“Nihon Hyaku-meizan (日本百名山, 100 Famous Japanese Mountains)”, “Yakushima (屋久島)”, “Mt. Fuji (富士山)”, “Yama Girl” (山ガール, Girls that enjoy climbing gear as fashion), and Long Trail Hiking. These are just a few keywords from the recent big mountain climbing trend. They all relate heavily to the consumption within Japan, and, actually, they are all a fad created by the media and brand marketing. Therefore, it’s hard to say that these are Japanese culture that should be spread all over the world.
It has been over 130 years since an English missionary, Walter Weston, helped to popularize recreational mountaineering in Japan in the late 19th century. Since then, when looking back at the history of mountain climbing and outdoor activities, Japan has been heavily dependent on imports for both products and the concept. The first 100 years, the European mountaineering culture of Alpinism, which requires skills such as vertical climbing, was imported. Then, in the 80s, the backpacking cultural movement of freedom and getting back-to-nature was imported from the American outdoor culture. Japanese are known for copying the originator, making it better, and modifying it into something unique. The mountaineering and outdoor culture goes through the same process.
After the 2000s, the Japanese have finally been showing some uniqueness that is worthy of spreading to the world. It is the hiking culture that is simplified and has identity. I would like to call this “Zen Hiking,” “Zen” because it is a word that summarize something that is Japanese. I just stated that the Japanese are very good at modifying the original to something unique, and Zen Hiking is no different. Zen Hiking has been created using ultralight hiking as its base. What is ultralight hiking and how have the Japanese accepted it and made it unique?
The U.S., the home of outdoor activities, has many mountain trails. There are many different kinds available, from easy ones that takes only a few hours, to long ones that are hundreds or thousands of kilometers long. The hikers that do these kinds of long distance trails back to back from spring to fall are called Thru-Hikers, and the actual hiking is called Thru-Hiking. Ultralight hiking uses the methodology and the spirit of Thru-Hiking. Hiking a couple hundred to couple thousand kilometers takes up to a few months. When hiking such a long distance, the physical burden should be as minimum as possible. Also during this hike, a common day would be spent mostly walking, and taking a break in the city would be a special day, which is exactly the opposite of normal life. Therefore, simplicity during every day hiking becomes an important factor.
This is where ultralight hiking comes into the definition. To meet the “walking” needs for the Thru-Hikers, the equipment and methodology became simple. They accomplished this by carrying the lightest gear possible. Ultralight hiking style is to carry only 10 pounds of equipment, excluding water, food, and fuel. To achieve minimal weight, they even make gear by hand. To shelter themselves from the wind and rain, they would carry one tarpaulin. Food would be heated up in a stove handmade from aluminum beverage cans, and the bag that they carry all this would be a thin backpack with no framing or padding. This gear is very minimal to protect oneself from the nature, but, at the same time, this make the person very close to nature. By living in the nature without bringing too many devices and living the simple life, it becomes a great opportunity to feel the surroundings with our five senses. It also creates a minimal impact on the environment. Ultralight hiking is not only a methodology, but also is spiritual facing of nature.
When this ultralight hiking movement was becoming established as a style in the U.S. around the year 2000, it was introduced to Japan. This introduction to Japan was quite different from how other outdoor activities and cultures had been presented in the past, because ultralight hiking has never been a mainstream outdoor activity in the U.S. Other outdoor activities that has been introduced to Japan are usually imported after they become well established in the country of origin, not while it is becoming established, as in this case. Another factor that was different from the past was that, due to the development of the Internet, people were able to obtain the latest information. When trying to expand counterculture and culture on a grassroots level, it is important to have direct connections with the originator. Ultralight hiking was becoming established was around the same time the Internet was rapidly expanding. As a result, even in a country with no extensively long trails, information about ultralight hiking, especially about gear, was available with no time lag. The fact that this was a culture that was not established, and that the information was easy to access with no time lag, accelerated the spread of ultralight hiking, and making it unique in Japan.
As mentioned before, ultralight hiking emphasizes the methodology of carrying the lightest and simplest possible, but it also involves the spirituality of being at one with nature. From these two characteristics, making and carrying the lightest possible gear plays a bigger role. This is one of the factors that made ultralight hiking popular. The U.S.-branded light, simplified products were greeted by the Japanese market with astonishment, but it didn’t take long for the Japanese to copy and modify the originals into something unique. The well-known example of this is the alcohol stove created in the early 2000s. The improvement of the beverage-can stove was debated on the Internet over and over and evolved in a Japanese way. Not only did the resulting stove have a beautiful structure, but it also had secured, high output with low fuel. This is almost like how the Japanese developed electrical appliances during the high economic growth period. The simple, beautifully structured stove made by a Japanese creator was accepted and distributed throughout the American market. Another alcohol stove made by a different creator had a unique combustion mechanism, and it was posted as a new mechanism on an alcohol stove website. The fact that the website’s name was “Zen Backpacking Stove” describes the whole frame of mind.
The copying and improving ultralight hiking’s symbolic alcohol stove is similar to how the Japanese economy has developed. The copying and improving of the shelters was very Zen-like, too. The ultralight hiking shelters that were created by a Japanese company have very high ratings globally as of now, but when it was introduced, it was called a mockery of the existing shelter. The designer replied to this by stating: “When you simplify the design, you are left with only the most important elements. Therefore of course, the shape will be the same. There is no need to change the shape; I don’t need to dwell on the uniqueness of the shape.” When Zen was introduced overseas, some of the keywords used were “no meaning in format”, “importance of the spirituality”, and “non-attachment”. The state of mind that the designer must have gone through is actually the Zen state of mind.
The ultralight hiking gear that were copied and recreated in Japan have achieved a formative beauty, and at the same time it has achieved a unity beyond just copying. Because there were no long trails for actual practice in Japan, the recreation of the gear took the lead. This was a unique approach for ultralight hiking to become accepted by the Japanese. I have said before that the process to make the gear better is like the high economic growth period in Japan, but I feel like this process is more like traditional Japanese culture, such as Kado (華道), the Japanese art of flower arrangement, Sado (茶道), Japanese tea ceremony, Japanese Pottery, Karesansui (枯山水), Japanese rock gardens, Haiku (俳句), Japanese poem, Noh (能), classical Japanese musical drama, and Kyogen (狂言), traditional Japanese comic theater. The simplicity that ultralight hiking has is the same as that of traditional Japanese culture. If the word to summarize traditional Japan is “Zen,” then ultralight hiking is also “Zen”.
Simplicity is not only for gear but also for the actual hiking. Ultralight hiking is not just the methodology to hike a very long trail, but a way to achieve the spiritual mindset in nature. It is not where to walk, but how to walk, what to feel. Japan may not have long trails, but it has many traditions of being one with nature spiritually, which is an important principle for ultralight hiking. Nodate (野点), enjoying a Japanese tea ceremony outside, and Shugendo (修験道), development of spiritual experience and power through mountain-dwelling, both focus on being one with nature and using minimal gear. This is the same as ultralight hiking. The meeting of Japanese history, culture and ultralight hiking happened for a reason. In Japan, what is beyond this special adaptation is “Zen Hiking.”