Winter in Japan

Words: Kenji Yamada | Date:

Few countries provide a more striking contrast between ancient and modern than Japan. At its most pronounced, it is the difference between the 21st-century city and a countryside that has changed little since medieval times. In the city, urban dwellers enjoy automated comfort and convenience unrivalled anywhere in the developed world. The 320kph Shinkansen bullet train, for decades international shorthand for Japanese hi-tech wherewithal, is remarkable not simply because it is so fast but also because it so safe. The vending machines, meanwhile, that stand sentinel on every street corner, may present a more ephemeral face of Japanese technology but it is one no less impressive. With an estimated 5m units in operation, Japan has the highest concentration of vending machines of any nation on earth, some of which are sufficiently advanced they can ‘recommend’ food and drink purchases based on gender, approximate age and even the weather.

It was the University of Tokyo, that, in 2013, launched a 34cm-high robot into space, in so doing making Kirobo the first ‘humanoid’ astronaut capable of speech. It is from Tokyo, too, that Japan leads the world in the development of carbon-fibre bridges; in Tsukuba – ‘science city’ – it builds pioneering robotic prosthetics and biofuels derived from algae. Take a trip out to the countryside, however, and to the remote mountainous regions in particular, and it’s a very different story. From December to February, Siberian winds meet the moist air of the Pacific and innundate the peaks and valleys with snow. Temperatures plummet far south of zero, and rural inhabitants must plan carefully to survive the long, gruelling months of winter.

The secret is attention to detail. From the ejiko, a baby’s crib woven against winter temperatures using extra thick reeds, to perishable foods freeze-dried in ‘snow cellars’, if the arrival of winter has always been about survival, it has not necessarily been about hunkering down. Rather, it has provided opportunities; to explore the landscape, to turn conditions to your advantage, to cover huge distances with just the minimum of well-made, often innovative tools. None capture this embracing spirit more than the Matagi, traditional Japanese hunters who thrive in winter conditions. Tracing their lineage back to medieval times, the Matagi raised self-sufficiency to an artform, one founded on a mixture of mobility and improvisation. Roaming the mountains in search of quarry that included the indigenous serow, a rare ungulate that today enjoys protected status, their attention to detail extended even to the naturally camouflaged Akita used to hunt game; dogs with autumnal coats when the leaves began to fall, white-coated canines when the sky voided itself of snow.

In their pursuit of bears, whose pelts provided a vital source of insulation, the Matagi displayed similar ingenuity. Tracking their prey to the caves in which they holed up for winter, their spears, known as matagi kumayari, sported shafts as long as 10 feet, yet the Matagi travelled only with the blades, fashioning handles from green tree branches they found at the conclusion of the hunt. There is even a term, sansyo yogu, for the typically small armoury of equipment used by Japan’s mountain communities and it was out on the road that this philosophy of reducing kit to the bare essentials saw its apogee; with meat from kills smoked to preserve it for the journey home, all that was needed was a knife.

It is worth noting, too, that ancient Shintoism, the indigenous religion of Japan, far from condones the taking of life. Thus the Matagi, marginalised down the centuries for their beliefs, ate white rice to counterbalance kegare (defilement), the intangible dark vortex created by killing a sentient being; well-equipped then, in both body and spirit.

The Rapha Road collection for Autumn/ Winter 2014 has been designed to help you get the most from riding in extreme conditions. Featuring technical protection, pared back ergonomic construction and innovative details, no other road riding apparel will leave you as well-equipped, or as inspired to embrace winter for yourself.

Share this