One sunny Saturday a couple of weeks ago, this writer joined five women and three men who met up at Ikusabata Station on the JR Ome Line in the mountains of western Tokyo.
Sporting colorful but functional outdoor clothes, the young trendily dressed female trekkers were prime examples of what’s recently come to be called the yama garu (mountain girl) phenomenon.
Yuka Okamoto, one of the “girls,” said she started trekking in April, together with some friends and colleagues from a Tokyo-based supermarket chain. The group now includes several women in their 30s and a couple of experienced male trekkers who play the role of guides.
“I enjoy fresh air and the beautiful scenery in the mountains,” said Okamoto, 35, whose job is importing wines for the supermarket chain. “When we stop for lunch on top of a mountain, I eat onigiri (rice balls). They taste specially delicious then and they’re really a high point for me.”
Wearing coordinated clothes for outdoors, Okamoto’s most eye-catching apparel was a pink, blue and purple miniskirt called a yama sukato (mountain skirt) that was filled with down. Okamoto said it was made by the American sportswear company Columbia, and had cost her ¥8,000.
“It’s warm and also waterproof,” she said proudly, pointing out that she’s teamed her skirt with muscle-supporting sports tights, border-patterned socks in pink and a red rain jacket made by mont-bell, a Japanese outdoor-goods maker, that set her back ¥13,000.
“Whenever I buy cute outdoor clothes, I want to go to the mountains wearing them,” she said. “And partly because I invested in the clothes, I can’t stop going trekking now. Then, when I see other women in cool outdoor fashions, I think I want to buy the ones they’re wearing, too. It’s actually a vicious circle.”
The first peak the group was going to climb that day was a mountain called Takamizusan in the city of Ome in western Tokyo. So, leaving the station at 9:30 a.m., we walked on a road before taking off on a trail that we climbed for an hour to reach the summit — where we took a break and all drank some water.
Up on the mountain, forests of cedars and other trees are not only fragrant but also rich daytime sources of oxygen, and the foliage of the maple trees was all reds and yellows as we headed off to the second peak, named Iwatakeishiyama. As we trekked at a steady pace the yama garu were chatting at a steady pace, too.
“It’s so much fun to talk with my friends, without drinking alcohol,” said Yuri Nambu, 33, a former worker at the supermarket chain. “Also, when I reach the top of a mountain I feel real satisfaction at having accomplished the climb.”
And yes, indeed, some parts of the ascent were quite challenging, and at times the trail was so steep you had to hold trees or rocks to get up. Although everyone’s breathing became short during the climb, it was just before noon when the girls cried out “Here we are!” and we sat proudly atop the 793-meter peak. There, as my breathing slowed back to normal, I certainly felt — like Nambu — that I had really achieved something.
But it seems our group was far from alone sharing that feeling of satisfaction, because Jota Kiyonaga from the Tama Environmental Office of Tokyo Metropolitan Government — which, along with the environment ministry and various local municipalities, oversees the trails and other facilities in that area — later told me that these mountains are easily accessible and popular with trekkers.
The phenomena of rising numbers of young female hikers is also borne out by the growing sales of outdoor clothes and associated goods.
“Our rangers who patrol in the mountains say they are seeing increasing numbers of women in their 20s and 30s in fashionable clothes this year,” Kiyonaga said, explaining that most female trekkers in the past were in their 50s or 60s.
Akira Saito, customer relations official with Tiemco, the Japanese maker of Foxfire-brand outdoor goods and clothes, said that in autumn 2009 his company introduced a ¥6,090 mountain skirt made of the same material as zip-up fleece jackets. That limited run of 500 items sold well, and so this year production was upped to 3,000 skirts.
However, as Saito explained, “When we showed the skirt to buyers at our product exhibition in February, they were all snapped up in short order.” As a result, he said, the company produced another 1,000 skirts, which were almost all sold by mid-October.
Saito said that wearing skirts for mountain trekking was pioneered in Japan by Yuri Yosumi, an outdoor-style creator who now lives in New Zealand with her outdoor sports-loving husband. Influenced by her husband, who is now a professional outdoor-activities adviser and writer, Yosumi began to enjoy trekking in 2003. Since 2006 she has been promoting fashionable mountain skirts in combination with tights.
Yosumi said on her website that she wants more women to have the opportunity and courage to venture into the great outdoors. “I want them to enjoy the wonder of nature and communicate with creatures in nature. With this wish in mind, I have been promoting (outdoor activities for women) and utilizing skirts as a tool,” she said on the site.
Yosumi said skirts are feminine and — as long as they’re not worn on very steep or dangerous climbs — they make things easy for women to answer a call of nature or change clothes in mountain huts.
Saito of Tiemco also noted that skirts are practical, but not appropriate for climbers who go to very steep mountains where they have to kneel down — stressing that the outfits his company makes are not just fashionable, but practical, too. Hikers often sweat and their clothes get wet, he noted, and if they wear cotton clothes that are damp, their body temperature can fall quickly up in the mountains.
“Because the clothing they choose could become a matter of survival for hikers, we manufacture outfits that are attractive but functional, too, with an emphasis on them being waterproof and warm, yet able to absorb sweat and dry quickly,” he said.
Similar sentiments are shared by Hiroya Sasaki, editor in chief of Randonnee, a monthly outdoor activities magazine for women, whose title is the French word for trekking or hiking. The magazine, launched in June 2009, provides information on practical and fashionable outdoor clothing and goods. It currently publishes 70,000 copies a month, he said, and most readers are in their late 20s or 30s.
Sasaki said that if people new to trekking wore the wrong clothes and felt uncomfortable, they would be put off going into the mountains. “As a result, I hope people will wear the right kind of clothes and have great experience,” he said, explaining that the latest issue of Randonnee has an article explaining the benefits of wearing three layers of clothing — underwear made of man-made fibers or wool, a warm middle layer, and an outer layer that blocks rain and wind.
Sasaki also noted a connection between the recent rise in the popularity of trekking among young women and the increasing variety of female outdoor and sports fashions, such as skirts for running. In addition, young women are keen on fitness and the eco-friendly life, which motivates them to go to the mountains, he said.
Another interesting factor in the trekking trend, Sasaki observed, was women’s growing interest in mystical sites called “power spots.” That is because many of these sites are shrines and temples in mountains, he said, explaining that Japanese people traditionally regard mountains as spiritual places, and many young women now go to them to be empowered.
But Sasaki said he hopes the trekking trend among younger women doesn’t turn out to be just a fleeting boom. That is why the magazine purposely doesn’t use the trendy term yama garu, he said.
Saito of Tiemco, however, said he thinks that most of today’s yama garu will continue the hobby because they will have invested large sums on clothing, footwear and rucksacks, and that such products are generally of high quality and are made to last several years.
So it would seem that these fashionable female trekkers may well still be using the goods long after they’ve ceased being “girls.”
Or, as Sasaki of Randonnee put it: “If women have ‘girl’ in their hearts, their age doesn’t matter and they can always enjoy outdoor activities and the fashions that go with them.”