The 125 pound, five and a half feet-tall figure snaps harness and carabiners in place, knots ropes thick as rolls of quarters together, and dusts calloused hands with chalk. With a quick appraising glance at the jagged, rock-studded wall, the small figure agilely grabs hold and begins his vertical ascent. Clinging spider-like to the wall, he reacts seamlessly to each protrusion and crevice. Within seconds, he is perched at the top of the wall, 30 feet above the ground.
With the supporting weight of his climbing partner, 24-year-old Rei Saito repels his way back to the ground. To demonstrate his accomplishment, Saito proceeds to moonwalk around his amused friend.
“I was really surprised the university had such great facilities on campus,” Saito says between victory steps. “Even though my university is the biggest in Japan, we don’t have a rock climbing wall.”
Saito, a graduate student on exchange from Nihon University in Tokyo, came to the University of Oregon to study urban city planning and landscape architecture last fall. He comes to the UO’s recreation center to climb the rock walls two to three times a week. He says that climbing is a newfound release from the stress of studying in a new country.
“Architecture students are always in the library or studio,” Saito says. “[The exercise] gives us a distraction.”
This distraction is not necessarily relaxing, however. Saito has little trouble climbing the wall now, but in his first few months at UO, climbing took a real effort.
“He had difficulty reaching the grips because he has shorter limbs,” says friend and climbing partner, Shunichi Maruyama. “A month later, he took a class and learned the technique to climb, so he really overcame his disadvantages.”
Saito uses this determined attitude to conquer challenges he faces in the architecture school. Despite having an architecture degree from his school in Japan, Saito says that U.S. methods for teaching architecture differ from those in Japan, and he has much to learn.
Saito says that similar to UO, sustainability and green planning are important issues discussed in Japan. However, the focus Japanese teachers take, he says, is on energy consumption and resources. In the U.S., Saito learns to solve sustainability problems by focussing more on city planning: how surroundings and resources can be used most effectively and efficiently for a structure.
Saito says that the biggest difference between students at UO and Nihon University lies in attitude rather than in learned content, however. Because of his cross-cultural experience in the U.S., he has changed his outlook on the world of architecture.
“In the U.S., most [architecture] students have motivation and really think about the architecture field,” Saito says. “If I ask Japanese students what they think about problems in the field, they might say, ‘I don’t know.”
American architecture students’ enthusiasm and motivation inspire Saito to also think critically about the issues facing his field. Instead of simply learning by the book, Saito now strives to think as an individual to better contribute to efficient urban planning and public building policies.
Saito says that his Japanese peers were also an influence, but for a different reason.
“My classmates learning English [in high school] decided to go into business, marketing and English literature,” Saito says. “I just thought that was kind of lame.”
Certain he wanted to stray from the majority, he didn’t yet know his direction. It wasn’t until a high school trip to New York City that he found his passion for design. According to Saito, the magnificent and sophisticated designs of the New York cityscape inspired him to pursue architecture.
Saito aspires to work closely with city planning in Japan, hoping to bring a different outlook to the Japanese market with his study abroad experience. Despite daunting economic problems facing students graduating into the architecture field, Saito remains optimistic. He says that as in rock climbing, when working in architecture, one must always start from the bottom and climb to the top.
Saito scurries up the rock wall at the UO Rec Center for the umpteenth time, without a care for the difficulties of his major or for the fact he’s immersed in a new language and culture. Saito says that determination is key to everything he does, whether it’s climbing or designing an ecological landscape for a city.
When he reaches the top of the rock wall in the UO gym, Saito yells, “Yeah I did it!” Although he may have only just begun his climb up the wall of urban planning, he is still determined to sit on top.