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 how cottage gear brands became popular in the late 2000s after UL was introduced to Japan, in the Zen prospective.
You hike a couple hundred kilometers, or maybe even a couple thousand kilometers through out the few months. This journey like trail culture became established in the early 2000s, and thanks to the development of the Internet, people were able to obtain the latest information from their house. This allowed the hikers to get in touch with the latest trends directly without the help of the media. UL spreader in Japan as a culture that was still developing, not a culture that was already established. From this we can say that Japan was no longer an importer of the culture, but a equal provider to the hiking culture. This is exactly the other way around the so-called “Japan culture”, such as anime, manga, and idols has been spreading enormously, and being accepted abroad. But since Japan did not have super long distance trails like the U.S., the information that spread in Japan about UL was extremely focused on each gear rather than the methodology. The strong attachment with things seems like something that is very different from the essential quality of Zen, but the approach to dig deep into the gear, and thinking deeply about the shape, accelerates the evolution of UL in Japan in the Zen way.
What makes UL so different from the traditional American outdoor culture? The spirituality to have an affinity with nature is common among outdoor culture in general. So what makes UL unique is the gear. When UL was just starting out in the early 2000s, the gears used for UL were simplified to the max, and it surprised everyone. Some examples of the gear used for UL are: a simple tarp made from one sheet of cloth to sleep in, a backpack that is basically a bag with a sling, and an alcohol stove made from a beverage-can for cooking. These gears are the antithesis of the traditional outdoor gear. A tent that is supported by many complexed poles, a backpack that has patting and frames like an armor, a high output stove that you can almost cook Chinese food like a pro… are these gears really needed? You need to think deeply what is really needed for hiking. You must think, and come up with an answer yourself, then you are able to used the UL gear wisely. If the brain frozen hiker that can’t think of the answer, and uses the UL gear, the gear becomes like the Koan (公案: a story, dialogue, question, or statement, which is used in Zen practice to provoke the “great doubt”) to figure out Taru-wo-shiru (知足: what one has is all one needs).
Around the same time in Japan, the gear for UL was copied and modified. In the early 2000s, one of the well-known example of this was the alcohol stove. Alcohol stove modification became a big debate among the UL fanatics on the Internet since the alcohol used as fuel was easy to use compared to gasoline and kerosene, and the main components were made of aluminum cans, which was easy to get anywhere in the world. The evolution of the alcohol stove in Japan is very Japanese, it’s almost like the development of the home electronics in the high economic growth period in the 1970s. The alcohol stove evolved in two ways. The first: pursue the beautiful and sophisticated shape, and secondly: pursue low-fuel consumption and high output. The first requires a craftsman, and the second requires a technician. An example of the first is the T’s Stove. The decoration is very minimal, but the mechanism is unique. Especially the alcohol stove named Side B is a stove that is maxed out to the ultimate minimum. The craftsmanship that is required to make this gear into this simple beautiful shape is Japan-like, but the fact that this product has minimal decoration makes it also very Zen-like and it is on the verge of Ku (空: emptiness), and Mu (無: without). An example of the second is the Cyclone Stove made by Yukio Yamakawa (1947-), which has been experimented and refined for a long time, and now attracting the whole world’s attention for its unique mechanism. This Cyclone Stove is so popular that it has been featured on the alcohol stove portal as a new mechanism, and Japan original. The background story behind the development of this stove can be read on his website, but a point worth mentioning is that the mechanism for this Cyclone Stove is too, very simple. The improvement to simplify the stove is not only Japanese but also very Zen-like. This Zen-like simplified alcohol stove is spreading within Japan but also outside of Japan. It has been distributed in the U.S., and as mentioned before, Yamakawa’s stove has been featured on a alcohol stove portal. What’s surprising is the name of the website. It is called Zen Backpacking Stove. The Japan-like evolution of the alcohol stove can be compared to the high economic growth period but it can not get away from the Zen-like attribute.
The FREVO stove, the latest cyclone stove by Yukio Yamakawa.
A brand that is worth mentioning when talking about cottage gear is Locus Gear. Locus Gear is known not only for the lightness of their products, but also the fine sewing and how flexible they are for making the products customized to the user’s needs. They have drawn attention from all over the world. The most famous product from this brand is the pyramid shaped shelter that stands with only one pole. When they launched this product, it was called a mockery of an existing shelter. The designer’s reply to this was calm as the Unsui (雲水: a postulant awaiting acceptance into a monastery, they move freely through life like free-floating clouds or flowing water), and the reply even had an essence of Zen.
“The core essence of UL gear is not trimming weight, but simplifying. When elements and designs get simplified, the shape becomes simple. By simplifying to the max, at the end, the shape will all be the same. Doesn’t UL gear such as backpacks and shelters all look kind of same? There is no meaning to change the shape. The essence of UL is beyond, just 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 thought behind this was that all spirits and materials all came from one, and from this belief, differences in shapes at the surface-level was not relevant. Was it only me that saw the unity from the reply of the designer of Locus Gear beyond the non-possessiveness, non-greediness, and not-selfness? From his reply, it make us think about the Zen through UL gear as well as his personal viewpoint. UL gear such as the shelter, the backpacks… all the brands pretty much look alike. This is the collateral evidence that when putting together a shape that is the essentials to hiking, as we learned from Taru-wo-shiru (知足: what one has is all one needs), the shape becomes the same and unite. UL gear proves the Zen way of thinking: that beyond the non-possessiveness, non-greediness, and not-selfness, there is unity.
The UL gear that were copied and recreated in Japan have achieved a formative beauty, and at the same time it has achieved an identity beyond just copying. Because there were no long trails for actual practice in Japan, the recreation of the gear took the lead. The thought behind this process similar to the traditional Japanese culture, such as Kado (華道: the Japanese art of flower arrangement), Sado (茶道: Japanese tea ceremony), Togei (陶芸: 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). Especially culture that express“Wabi, Sabi” has the same roots in the mind. The simplicity of UL has the same essentials as traditional Japanese culture. Therefore UL is Zen.