we… Actually we didn’t climb together right away, actually. I don’t know how we started. Well, 2011, the first year, World Championship was in Italy. Arco.
Erik: Right. Arco, famous climbing there.
Naoya: Yes. Yes. So, we went there, and I was his navigator. Then he won.
Erik: Oh, you were World Champion all the way from 2011 too?
Erik: Oh, wow. Reigning champion for eight, nine years now.
Naoya: Yeah. And then since then, we climb sometimes, but not that often, though. We train before, a few months before the World Championship. So, we don’t climb that often. You know, he’s busy. I’m doing something else. So whenever we have a free time, we talk and we meet together, and climb a little bit. So we’re not always climbing together.
Erik: Right. But I’m really fascinated by the trust thing, because I know, with my guides, I trust my life to them. You know? And that’s not to say that they’re perfect. So, Naoya, do you ever feel a lot of responsibility? Like, “Oh, God, what if I screw up? I tell him a left hand instead of a right hand,” or, “I tell him to reach too far and he falls,” and then you feel… Because I always have people saying, if I trip, they’re like, “Oh, I’m sorry.” And I’m like, “You didn’t do anything.” You know? But they feel responsible, natural human tendency.
Naoya: Exactly. Just what you said. Exactly. Yeah. I feel very huge responsibility, because every time I made a big mistake, which I’m always making mistake, right and left. Right and left especially.
Erik: Have you actually said left when you meant right?
Naoya: Yeah. Believe it or not, I did that on the World Championship, in the finals, too.
Naoya: “Right, right, right, right, right. What are you talking about? No, I’m sorry, it was left. I meant left.” That kind of stuff. It happens all the time.
Koba: I don’t surprised, because every time. Every time he it.
Naoya: I felt sorry. Every time he comes back to the ground, said, “I’m sorry. I made a huge mistake.” But every time what he said to me is, “Oh, no, don’t worry about it. And I felt like, “Oh, no, sorry. You didn’t make it all the way to the top because me, because I made a huge mistake. I’m so sorry.” But he always says, “Oh, Naoya, don’t worry about it.”
Naoya: I don’t know how we built the trust with each other, but I’m happy that he’s trusting me a lot, and I trust him too. He’s a good climber. He knows what he’s doing. He’s really good at reading the route. His observation is awesome. His memorization. He memorize 30 holds. I say, “30 holds until, almost, to the top,” and he memorizing. One time. It’s like, “Oh my gosh, are you going to-”
Erik: Because you have to map out with your hands, Koba?
Naoya: Yeah. He’s mapped out the whole things. In one time.
Erik: The movements that get you from one hold to the next without seeing them.
Naoya: Exactly. Exactly.
Erik: Yeah. How do you feel about the relationship, Koba? Because you wanted to pipe in, I could tell.
Koba: Okay. So, Erik, we knew. The [inaudible 00:21:50] people feel that how much he put us the passion, so I trust him. How much he make mistake. But I feel it, the big passion from him. So I trust him.
Erik: Yeah. And you probably, not to put words in your mouth, but at least this is… You probably felt fortunate that somebody would connect themselves to you in that way. I always get pride with those friendships that you develop through that sense of commitment and trust with each other. Not very many duos, not very many partnerships like that in the world, in your life.
Erik: Well, I met Koba when he was just a normal person, he wasn’t world champion yet. He was just an average joe blind guy climber. We met, and I invited you, Koba, on a climb to Kilimanjaro.
Erik: We reached the summit together. I had a bunch of blind people. We had a blind person from Austria. We had some blind people from the USA.
Koba: And Kenya.
Erik: Oh, yeah, Kenya. We had Douglas Sidialo, he was the first blind African to reach the summit.
Koba: Erik. Erik. We went to the Kenya last year with Naoya, so we met him, Douglas.
Erik: Oh, great. Yeah. Douglas had been blinded in the 1998 US Embassy bombing in Nairobi, and it was his dream to climb Kilimanjaro as a way to promote peace in the world instead of terrorism. So, he stormed his way to the top. But you climbed it really strong as well. Do you remember us reaching the summit? And what did we do on the summit? Do you remember what I did? Testing your memory.
Koba: About Kilimanjaro?
Erik: Yeah. On the summit.
Koba: Yeah. I remember the top of the Kilimanjaro. How can I say the English. [foreign language 00:23:53] Top of your shoulder.
