Japanese Cottage and Mainstream Outdoor Brands
With an annual mountaineering market in the ballpark ¥186 billion you would think large numbers homegrown manufacturers are cashing in. The reality is there are very few Japanese outdoor product manufacturers and in terms of brands in the industry, there are just two major players Snow Peak and Montbell. There’s Goldwin, but their main business is licensing other brands such as The North Face and Macpac and same goes for Iwatani-Primus with Deuter and Trangia amongst others. The good news is there’s a small number of established as well as emerging “cottage industry” companies more than happy to dip in a toe in the water and back themselves with innovative products and top-notch workmanship.
# 1. Snow Peak
The name originates from one of Japan’s most famous peaks Mt. Tanigawa which just happens to be ‘down the road’ the company’s headquarters in Sanjo City, Niigata. In fact, it was through the founder Yukio Yamai’s encounters on this peak that inspired him to start out making his own mountaineering equipment back in the 1950s. Over the years the company has shifted its focus towards to auto camp (car camping) with fireplaces and grills, cutlery and cookware becoming its staples. Hikers nonetheless haven’t been forgotten with several lightweight backpacking stoves, tarps and tents along with its signature titanium drinkware amongst its vast catalogue.
Sanjo City, Niigata
Cookware, Stoves, Tents & Tarps
# 2. Nanga
A few years back when I was looking for a high quality lightweight down bag, I came across the brand Nanga – its name derives from the Himalayan peak Nanga Parbat the ninth highest mountain in the world. What impressed me about Nanga was that they manufacture their sleeping bags locally. The bags of the other two big players Montbell and ISUKA are made in China. The company sources only the best down feathers which are washed in neighbouring Mie Prefecture. Nanga’s sleeping bags are backed with a lifetime warranty and repairs such as a full zipper replacement are very reasonable (3,000 yen) what’s more you can even pay to top up your down loft in 50 gram increments.
Icon: AURORA light 450 DX
Maibara City, Shiga
Sleeping bags, Down wear & Accessories
# 3. LOCUS GEAR
LOCUS GEAR is an outdoor gear “cottage industry” located on the outskirts of Tokyo in Sagamihara City. The company’s ethos is to help hikers to enjoy their backpacking experience more lightly. For a niche player they have an easy to navigate English website portal which is great for non-Japanese visitors. They offer an extensive range of extremely light but durable shelters, tarps and the bivvies. Materials range from the uber expensive DCF aka Cuben Fiber to more affordable offerings such as Silnylon. Most of their shelters are designed to pitch with one pole with 8-16 tie outs. International shipping is free on purchases over 30,000 yen with a 6-7 week lead time.
Icon: Khufu Sil
Sagamihara City, Kanagawa
Tents, Shelters, Bivvies & Quilts
# 4. SOTO
Soto means outside, an apt name for 40-year-old outdoor company dedicated as they say to ‘dependable flaming devices’. This Aichi based outfit offers a large range of backpacking stoves including both traditional canister along with liquid fuel stoves. They also sell a hybrid stove the Stormbreaker SOD-372 capable of using both fuel types. Soto’s triple mix canisters (butane, isobutane and propane) have gained a name for themselves for their performance in colder conditions. The company also offers a range of lightweight cookware.
Icon: Amicus SOD-320 Stove
Toyokawa City, Aichi
Stoves, Cookware, Lanterns & Accessories
# 5. Montbell
If there is one brand synonymous with the Japanese outdoors, it’s Montbell. In the 44 years since it was founded by Isamu Tatsuno an accomplished mountaineer it has gained a reputation for quality products at a reasonable cost. The company follows the Japanese tradition of kinobi or function is beauty. One needs only to step foot inside a Montbell store to witness its colourful array of outdoor goods. Notable wares include the U.L. Super Spiral Down Hugger sleeping bag, lightweight Ridge Line Pack and one of the lightest 1,000 fill power goose down jackets at only 130 grams!
Icon: Down Hugger 800 #3
Down jackets, Backpacks, Tents and Sleeping Bags
# 6. KS Ultralight Gear
KS Ultralight Gear is an interesting anomaly as it’s run by French expat Laurent Barikosky. His speciality is fully customised ultralight backpacks for hiking and climbing. Materials on offer include X-Pac (Nylon and Polyester layers laminated together), Cuben, Dyneema Gridstop and Cordura. The backpacks tend to be on the small side topping out at 50 litres. The KS-50 for example weights a miserly 380 grams minus the removable frame (60 grams), recommended for base gear weights up to 4 kg and a load limit of 12 kg. Expect a lead time from ordering of around 4 weeks.
Icon: KS packs
Komaki City, Aichi
Ultralight backpacks & Accessories
# 7. ARAI TENT
Japan has several speciality tent manufacturers including Puromonte, Dunlop, finetrack and Paine of ICI Ishii Sports ilk. Adding too this list ARAI TENT who have been in the game for a long time and are considered by some to have the classic Japanese tent. Reasons for this include all their tents are handmade by skilled craftspeople, are lightweight and compact, and most offer a spacious front vestibule. The self-supporting Air Rise tent series has been a popular choice amongst Japanese hikers for over 30 years.
Icon: ARAI TENT Air Rise 1
Tokorozawa City, Saitama
Tents, Shelters & Backpacks
# 8. YAMATOMICHI
YAMATOMICHI is one of the newest ultralight gear producers on this list based out of the coastal town of Kamakura. Even though they have only been in business since 2011 they have made significant inroads designing innovative and stylish packs. Their flagship ONE backpack comes in an incredible five torso lengths and four hip belt sizes! Choices for the body and pocket materials include Ripstop Nylon, X-PAC and Cordura. Apart from packs they also make satchels, sleeping pads and woollen T-shirts. Along with online orders they also run a small sales outlet in Kamakura.
Icon: ONE Backpack
Kamakura City, Kanagawa
Backpacks, Outdoor Wear, Sleeping Pads & Accessories
# 9. ISUKA
Coming in just behind Nanga in the sleeping bag stakes is Osaka based ISUKA. They have been designing and manufacturing affordable down bags for 43 years. The lightest and most backpacker oriented is the Air 450X with a 800 fill power, comes in at 840 grams and is rated -6 degrees. They also make sleeping pads, stuff sacks and GORE-TEX sleeping bag covers.
Icon: Air 450X
Tondabayashi City, Osaka
Sleeping Bags, Sleeping Pads & Accessories
# 10. freelight
Freelight is another small, hiker-owned business who design, manufacture and sell their own gear on the internet. They are driven by the pursuit of crafting light, durable gear with a timeless design. The newest addition to their gear stable is the S50tifw, a 50-60 litre pack supported with a titanium frame. The body is made from spinnaker cloth (sailcloth) and the base uses Ripstop Nylon. It comes in at 625 grams and priced at 37,000 yen. A downside of freelight is they only except payment by bank transfer which makes overseas transactions nigh on impossible.
Icon: S50tifwf Backpack
Kashiwa City, Chiba
Backpacks, Tarps, Shelters & Trekking Poles
# 11. finetrack
Established in Kobe in 2004 finetrack is known for its water repellent, “Drylayer” technology, heat insulating mid layers and shells. Their mission is to create products that can be used for a variety of outdoor sports. Stand out products include the KAMINA one and two-person dome tents that are both compact and lightweight. They also produce a high-quality tarp reinforced with Dyneema around the edges which helps stop it from sagging in the wet.
Icon: KAMINA DOME 1
Kobe City, Hyogo
Tents, Tarps, Outdoor Wear & Sleeping Bags