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Away from the Wall: Ashima Shiraishi

Away From the Wall: Athletes in isolation during the coronavirus crisis. A new limited-run column from R&I columnist Owen Clarke. Follow along as he checks in with top climbers to see what they are up to in their quarantine.

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The COVID-19 pandemic sent the world into upheaval this spring, and climbing was thrown for a loop along with everything else. Our sport’s popularity was on the rise, the Olympics were on the horizon and now it’s all come to a halt (although things aren’t all bad).

In some ways, COVID-19 has served as an equalizer. No matter who you are, how hard you climb, how much you have in the bank or where you live, most likely you’re stuck at home, away from the rock just like the rest of us. This is true for gumbies, Old Guard trad dads, weekend warriors, and pro climbers alike. We’re all in this together.

In a new column, Away from the Wall, I’m talking with pro climbers to get the lowdown on their experience isolating: how they’re spending their time, how it has affected them, and any advice they can offer other climbers.

[Also Watch VIDEO: Wild Boyz -Ashima And Zach]

Shiraishi at the Xiamen World Cup in 2019. Photo: Eddie Fowke / IFSC.

This week I talked with American wunderkind Ashima Shiraishi, who is in Tokyo. Long the poster child of the “kid crusher” demographic, the 19-year-old Shiraishi ticked a new “youngest” first almost annually throughout her childhood. She was the youngest to send V13 at age 10 and the youngest to climb 5.14c at age 11. Shiraishi was also the youngest to top 9a/+ (5.14d/5.15a) at age 13, with ticks of Open Your Mind Direct and Ciudad de Dios in Santa Linya on her 8th grade spring break. Later, she became the first female and youngest climber to send 8C (V15) with Horizon at Mount Hiei, Japan, when she was 14, and Sleepy Rave in the Grampians, Australia, several months after that.

Shiraishi is isolating at a friend’s house in Tokyo after her trip to the U.S. was cut short in mid-March due to the virus. Although the country hadn’t yet imposed 14-day isolation policies for incoming travelers when she arrived in Japan a week and a half ago, Shiraishi chose to isolate regardless.

“I just don’t want to risk spreading it,” Shiraishi said.

Her decision turned out to be wise—Japan’s COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed in recent days.

Shiraishi hasn’t been climbing, and because she has no training equipment with her, her training capabilities are minimal, but she’s been finding other ways to pass the time.

Q&A with Ashima Shiraishi

Having traveled from the U.S. to Japan, you’ve seen both governments and cultures respond to the virus first hand. How do they differ?

I was in Japan when they had some of the first cases of the virus outside of China, in January. There was a big panic, the grocery stores were empty, the toilet paper was gone … schools and big companies were shut down, or they were required to work from home, but then everything else is kind of back to normal here … It’s sort of crazy, because things could get really serious in Tokyo, especially. It’s so densely populated and there is a large population of elderly folks. The government hasn’t been forcing much.

Also, in America and Europe you have a lot of social contact with friends and family, but in Japan you don’t really touch other people, even if you’re close with them. It’s a cultural difference, people respect each other’s space. Maybe with romantic partners or family you would be closer, but with friends you wouldn’t hug or get really close to them anyway. Also, even before corona, in the winter and spring everyone wore masks anyway. People are just naturally good at social distancing here.

Though the COVID-19 situation in Japan has dramatically worsened since I talked to Ashima last week, and a state of emergency was declared April 6th, Japan still has the lowest infection rate by far of any G7 nation [USA, Italy, Canada, Germany, France, UK, Japan] despite being one of the first countries with documented cases outside of China, back in January.

You aren’t able to climb or train much at the moment. How are you staying in shape? Are there any exercises integral to your routine in isolation?

Core is a huge part of the way I climb, it helps me a lot when I train core. I usually go through a rotation of plank holds, slow pace sit ups (ten seconds up, ten seconds down) and then sideways sit ups. I also do some stability core exercises, starting on all fours where you extend your opposing limbs (ex. left leg, right arm) fully outward slowly, and balance on the remaining two, then you tuck in, hollow out your stomach, and bring them back in. I do those ten times and then switch to the other side. Those are few.

Your first book is coming out, How To Solve A Problem. Tell us a bit about that. What inspired you to write it, and why a children’s book?

How To Solve A Problem, Shiraishi’s new book, is available now!

We based it off of a TEDxTeen Talk I gave a while ago. The book goes through the process of climbing and failure, challenging a climb that’s at your limit … sometimes you succeed and sometimes you don’t, but when you push through and give 110% effort and see that success, it’s the best feeling in the world. It applies to anything you’re passionate about. The book is about how that correlates to other things in life. It’s not about climbing, it’s more about that process.