Erik: I lifted you up and put you on my shoulders.
Koba: I got top of the literally top of the Kilimanjaro, you took me.
Erik: Seriously. You raised your hands up, and nobody’s ever been that high, unless they were on a ladder.
Koba: Yeah. That was.
Erik: So that was a really special experience to get to know each other.
Koba: Yeah. Yeah.
Skyler: And that was in 2005 I believe?
Koba: 2005. It is. The September. My company is name of the Monkey Magic, that just established the same time as we got to the top of Kilimanjaro, 2005, September.
Erik: You started Monkey Magic?
Erik: And that is an organization to help people who are blind to climb in Japan, mostly? Tell us about it.
Koba: Yeah. Not only for blind. Almost all of the disability people in Japan. We provide climbing opportunity for them in Japan from 2005. So we got 14 years. And maybe thousand opportunity we made.
Erik: For people?
Skyler: And is that gym climbing? Or is that outdoor climbing? Or both?
Koba: Both. But many climbing gym in Japan. So people thinking that… So, climbing gym is a big first step to teach climbing right now.
Erik: It’s so easy to get to a gym?
Koba: It is.
Erik: It’s less intimidating too, right?
Koba: Yes. After the climbing to go drink beer is easy more than the grief, isn’t it? For people. And not only the climbing, also that drink beer is good opportunity to know, to understand each other after the climbing. So blind, normal people also, and other disability, it’s both of the climbing and the drink beer is important, I think, in Japan.
Erik: Because when you’re blind or disabled, you oftentimes can have a tendency to sit at your house, maybe not getting outside, not being active.
Koba: Yeah, yeah.
Erik: So you’re talking about not only the climbing but the social part of it, right?
Koba: Yes, yes.
Erik: The socializing, the conversation, the talking about the climbing routes together. The connection, right? Like you guys have.
Erik: And so, most people just climb or do their sport, but they don’t start an organization to help other people. I think that part of your story is really cool. What gave you the urge to do that? Why not just be world champion and think about Koba?
Koba: Because I started climbing when I was age 16, when I was sighted.
Erik: You could see.
Erik: Because you didn’t lose your sight till your 20s?
Koba: Yes. 28 my eye sickness appeared. Getting worse. My sickness is RP. How can I say it?
Erik: Retinitis pigmentosa.
Koba: Yeah. Yeah. It is. My sickness.
Erik: And that’s a slow progression of losing your sight.
Koba: Yeah, it is.
Erik: Where you developed tunnel vision, right? And it gets narrower and narrower, the field, until it goes away?
Koba: Yeah, yeah. Now I am total blind. So it’s two, three, four years ago.
Erik: Because I remember the first time I met you you could walk around.
Erik: And then the next time I saw you you couldn’t walk at night time, and then the third time you couldn’t see in the daytime.
Erik: So your eyesight, I noticed it getting worse.
Koba: Yeah. Have a cane or something to…
Koba: So, when I was 16 I started climbing. I knew how much climbing is great for person, for people. So after my sickness, I continued climbing, but just through passion, because I concern about my future with sickness in eye.
Erik: Did you stop climbing for a while?
Koba: Don’t stop.
Erik: Never stop.
Koba: Never stop. But slow.
Erik: Got slow.
Koba: Mm-hmm (affirmative). But after you met you Erik-
Erik: Yeah, after we met in Colorado.
Koba: You gave me the possibility and how much big opportunity for climbing. Climbing for people. So I knew it, how much climbing is great for people. So I am a person to… How can I say it? Split?
Koba: Show, yeah. For disability. Every disability people in Japan. Because before Monkey Magic, most of the people don’t have the chance to teach the climbing. So this is my destiny, or-
Erik: Your legacy?
Koba: Yeah, legacy, yeah, yeah. So, I think.
Erik: I’ve been all around the world and I do notice that disabilities are treated… People with disabilities are treated in different ways in different parts of the world. Do you think people with disabilities are treated different, is society different, in Japan from the US? Or is it the same?
Koba: Basically same.
Erik: Same. So, blind people are getting jobs and trying to branch out into the world?
Koba: My country is, I think, just little easy to get job blind, because we have social systems of support. Acupuncture job for blind people.
Erik: Is it massage and things like that too?
