[Post originally published on substack on May 29, 2023.]
Yama o wataru (in English: Crossing mountains) is for those who love the outdoors but also for those who have yet to discover its charms. If you’re curious about the ins and outs of mountaineering, then Yama o wataru is the perfect read for you. Ever wondered what Japan can offer beyond its bustling cities and cultural heritage sites? Then you should join the Santama University mountaineering club in its exciting adventures. The love the six club members have for the mountains is contagious. So, pack your bags and get ready, because after reading the manga, you might want to take on a mountain yourself.
Mountains, Forests, And The Mountaineering Club
Reading the first pages of a manga is always something special. When diving into a new story, I first try to get my bearings on the plot. It’s exciting to get to know new characters and figure out the premise of the story. Usually, there is an introductory phase after which the ‘real’ story gets going. However, Yama o wataru doesn’t beat around the bush. On the second page already, the heart of the story is presented: “75% of Japan’s land area is mountain forests. If you want to know Japan, climb its mountains!” The poster’s catchy slogan, accompanied by a graphic representation of Japan’s mountain forest area, was authored by Kaneda Yoshio, a member of the Santama University’s mountaineering club.
Besides Kaneda, whose stern face belies his fervent love for mountains and fluffy-cuddly things, the club has two more members: the energetic mountain-otaku Kuroki Setsuko and the calm and considerate Kusaba Tooru. All of them are passionate and experienced mountaineers, and they are soon joined by three young women who have never seen a mountain up close before.
The physically frail Nanbu Mana has never done sports. Yet she has the impression that since mountain climbing doesn’t involve competitions, this would be an activity even she could manage. Irima Satoko is equally bad at sports. To her, physical activity is just something utterly illogical. However, she is intrigued by the possibility of the mathematical incorrectness of the 75% mentioned on the poster. And finally, there is Kaga Naomi, whose love for literature by and about mountaineers encouraged her to join the club. She believes that only by experiencing hiking herself will she be able to understand the adventurous spirits of these men.
As I watched the young men and women conquer mountain after mountain in the course of the first three volumes, I realized that there is more to hiking and mountain climbing than putting on a pair of sneakers, grabbing the first bag you can find, and stuffing it with random provisions. According to Kuroki and her two fellow climbers, taking on a mountain is nothing short of being transitioned into another world, making it, in fact, a magical experience.
How do you get today’s youth, who already have plenty of experience in exciting and dangerous otherworldly quests through avatars and characters in games, anime, and manga, to drag their actual bodies up the slopes of some random mountain? Where your clothes, drenched in rain, impede your movements, ruthless winds try to block your advance, and you gasp for air as your boots gain weight with every step you take? The three experienced mountaineers were confronted with the same problem because, in the beginning, Nanbu and Irima had only a slight interest in joining the club. In order to secure the new members, they pitched the activity in a very specific way. And thus, they tell the girls—and the (youthful) readers—that if you dare to set out on a real-life mountaineering quest, you will find that it’s quite similar to your RPG adventure. As you take on ferocious and beastly mountain peaks, you have to withstand enemy attacks with the help of protective gear, use your weapons wisely to get ahead on the laborious trail, and befriend isekai-inhabitants so that together you can slay the mountain dragon and take home the riches.
As you can see, mountaineering is similar to an isekai adventure. The lively images of the mangaka, Utsugi Tetsuo, will make your legs twitch restlessly and instill a strong desire to experience such a thrilling adventure yourself. But beware! Any land-conquering quest is doomed to fail if you are not prepared accordingly. So, before you throw aside the manga booklet, kick on your boots, and race up the nearest mountain in search of the dragon’s lair, I’d advise you to read on and heed all the detailed advice given by Utsugi-sensei. Because an ill-prepared and ill-planned trip can turn dark very quickly, as the three newbie-adventurers had to find out.
The Three Sacred Treasures
Their first trip took the six students to the top of Mount Takao, a popular mountain and recreational area located near central Tōkyō that can be reached by public transport. It offers a variety of trails one can take to reach its peak. The group bravely made their way along the paved paths and climbed the seemingly endless stairs in an incessant drizzle to finally reach the summit at 599.15 m (1,965.72 ft).
After having experienced their first hardships during this outing, it was time to instruct the three rookies about the Three Sacred Treasures. Now, many of you won’t think of densely wooded forests and towering mountains when these items are mentioned. Rather, an image of the fabled Imperial Regalia, as they are also called—the mirror, the sword, and the jewel—will pop up in your mind. These three objects symbolize the emperor’s (divine) rule and aren’t relevant for mountain climbing in any way. So, as you will have guessed correctly, the ‘Three Sacred Mountain Climbing Treasures’ have a more practical, worldly application. Despite not being of national importance, Kaneda makes sure that the three newbies are aware of their divine significance for mountaineering.