As a child I was inspired by the graphics of children’s books. I loved reading and having my parents read to me. Every night I begged them to read to me. A lot of kids do that, but I absolutely loved it, it was part of my routine. So I want to share that process with other kids, and hopefully they’ll grow to love reading, like I do. For my first book, it’s fitting to have it geared towards kids because I started climbing as a child and there aren’t a lot of climbing kids books out there. So I feel like I can add a bit to that field, and hopefully inspire kids to try climbing. I also love graphic art and color, and normal books don’t offer that.

[How to Solve a Problem is available now!]

Have you done much cooking at home? What are some of the best meals you’ve made?

I’ve done a ton of baking, attempting a lot of breads and cakes. We did a really cool salad with spinach, radicchio, purple lettuce, thinly sliced cucumber, and made a miso and daikon ponzu for it. We made a really good Thai bean curry with tofu, onion, peppers and zucchini. We’ve also been doing a yuba concoction, which is the tofu skin that is discarded when tofu is made. It’s got a really cool consistency, it’s like really really thin layers of tofu. In normal life I like to cook anyway, but I’m not as experimental.

Shiraishi cooking up something delectable! Photo: Courtesy of Ashima Shiraishi.

Doing any reading?

I’m reading Shakespeare’s soliloquies, actually! They’re a bit tough to get through, because each one is from a completely different play. But even as a kid at school growing up, I always loved reading Shakespeare. At first you have no idea what’s going on, but once you go through each line and word and unlock it, it’s such a good feeling. It’s satisfying, and the writing is so beautiful. Also, there was no director for plays back then, all the plays were written for the role, for the actors to direct themselves. Nothing was supposed to go through the medium of a director, everything was in the hands of the performer, which I think is really cool.

Other ways you’re passing the time?

I’m doing a lot of drawing. I took a beautiful photo of the sunset when I was in Bishop, and I’ve been working on drawing that. I was a little paranoid out here, so I thought drawing a place that gives me some tranquility would be good.

It’s been gloomy and rainy a lot, but I’m keeping myself entertained. I’ve been FaceTiming my friends, and I enjoy spending time cooking and drawing and reading, so I haven’t been in too bad of a place. Growing up, those things were an integral part of my life, so I just have more time to do them now. But I definitely miss working out and climbing, because it’s a huge part of my life as well.

One of Shiraishi’s original pieces of art! Photo: Ashima Shiraishi.

When this is all over, what climbing goals are you looking toward?

In August, I was planning on Rocklands. It may not happen, but maybe next year, and I really want to go to Magic Woods as well. I don’t have any specific lines in mind, just the locations.

What about future goals or plans outside of climbing?

Before [COVID-19] picked up I was working part-time at a vegan restaurant called Superiority Burger in Tokyo. I’m a huge fan of their New York location, so I was helping them open here. In the future I’m thinking of going to uni, maybe something where I can do some art. Drawing, painting, maybe ceramics. I think I’m going back to New York for that.

Your birthday is Friday, right? It’s a bummer you have to spend it in isolation, but do you have any plans? [Shiraishi turned 19 April 3rd]

It’s not so bad really, last year my birthday was on the plane, and by the time I landed it wasn’t my birthday anymore. As of right now, I’m planning on baking myself a cake!

This is a tough time for all of us. Are there any positives or silver linings you see in the situation?

It’s really forced us to slow down, and be grateful for the lives we have. During a crisis like this things are hard, but you look back at what you had before, the freedom to go out, see your friends, go climbing … sometimes we take that for granted. I also think the world is telling us to slow things down. Stop traveling for a bit, take a breath. Everything is so fast paced nowadays we forget how life started, the essentials.

With that in mind, coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic are you planning on changing your lifestyle? Do you see yourself traveling less, changing your agenda or goals as a result?

Traveling less has been a key point, even before this started, but definitely now. It’s important to take time for yourself, to not always be in a fast-paced environment. Constant change is ineffective. I want to spend less time on the road, more time with the people I cherish and respect.

Owen Clarke is a columnist for Rock and Ice magazine.Owen Clarke, 22, is a writer and climber from Alabama. He is waiting out the COVID-19 pandemic in his parents’ house, subsisting off of Hormel Chili with Beans and triple sec, trying to learn Arabic from a 20-year-old textbook he bought online, watching anime and doing pull-ups. Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.

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