Koba: Not normally. Yeah. Massage too. And this job is support under the government for blind people. This is good systems for blind people to get job. This is different situation from your country. But I feel when I each visit to United States, to teach blind people, your blind people more happy, more passion, I feel. More than my country, these people. So I want to make more happy society for Japanese blind, disability people.
Erik: Yeah. So they get out and be happy and live life, right?
Skyler: And I think Monkey Magic is absolutely in that direction, right? You talk about social services and having a job, well, that’s one thing, and no barriers, and Erik talks about this concept of elevate, right? And that’s what Monkey Magic is. It’s raising other people up through this community of climbing. And, you know, the physical action of climbing is a little bit of it, but sitting around and talking and developing friendships and relationships that are so hard for people with challenges to create. It’s a powerful movement. And in Japan, or here in the US, or whatever, those movements are started by small sparks, just like yourself. You became blind and saw the struggle within your own life of you climbed and you wanted to continue to climb, and didn’t necessarily know how to go. So I think your story and your partnership with Naoya is such a beautiful example of that.
Erik: And there’s a great organization in the US that’s a little bit like that. They got tired of other organizations telling disabilities how to act and organizing everything for them. So they created this thing themselves, it’s called Adaptive Adventures, and they do skiing and all kinds of sports. But it’s a lot of disabled people teaching disabled people. But the big part of that organization is the social piece, right? The networking, and sounds like that’s a huge part of Monkey Magic, too.
Koba: Yeah. Monkey Magic. We have so many choice of the way to give them the chance to teach the other outdoor activity. But I am still focusing on to provide climbing for the people. And from 2007 that was my first participate No Barriers-
Erik: Our summit.
Koba: Yes, at Lake Tahoe. What can I say?
Erik: Yes. Squaw Valley.
Koba: Squaw Valley. Yeah.
Erik: Yeah. We’re going back there in June.
Koba: Yeah, yeah. 2007, and at Winter Park, and-
Skyler: And you and I were roommates in Winter Park.
Koba: Yeah. Yes. Yeah.
Skyler: We were buddies.
Erik: Well, I actually remember us climbing.
Koba: Yeah. We did. We did.
Erik: We went climbing in Lake Tahoe at… Where were we?
Koba: No, no, no. We went to the ski program at Aspen and you took me to the ice climbing after that.
Erik: Oh, yeah, also. Ice climbing. Do you remember what you said about ice climbing?
Erik: What did you say? Because I’ll never forget it.
Skyler: It was too good.
Koba: Cold water front.
Erik: Well, just so everyone knows, we were climbing this frozen waterfall, and I took you ice climbing. You’d never climbed before, ice. And we all had Gore-Tex on, so we were essentially waterproof, but there was this kind of wet stream running right down the face, so when you climbed this thing, water was pouring all over you. So, at the end of the day, we were completely covered with rime ice. This water had poured all over our Gore-Tex and was frozen on top of it, and we were like icicles walking out of the canyon. And you said, “They should change the name of ice climbing to cold shower.”
Erik: Not too many opportunities to ice climb in Japan.
Skyler: Koba, Monkey Magic witticisms. I’m going to rewind a little bit, because, you know, we jumped right into climbing, we were super excited to talk about Koba being the world champion, there was a lot of that. What I’m interested in, and what I didn’t know even after having roomed with Koba is the background. Where do you live? We were talking about you became blind from RP. All that kind of stuff. And for the audience that’s not sitting here listening to this, Koba’s called the tiny monkey for a reason. He’s a very compact, powerful guy. But when Erik puts him on his shoulders on Kilimanjaro, that’s especially humorous because Koba’s a small guy.
Erik: And I’m tall and goofy.
Skyler: Yeah. Exactly. So, you know, why don’t you start with that, guys? You live in Japan. Where in Japan?
Koba: I live in Tokyo. Tokyo, Japan. And I was born in 1968. And also I grow at only Tokyo. I told you that I started climbing at age 16. Before climbing I really don’t like any sport. The climbing is only my sport my life.
Erik: Koba, by the way, hold on a second, listen to this, though. Guess what year I was born.
Koba: Ah, September?
Erik: Guess when I started rock climbing. 16. We’re twins.
Koba: I was 16 years.
Erik: Yeah. Me too.
Koba: You too. Ah.
Erik: We’re twins.
Koba: Yeah. I can’t imagine twins because you’re big.
Erik: No. Somebody said we look exactly alike.