The first essential piece of equipment for any serious mountaineer is rain gear. Unfortunately, the club lacks the funds to provide its members with sparkling new rainwear, and the girls, being students, have no money either. Consequently, they have to make do with the clothes their senpai left behind: well-worn jackets and pants boasting a multitude of holes. As readers, though, we are in luck! Thanks to the club’s and the students’ dire financial situation, we receive detailed instructions on how to clean, mend, and maintain the ‘Sacred Treasure Nr. 1.’ Utsugi-sensei guides us through the whole process with illustrative visuals and detailed written explanations. Should my rain jacket ever show signs of wear and tear, I now have an expert source to consult.
With their mended rain gear, the three girls won’t pass off as the typical ‘mountain girl,’ despite the mangaka’s effort to present them in a photoshoot pose. The term ‘mountain girl’ (yama gāru in Japanese) appeared in 2009 and refers to (young) women who enjoy hiking in fashionable clothes, skirts included. Whereby, as I understood, the fashion part is of major importance. I searched a little online and found several sites that inform their readers about proper mountain girl fashion.
Anyway, dressed in their patched rain gear and renewed hiking boots (for which we received specific care instructions too), the three girls felt ready for their first trip without the guidance and support of their senpai. For this outing, they chose to climb Mount Ōyama, which is also close to Tōkyō and therefore a popular hiking spot.
After celebrating the accomplishment of making it to the top and enjoying the view of Mount Fuji in the setting sun, the three students experienced that equipment, albeit important, isn’t everything. Poor planning with regard to time and provisions can turn a pleasant trip into a horrifying experience. Unable to find their way back down in the pitch-black forest, the three feared for their lives until a kindly gentleman-hiker, perfectly equipped for the nightly descent, guided them safely back to the foot of the mountain. However, Mount Ōyama wasn’t done with them yet, as the deed of conquering it came back to haunt them the following day.
Cries Of Joy From Lifelong Friends
The day after the hike, the girls’ screaming leg muscles confirmed that hiking is, in fact, a physical activity. I’m sure there are people who regard aching muscles as a bother, as your body feels stiff and even simple movements become unpleasant. Personally, though, I love the sensation of aching muscles because it means that I properly challenged my body during training. That’s why I also love Utsugi-sensei’s take on sore muscles, which makes you want to seek out the pain and rejoice in it. “Muscles don’t lie; muscles don’t betray you! They will stay with you for all of your life; they are your best friends!” The mangaka explains that the pain is just your muscles’ screams of joy that they are getting stronger! Phew, what passion! If you feel like taking a break from reading this text to work out your leg muscles, I won’t hold it against you. Just in case you don’t know exactly what to do, here is the mangaka’s recommendation: “To start off, do three sets of ten squats each.”
Here’s how to do squats properly. With a quick online search, you will find all kinds of hiking-specific workouts with a variety of exercises. Just one word of caution, since this is not mentioned in the manga: not all muscle pain is healthy, and overdoing it will only have a negative effect.
Being a mountaineer adventurer also means searching for virgin soil, that is, treading paths and conquering heights where no one has ever gone before. This, however, seems to be as good as impossible since all of the 8,000+ meter (26,246 feet) peaks have already been climbed. According to the manga, the Swiss physician and naturalist Conrad Gessner (1516–1565) was the world’s first alpinist. I couldn’t find information to confirm this, but this might also be an issue of terminology, which seems a bit fuzzy. As far as I found, an alpinist is an elite mountaineer who climbs alpine peaks and is also more experienced and skilled than a ‘general‘ mountaineer. In any case, Gessner was an avid lover of mountain landscapes and their flora and fauna—the first Swiss mountain-otaku, so to speak—and he found joy in trips up the Swiss Alps. As an aside: a milestone for alpinism as a sport was the ascent of the 4,809 m (15,777 ft) high Mont Blanc in 1786 by Michel-Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat.
While I immersed myself in the history of mountain climbing, Kuroki heaved herself from crack to crack along a vertical cliff and, little by little, passed an overhang and finally arrived safely at the top. My muscles tensed at the thought of the strenuous effort needed to move your body up such a steep cliff. How much more arduous would a climb to the top of one of the highest mountains be?
Don’t Take The Mountains Lightly
Even though they call themselves gleaners, a statement that is fittingly accompanied by a painting of the same name created by Jean-François Miller, the three second-years long for nothing more than to leave the very first footprints on a mountain’s snowy peak. Yet, as I followed the six students on their trips, I got increasingly the impression that a mountain doesn’t have to boast a looming height of 8,000 m or more to pose a significant challenge… and risk. Thus, safety is of paramount importance. This is stressed again and again in the manga. It starts with the proper outfit and equipment but also includes simple techniques, like how to walk down a ladder, or more advanced ones, like belaying. For all the techniques mentioned, the mangaka provides detailed explanations. At any stage, however, it is crucial to keep your cool, avoid unnecessary risks, and most importantly, not to get overly confident.
