Monday, January 26, 2015

Was Walter Weston a gear freak?

Or, how to kit yourself up for mountain action in mid-Meiji Japan

Must admit, I'm a sucker for those lightweight hiking kit reviews over there on Bre'er Hendrik's blog. Same with Ken Rockwell's ruminations on cameras. (Ladies, excuse us - this is a guy thing.) But the other day, this gear fixation got me wondering. Was it ever thus?

The compleat mid-Meiji alpinists: super-guide Kamijo Kamonji (left) and
mountaineering missionary Walter Weston (right)

Maybe it was. I mean, you'd expect an Anglican missionary of the late Victorian age to be above such crass materialism. Yes, it's Walter Weston (1861-1940), I'm talking about here. And, to be sure, most of his best book is admirably free of commentary on the latest kit. He just gets on with his Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps (1896).

But, wait a moment, there in Chapter XVI - "Hints on Outfit, Provisions, etc" - out comes Walter Weston's inner nerd. And surely we hear a note of self-exculpation in his preamble: "As it has been intimated that some hints on travel in the higher mountain districts of Japan might be profitably added, a few suggestions are accordingly offered in the hope that they may be of use to those whose experience has not yet reached to the districts remote enough from the beaten tracks to need a little special care and preparation for travel of a rougher kind than that to which the ordinary visitor is accustomed."

Now Bre'er Hendrik himself couldn't have put that more eloquently.

Footwear for "districts remote enough from the beaten tracks to need
a little special care and attention"

Not that these hints aren't worth listening to. When it comes to dress, Weston was onto layering a century before Mark Twight, and with so much more style: "a Norfolk jacket with plenty of pockets, and loose knickerbockers of a strong grey flannel will be found serviceable, whilst for underwear the lightest and thinnest woollen, or silk-and-woollen, vests and shirts are best, since there is less risk of getting a chill after being over-heated. The best material for this is that made by Dr. Jaeger's Company."

Best for ordinary walking

He also gave straw sandals a try, as still used by sawa traditionalists: "The waraji give a better foothold on smooth rocks than hob-nailed boots, but the latter are best for ordinary walking." The blue-cotton gaiters known as kiya-han also get a good review, as they "afford much more protection to the legs than woollen stockings when a way has to be made through the rough undergrowth so often found on the lower slopes of the mountains."

As for bivouacs, Weston's solution could be even lighter than CJW's minimalist set-up: "In such cases a good substitute for a tent can be made by means of three large pieces of strong oiled paper. One piece is shaped by folding it over a line stretched between two uprights, and the other two are tied to it by strings fastened on the edges."

Not needed if you have oiled paper

Yet, there's a limit to how far he's willing to adopt local methods. OK, the "native kōri", a kind of wicker basket (you can get yours here), is convenient for carrying "provisions, books, instruments etc". But for everything else, "the Swiss rück-sack is far better". Same with lighting: "A railway reading-lamp is a great boon when in country places, where the native lamps are usually of a poor kind; and it is far more satisfactory also than the native chōchin when walking has to be done at night on strange roads or rocky hillsides."

Rück-sacks are better
Now we cut to the chase: "The question of food is, to most persons, of considerable importance." Can't argue with that, though not everybody will share the good missionary's British tastes: "Bovril makes a capital soup, and where hot water for this cannot be got, Valentine's meat juice, with a little cold water, is a valuable stimulant." Also on the menu is Halford's curried fowl, and De Jongh's cocoa "for those who care for that kind of drink."

Regarding trail mix, "A handful of good prunes, raisins, or dates may be put into the pocket at the beginning of a climb, the last being especially sustaining as well as tasty during the walk." Much cheaper than PowerBars too.

For costs, alas, have surged between Weston's day and ours. Away from the main thoroughfares, he advises, "innkeepers usually charge from 15 to 40 or 50 sen for hatago ('supper, bed, and breakfast'), though a chadai is of course expected in addition." Compare that with a crisp ten thousand yen note for a single hatago in today's mountain huts. One sen was worth 100th of a pre-inflation yen, you will recall.

Giving gaijin mountaineers a bad name

Fall out with your host, though, and you probably have only yourself to blame: "One generally finds that on many of the highways of foreign travel in Japan, the manners of the innkeepers, &c, are extremely objectionable. There may be other explanations, but one certainly is this:- the lack of politeness and courtesy too often shown by the foreign traveller himself, the repetition of which in succeeding instances comes at last to be reflected in the unmannerly behaviour of the innkeeper himself."

Now there is a hint that's timeless. And it isn't even about the gear.

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