Koba: Yeah. Same age, same age as I started climbing.
Erik: We’re both handsome.
Koba: Yeah. Me too.
Skyler: Why climbing, Koba? How did that cross your path? Was climbing big in Japan in the 1980s?
Koba: Climbing was very, very small society in Japan when I was 16. I went to the cliff. I met almost the same climbers every time. So maybe most of the climber I knew that time, the climbing is very small.
Erik: Very small community.
Koba: Very small community.
Erik: Isn’t it crazy how it’s exploded since then, right? It’s just so massive. I mean, we were talking about the climbing gyms that have sprung up all over the world that are gigantic. I mean, everyone’s a climber now.
Koba: Can you imagine that climbing is Olympic game?
Erik: Yeah. It’s now in the Olympics.
Erik: And that will be in Japan, right?
Koba: Yeah. Next year. Yeah.
Erik: And I heard it was Japan that chose climbing as the sport they wanted to bring into the Olympics?
Skyler: Yeah, yeah.
Koba: But still the climbing is not Paralympic game, only Olympic game. You know that?
Erik: It’s not?
Koba: Not Paralympic game.
Erik: Not in the Paralympics. Okay.
Erik: Well, that’s crazy.
Koba: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Erik: So, do you want to advocate to bring it into the Paralympics? Do you want it to be in the Paralympics?
Koba: Yes. Yes. Because-
Erik: Before you’re too old.
Koba: I don’t know about me.
Skyler: You certainly talk a lot about being old.
Koba: But I will try to be athlete. I don’t know when finish but I try. I keep try.
Erik: Until it’s in the Olympics.
Erik: You could get a gold.
Erik: I hear the competition that you just had in Ohio was pretty fierce. Good competition.
Koba: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Erik: A young guy edged you out. Beat you a little bit.
Koba: His name is Justin. He’s maybe around 30, isn’t it?
Erik: He’s younger, even. He’s half your age.
Koba: Ah, yeah. Thanks. Also, the World Championship also, the Italian guy, every time on the podium that I was top of the podium and he got a second or third. His age was almost half. Or half. 25 years old. I was 50. But-
Erik: But you beat him.
Erik: How did you beat him? Did you get a little bit higher or just a few more points?
Koba: I don’t know because Naoya watched him.
Naoya: Okay, so the last World Championship he got the gold medal, and between first and second, probably about 15 or 20 holds differences. So he’s way, way, way beyond anybody else. Way higher than the second.
Skyler: That’s really good perspective. I mean, for me, and for I think everyone listening, we’re kind of wondering, what is the difference between all these climbers and the point scoring and all that? But 15 or 20 holds is a lot.
Naoya: Yeah. It’s a lot.
Skyler: Yeah. Half a route, you know?
Naoya: Yeah. Exactly. I don’t know. He’s really good. He’s very talented. The way how he moves, and his techniques. Whenever he has a problem, one having a problem, and once he got a problem, he probably fails, but once Koba has a problem, then he will find another solution the other way, and go to this technique. If it doesn’t work then he’s going to use another technique. It doesn’t work, he’s going to use another technique. So his endurance is so much more than other athletes, too. And he has a lot more techniques than the others. And he’s shorter than anybody else. He’s 160s centimeters. But we have Italian, French people with 180. Even though he is on top of the podium but he’s smallest. Yeah. Second or third is taller than him. But he is the first. Anyway, well, for my understanding watching him climb, I think he’s very talented, and he’s really good at this.
Erik: What’s harder, climbing or daily life? In Tokyo, going on the train and walking around and finding places, and… Is climbing harder than that?
Koba: Yeah. Most biggest hard, myself, make the time to go climbing. Because even though, Erik, we are very busy. So make the climbing time is biggest hard part. And second part, find a climbing partner. When I make the climbing time, myself, this is depends on every day. So, some day is a daytime, some day is a night, and weekend, or weekday, or something. So find a partner is difficult for me. And the moving in downtown Tokyo, we have so many good public transportation, so every blind people can move everywhere by myself on your own. It’s okay. Because people who are walking at station, people can support for us, so we can go anywhere myself.
Erik: So you’re very independent.
Skyler: You know, it seems crazy, right? It’s just like New York City. You know, Tokyo’s massive and busy and all this stuff. But there are amenities and there’s public transportation and there’s some consistency to the grid of the streets and things like that, which in a way maybe makes the navigation and doing things on your own, getting to the rock gym, a little bit easier.