When Kuroki, Kaneda, and Kusaba climbed Mount Tanigawa (or Tanigawadake) they were forced to stop due to the weather conditions, after making it past the 20 m (65 ft) Henkei Chimney. Back at the foot of the mountain, the group silently gazed upon the massive Tanigawa range. The double-page spread just pulls you in, and so I too paused. With the pattering sound of the rain in my head, I looked up at this impressive massif. The mountain looms menacingly above the small group of hikers, and Utsugi-sensei uses the feeling of respectful awe this image creates to point out once more that climbing can be very dangerous. He informs us that in the Shōwa era more than 800 people died on the Tanigawa range. Therefore, the “mountain accident prevention regulation” was imposed (by Gunma prefecture), which obliges you to register for the climb.
And yet, all this effort—the sore muscles, the wobbly legs the day after a climb, the cuts and bruises—is rewarded the second the climbers stand at the top of the mountain and gaze down at the great expanse of rocky peaks or the vast waves of a green sea. Having successfully scaled a mountain, the arrival at the summit is celebrated with joyful dances and tears of happiness. The splendid views and the unrestrained emotions that Utsugi-sensei repeatedly presents convey the basic premise of this manga: mountaineering is exhilarating!
Thanks to the characters’ profound interest in mountaineering beyond the actual climb, the manga is interspersed with information about additional resources. On her way to meeting the other club members, Kaga was engrossed in reading a book written by Uemura Naomi. Sadly, the legendary Japanese explorer and adventurer vanished on Mt. McKinley in 1984. His achievements up to his 43rd birthday were of such an outstanding nature that there are two museums dedicated to him: the Uemura Adventure Museum in Tōkyō, and the Uemura Naomi Memorial Museum, which also includes an adventure park for children. Though, rather than visiting a museum, Kaga would most likely prefer to call a watch, the Naomi Uemura 80th Anniversary Limited Edition, her own.
But not everyone who loves mountains is a hard-core adventurer like Uemura. The painter, poet, and essayist Tsuji Makoto (1913–1975) loved to explore Japan’s mountains and put one such youthful adventure into words in his book The Tamagawa expedition group.
An Ode To Mountaineering
Honestly, before I started reading this manga, I was curious about it but, at the same time, a little wary of the kind of story it was going to portray. It can’t possibly be just about hiking, or so I thought. I mean, how much is there to going up and down a mountain, after all? Thus, I prepared myself for romance or some other dramatic, hiking-unrelated plot. However, I’m glad to say I was totally wrong. The characters’ hearts beat only for this sport, and their only love is the mountains, the challenges, and the views from the top. Even the more tedious tasks like repairing and maintaining gear or setting up equipment are done passionately and with smiling faces. The pages are brimming with interesting information on hiking, its history, great hikers, and the various Japanese mountains and hiking routes.
As you can see, this manga is drenched in ‘mountain-love’ and does its utmost to educate you in an entertaining way about important aspects of this activity. Gazing at the detailed depictions of the mountains and studying the minute descriptions of the various techniques, I couldn’t help but think that Utsugi-sensei must love this sport very much. Except for the warning regarding the dangers if one engages in careless hiking, nothing conveys negative emotion. But the mangaka doesn’t stop there! No! Every aspect of the characters’ day-to-day lives revolves around this activity, too. Video games, differential and integral calculus, history class, walking up and down the stairs at the university—everything is connected to conquering mountain peaks. And with the repeated references to isekai this activity even gets a magical touch.
Promotion and Product Placement
The only critique I have is the apparent lack of emotional predicaments or serious physical and mental challenges like exhaustion, frustration, or anxiety. Precarious situations are portrayed in such a lighthearted and funny way that they only serve as a comedic element. And with one or two words of advice, unease or frustration evaporates so quickly that you barely notice that there was an issue in the first place. This makes mountain climbing look easy-peasy and additionally gives the manga, aside from its happy-go-lucky vibe, a touch of promotional material for Japanese hiking tourism. While reading, the logos of various brands for outdoor clothes, equipment, and maintenance materials engraved themselves into my subconscious memory. I wonder if these memories will influence my decision-making on my next outdoor gear shopping trip. Often, anime and manga fall back on parody brands, so I found it quite unusual to see the actual brands displayed, fueling my suspicion that there was some sponsoring involved. And, of course, the sponsors wouldn’t want the ‘horrors’ of mountain climbing, like accidents or other serious incidents, to deter potential clients from visiting their shops. On the other hand, that’s also the reason why this is a ‘feel good’ manga; it will invigorate you and make you smile, even when you are having a bad day.
On To The Next Adventure!
The manga is serialized in Harta Comics and presently there are five volumesout. As far as I know, it hasn’t been licensed in English yet. This is such a pity because the information can be applied to hiking endeavors in any part of the world. Additionally, the positive vibes that this manga emits would resonate with hikers and non-hikers alike. So far, I’ve only read until volume three, but I will definitely read on. After all, the next trip will take them into the southern part of the Japanese Alps! And I can’t wait to see what adventures will await them there.
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