I recently spent several days on Yakushima, an island with 40% of its land area designated as a World Heritage Site and which for this reason is a Mecca for hiking and backpacking in Japan. Hikers come from all over Japan and the world to see Jomon-Sugi, an ancient cedar tree which is believed to be 7200 years old and to hike Mount Miyanoura, the highest peak in Kyushu. There are dozens of trails and waterfalls, the ancient forests are full of monkeys and deer and the whole island seems shrouded in magic and mystery. It was by far the most beautiful place I have visited in Japan and amongst the most beautiful I have visited in the world. The only bad point was the presence of the hardcore Japanese backpackers that brought me closer to the brink of insanity than I ever thought possible. Let’s have a closer look at the Japanese hobby phenomena before I continue my tale.
Of all the standard questions I am asked on a regular basis by the Japanese, the one that initially surprised me the most was What is your hobby? It surprised me not because of its content, but because of the implication of that sentence structure. Firstly, it assumes that I have a hobby and it also indicates that the person asking believes that I have only one hobby. In everyday English, we would normally ask Do you have any hobbies? or What do you like to do in your free time? The first few times I was asked about my hobby I thought the questioner was using simplified grammar and really meant one of the above questions. I thought he or she really wanted to know about all of my interests and I would start to list off the various and varied activities that do it for me; scuba diving, motorcycles, hiking, reading, wine, swimming. The reaction was always the same: the standard Japanese look of confusion coupled with the slightly guttural, hey-eh?
You see in Japan, most everyone has a hobby. And they are unofficially allowed only one, which they are supposed to participate in fanatically, wholeheartedly and unswervingly. And they do. Each of my students, for example, participates in a school club (and only one) which meets not only every day before and after school for several hours, but also on the weekends and everyday during spring, summer and winter holidays. I repeat, the Japanese are fanatics about their one chosen hobby. Hobbies can be changed, of course, over the course of one’s lifetime, but it is rare to have more than one at any time. To have more than one is a sure sign of being a dilettante. If you are into clubbing, you must club every weekend, or else your fellow clubbers will see you as a weakling. If you are into scuba diving, you must have all the gear and spend most of your weekends and all of your holidays diving, even if it is only in the local pond. If you are into ikebana(Japanese flower arranging), don’t even think about spending your Friday nights doing anything else! And if you are into backpacking and hiking in Japan, you have to be as hardcore as possible. In fact, even few professionals can match the hardcore-ness of the Japanese.
Like any other hobbyists, Japanese hikers take their hobby very seriously. Whether headed out for a few hours or a few days, the Japanese hiker is outfitted with all the latest gear and gadgets available. There are two distinct dress styles among hikers in Japan. There is modern, ultra-fashionable, super lightweight, functional, Gortexed, poly-pro’ed, Fleeced look diligently copied from the pages of backpacking and hiking magazines. You could make a game of counting labels; The North Face, Patagonia, Helly Hanson. And then there is the old school Swiss Alpinist look of woolen knickers and argyle knee socks, canvas backpacks and wooden walking sticks, which inarguably proclaims that the spirit and fashion sense of Sir Edmund Hillary is alive and well in the hills of Japan. Like many things in Japan, the way you look doing something often outweighs how or why you do it.
Regardless of their choice in fashion, all Japanese hikers are on a strict time schedule. Since there is a myth that the weather is always best in the early hours of morning, hikers strive to get out of their sleeping bags and onto the trails as early as possible. In Canada, and most of the sane world, camping in the woods, backpacking and hiking the trails is an escape from the hectic world of the big city. Outdoor enthusiasts, while early to rise, still allow themselves time to stop and take in the beauty of their surroundings. I have many memories of savoring a cup of instant coffee while still sleepy-eyed and completely relaxed, gazing at nearby mountains, streams and scenery. In Japan, on the other hand, hiking is as stressful as day full of business engagements and meetings in central Tokyo.
My two companions and I spent eleven hours hiking from sea level to an elevation of 1400 meters, where the mountain hut we planned to spend the night at was located. We miscalculated the time it would take to cover the steep 14 km hike and with a late start and too many rest stops, we reached the cabin just as the sun was setting, completely exhausted. To our chagrin, it was completely packed by hikers who had taken the short 40 minute route from a nearby parking lot. We had decided to be hardcore and take the long way up, only to be left out in the cold. The cabin, a basic structure with floor space only, was full. There were rows of sleeping bags, lined up like larvae, encasing the bodies of snoring hikers.
It was 7 pm and everyone was asleep. We should have taken this as a clue, hiked back out to the parking lot and hitched a ride to anywhere else.
Instead, we squeezed into a small space on the porch and giving up any hope of cooking up a hot meal, settled for pita bread and journey cakes. There were a few people sitting up past bedtime, many of them drinking sake, beer and whiskey that they’d had no problem carrying in from the nearby parking lot. We glared at them menacingly but it did our situation no good. My mood was evil and slightly suicidal. If it wasn’t for the sandwich thrust into my hand by one of my companions I might very well have started to froth at the mouth. After taking the edge off our hunger, changing out of sweaty clothes and rubbing down sore spots, we edged our way into the cabin and laid our sleeping bags in the hallway, amongst the backpacks and attempted to get a good nights rest. This proved to be impossible thanks to the constant symphony of snoring and continuous shuffling and repositioning of sleeping bodies. It was one of the most uncomfortable nights I have ever had.
And it only got worse.
At about 2:30 in the morning, many of our fellow hikers began to rise. The early bird gets the worm, they say, but I have always hated that expression and mocked the people that uttered it. Almost in unison, bodies sat up and began to fuss with their backpacks. Since most people in the cabin were hiking with 60-75 liter backpacks, there was a lot of fussing to do. The man next to me had all of his belongings packed into plastic shopping bags, the really loud crinkly kind, which he packed and unpacked for a full hour before leaving the hut. I had only one thought running through my head, I want to rip your face off!. I had to look over several times to convince myself that he wasn’t sitting there crinkling the bags just for fun.
The Japanese are considered to be extremely polite and considerate people. I protest! There is nothing polite or considerate about talking and smoking with your friends in a crowded mountain hut at three in the morning when there are people around you obviously still trying to sleep. Furthermore, if you know you are going to be waking up and leaving earlier than everyone else, it might make sense to have everything packed and ready to go the night before so as not to disturb your neighbors. I can see how this might be difficult if you need to put on a full coat of make up before heading out at 3am, but you really shouldn’t be doing that anyway. I digress.
My experiences in the cabin, high in the mountains of Yakushima, taught me many things about hiking in Japan. Japanese hikers suffer from the been-there-done-that syndrome that renders it impossible for them to take any real enjoyment from what they are doing. Instead, hiking becomes a race to an invisible and non-existent finish line. In this race for glory, all the politeness and etiquette usually attributed to the Japanese take a hike and “Survival of the Fittest” becomes a silent battle call in the struggle for sleeping space. Personally, I never plan on staying in a mountain hut without ear plugs, sleeping pills and vast quantities of alcohol again.
By 6am everyone except for the few stragglers (obviously the uninitiated and the outcasts from the hiking world) and all the foreigners were gone. Those of us remaining stared at each other, shell-shocked and groggy, downing coffee after coffee, enjoying the magic and the quiet of the surroundings.