Expeditions: Trail Mix

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With cuisine often meant to impress eaters with delicate presentation and taste, how do Japanese hikers turn sustenance into substance?

A culture that has an entire onomatopoeic vocabulary to describe foods appearance, taste, and texture, Japanese culinary tradition carries over into the backpacking world. There are whole websites, cookbooks, and large sections of hiking magazines devoted to camp food. Portable gas stoves are available at most any sporting goods store in Japan, and you can make a kerosene stove with two aluminum cans and a small coin. With heat at your fingertips, and the availability of precooked noodles at the grocery store, a meal’s complexity only involves as many ingredients as can fit in a day pack.

Ide Yusuke, a Japanese trekker who completed the Pacific Crest Trail in 2013, chronicled his 2,654 mile journey for the Japanese sport magazine Number. He was surprised, he wrote, by how little thought American hikers paid to their food. It was simply energy in, energy out, which led to complications for hikers who found themselves a few thousand miles down the trail with stress fractures or illness due to calcium and other vitamin deficiencies.

Ide points out that Japanese distance hikers, even those who shop for their trips solely at convenience stores, always carry low-maintenance vegetable like carrots, potatoes and onions, as well as dried trek mixes that don’t include M&Ms: seaweed, dried fish, dried fruits and vegetables. One reason for this is that camping and hiking in Japan is a far more common activity for all ages than it is for their American counterparts, most of whom view camping as a special trip.

All Japanese students go hiking at some point with their schools, often a trek out to a certain shrine to pray for good luck on exams. There are hiking clubs at most high schools that take students out on the weekends and over the summer break. A longstanding tradition of learning from elders teaches even urbanites, who often live with mountain ranges just outside city limits, ways to identify mountain vegetables like chishimazasa (wild bamboo shoots)and gyojyaninniku (similar to wild onions).

Because camping food is prepared away from modern conveniences like ovens and microwaves, the care taken in cooking hearkens back to traditional cooking techniques, eating as most Japanese had done for thousands of years. Ramen, miso ramen, udon, soba and Japanese curry, prepared on the trail in the interior mountains, appear on social media. Take pride in your food, and the journey that earned you the right to the meal, seems to be the message. Not a bad one to live by on or off the trail.

During a camping trip on Mt. Gassan, one of the Hyakumeizan, I’d prepared cheap soba noodles with sesame oil, soy sauce and pork ahead of time and carried it with me in a lidded cooking pot, a hot meal just by adding water. My Japanese companions swiftly unpacked and assembled small hibachis and began unpacking marinated meat, vegetables, and white, blocky rice cakes that puffed up like balloons over the fire. My meal was over with in twenty minutes, just as they were getting going and ribbing each other over their hot grills. I narrowed my eyes over a mug of tea and whiskey (each other hiker had brought a six pack of Asahi beer, one indulgence I couldn’t justify carrying for a single day’s hike) and thought about how much I had to learn. We traded  bites of food and samples of everything off the grill for creative English swear words and their proper usage. Maybe not a fair trade, but some things, like the woods and mountains themselves, have inestimable value.

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