Skyler: How do you feel like, over the years in your life, and this is related to that, what has climbing taught you about living? About life? About friendships?
Koba: Climbing is part of my life. Climbing is my most important friend like that. Friend, sometime fighting, sometime teach me life, sometime friend is… The climbing is like friend, so this friend will be my side until my die.
Erik: It’s like your frenemy. In English we say your frenemy.
Erik: Your enemy and your friend, all combined.
Koba: It is. Yeah.
Erik: Some days your enemy, some days your friend.
Koba: Yeah. It is, it is.
Erik: So, I want to end by asking you a question that people always ask me, and I would like to know from you. If you could go back in time, and you could avoid going blind, would you do that?
Koba: Maybe you said answer. Difficult question.
Erik: Yeah. An impossible question, but still. That’s why it’s fun to ask.
Erik: You’d just be a regular climber. A really good climber with sight.
Koba: I want to see. I want to get back my sight.
Koba: I take back, is it. But my life, now, is totally satisfied. My eye sickness is different from you. Your sickness is static. My sickness is getting worse.
Koba: So I want to stop my sickness getting worse any more. But I don’t need back my sight.
Erik: You don’t need it?
Koba: My life, I satisfy.
Erik: It’s enough.
Erik: Yeah. Well, speaking of that, I didn’t introduce your wife, Timiko. Yeah. She’s standing over here on the side listening patiently. So, you have not just Naoya as your partner, you’ve got two partners.
Koba: I can meet so many friend and including you.
Koba: And I can experience so many experienced.
Erik: As a blind person.
Erik: You probably wouldn’t have had those as a sighted person. You probably wouldn’t be the world champion. Maybe you would be, though, huh?
Erik: Well, there’s a thought.
Koba: World champions. I can’t imagine that if I don’t blind, maybe I don’t top of podium.
Koba: If I can sighted, maybe just a small guy.
Naoya: Small guy.
Koba: Just a small guy. Very normal.
Erik: All right. Well, with that, I think that’s the perfect ending.
Skyler: Thanks for coming down, Koba.
Erik: He’s a big man. Blindness made you big.
Skyler: Yeah, true, true.
Erik: Awesome, well, guys, thank you so much for being a part of this.
Naoya: Thank you. Thanks for having us.
Koba: Thank you very much.
Erik: You taught us a lot. You had a lot of incredible experiences. Sky, what did you get out of that interview?
Skyler: Yeah. You know, having met Koba a number of years ago, I didn’t know the depth of the story and the depth of starting Monkey Magic, and just what a difference I think that that can make for folks’ lives in Japan. You know? Being able to take something that’s fun, that’s rewarding, create community and find purpose in their lives. I think that’s just such a cool thing, and a cool mission. And obviously Koba being an excellent climber himself, that’s cool, but that’s only half of it. So, it’s been cool to know you, Koba, and cool to be a roommate in one of our first meetings together at Winter Park.
Erik: Yeah, for me, I’m blown away by their relationship, Naoya and Koba’s relationship, because they… As a sighted person you don’t really have to rely on people in the same way as a blind person, so, because you have to trust somebody to get big things done, it creates a deeper connection. So it’s kind of interesting that even though Koba’s blind, he probably has deeper relationships with people than he might have had otherwise. So, I think it’s just a good lesson for us, that sometimes even the hardships give us gifts that we have to tap into.
Erik: Anyway, if people want to learn more about No Barriers, they can check our our website, NoBarriersUSA.org, come to our summits, come to our What’s Your Everest? Event. We have one coming up August 24th in Colorado. We all hike a mountain together, a couple hundred people, folks of all abilities, folks in wheelchairs. Come be a part of these really cool experiences with us, and meet folks like Koba and Naoya. Thanks, everyone. No Barriers.
Skyler: Right on. No Barriers.
Dave: Thanks to all of you for listening to our podcast. We know that you have a lot of choices about how you can spend your time and so we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at NoBarriersPodcast.com. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan band for our intro song which is called Guidance. The production team behind this podcast include producers Didrik Johnck and Pauline Podpora Sound design, editing and mixing by Tyler Kottman. Graphics by Sam Davis, and marketing support by Karly Sandsmark and Jamie Donnelly. Thanks to all you amazing people for the great work you do.