Ultralight Hiking (UL) was born in the U.S., but it became quite unique in Japan. It has evolved into a hiking culture that is simplified and has identity. I would like to call this Zen Hiking and discuss how this hiking is, surprisingly, very Japanese. I have used the word Zen because it is an excellent word for summarizing something that is Japanese. In this episode, I would like to discuss the Japanese way of hiking and traveling in the Zen prospective, which actually became the basis for accepting UL.
There are two core aspects of UL. One is the methodology: the UL-style of hiking is carrying only 10 pounds of equipment, excluding water, food, and fuel. The other is the spiritual mentality: UL allows the hikers to be close to nature. In the U.S., this methodology and mentality has been considered the New School of hiking, but, in Japan, this is nothing new; it has been done instinctively by hikers and travelers in the past.
Now let’s take a look at a pioneer of Japanese mountain climbing from the Taisho era to the early Showa era (Note from translator: around 1912 – 1941), Juji Tanabe (田部重治, 1884 – 1972). His book, The Japanese Alps and a Pilgrimage to Chichibu (日本アルプスと秩父巡礼, Nippon Alps to Chichibu-junrei), contains information about what hiking was like back then. It has been over 100 years since it was first published, but it still remains a very interesting chronicle for us now. Tanabe completed many adventurous hikes back then, and the style of his hiking can be considered European-born alpinism. This is no surprise, since mountain climbing was just starting out, and Japan was paying close attention to the European alpine scene. From this, we can see that Tanabe was at the forefront of mountain climbing/hiking in Japan. Five years after the release of The Japanese Alps and a Pilgrimage to Chichibu, Tanabe had a change of heart. We can see this through his writings in 1924. What was written about nature then was the exact spiritual mentality of UL.
“The interest that I have towards nature is now changing to affinity and unity with nature…” (Tanabe, Juji)
“Even just the grass by itself is becoming endearing to me. I can sense the feeling that I am becoming one with the mountain from the bottom of my heart.” (Tanabe, Juji)
Tanabe’s attitude here is going beyond the spiritual mentality of UL, which is to become close with nature. Rather, he is becoming one with nature by “uniting with nature” and “uniting with the mountain.” In the Western world, nature has been viewed as an opposing force to man. The stereotypical aim of the Western world is to conquer nature, and the Eastern world’s idea of uniting with the nature has little meaning. What Tanabe is trying to convey is the importance of unity. When you become one, there is no distance. In the Zen mind, there is the concept of becoming one with the universe. The mentality of Tanabe is not only that of UL but also very Zen. In later writings, Tanabe uses the words “travel,” “walk,” and “rove” quite often. From this, you can tell that he does not dwell on the climbing aspect. As long as there is the mentality to unite with nature, you can climb or rove. It doesn’t matter to him. This approach is very similar to the beliefs of Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, who introduced Zen to the Western world.
UL started off from super-long distance trails and became a more rational way to hike in the U.S. Then it became the new hiking culture of the 21st century by combining freedom of movement and the idea of getting back to nature. We can see how the movement grew from a style of hiking into something spiritual. In Japan, however, even before UL began, there was a hiker that already tried to become one with nature. His was not a movement to get back to nature, but more to become united with nature and become one with it. In Japan, there is a philosophy of looking at the spirituality rather than the formal aspects of something. This philosophy was seen in the beliefs of this hiker. Also, the mentality of putting value on the spirituality is very Zen-like.
The methodology of UL, which is that the spiritual mentality is more important than the formal, was nothing new to Japan when you look at Japanese history. I would like to discuss this in detail through Tanabe’s writings.
“…by carrying too much luggage, I wonder if it would take away the comfort of traveling.” (Tanabe, Juji)
“The best amount of luggage to carry when climbing the mountain is about three Kan (about 23 pounds), and it no longer becomes fun and not efficient if it is more than five, six Kan (about 50 pounds).” (Tanabe, Juji)
The concept of making hiking enjoyable by making luggage light is similar to how UL started off from super long distance trails. At that time in Japan, the popular way to hike must have been to employ a guide/porter to carry the luggage, but the guideline that Tanabe sets, “[the] amount of luggage for a pleasant hike is 23 pounds” is about the same weight as UL’s base weight, including water and food. It is quite interesting that it is about the same weight, despite the differences in era and location.
“Mountain-climbing boots are useful at the summit and on ground with lots of pebbles, but it makes us tired in other situations…There is a need to make the shoes lighter.” (Tanabe, Juji)
“When mountain climbing in Japan, there are wide areas to hike. To make this more enjoyable, the mountain-climbing boots should be lighter.” (Tanabe, Juji)
“For hikers like me that enjoy wearing Zori (草履, Japanese sandles), they must be irritated by the heaviness of the mountain-climbing boots.” (Tanabe, Juji)
Back then, mountain-climbing boots had just come to Japan, and they created something of a fad. Tanabe does not follow this fad, but he takes a close look at it and accepts the good parts of it. Then, he thinks about what is really needed. This way of thinking and implementing is the act that made UL simple and made the gadgets light. Even when stereotypes say “you need this to climb,” or “you can’t go mountain climbing without this,” UL climbers rethink and question themselves, and create something better. Zen is about realizing what is needed from within; it cannot be taught from reading something that someone wrote. This way of thinking is very similar to UL.
Henro (遍路, multi-site pilgrimage of 88 temples which is approximately 1,200km long), Hikyaku (飛脚, couriers or messengers who carried them by foot), the book The Narrow Road to the Deep North (奥の細道, Okuno Hosomichi, meaning narrow road to/of the interior) by Basho Matsuo (松尾芭蕉), and Santoka Taneda(種田山頭火)’s wandering journeys are examples of mountain climbing and trips that are truly Japanese. These examples not only have an oriental feeling but also a Japanese essence. When looking at the backgrounds and the histories of all these examples, it is not wrong to call them Zen Hiking, but I would like to mention that Juji Tanabe was making his statements even when alpinism was a major phenomenon. His words have the essential quality of Zen. The concepts of UL and Zen were present in Japan even before we accepted UL.
Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro translated by Kudo, Sumiko (1987), Zen, Chikuma Bunko
鈴木大拙著 工藤澄子訳 『禅』 ちくま文庫 1987
Tanabe, Juji (1919) “Yarigatake Yori Nihonkai E”, Nippon Alps to Chichibu-junrei, Hokuseido
田部重治「槍ヶ岳より日本海へ」『日本アルプスと秩父巡礼』 北星堂 1919
Tanabe, Juji (1924) “Yama Ni Hairu Kokoro”, Kanso First Issue, Toyo University
田部重治「山に入る心」『観想』創刊号 東洋大学 1924
Tanabe, Juji (1931) “Ashi No Hayasa”, Toge To Kogen, Omura Shoten
田部重治「足の速さ」『峠と高原』 大村書店 1931
Tanabe, Juji (1993) Shinpen Yama To Keikoku, Iwanami Shoten
田部重治『新編 山と渓谷』 岩波書店 1993