Snow Peak | The Story

Marrying traditional Japanese craftsmanship with modern functionalism, Snow Peak’s unique outdoor lifestyle products are designed for forward-thinking adventurers who appreciate heritage values.

1st April 2021 | Words by Matt Jones @ WildBounds HQ

Snow Peak was truly born in the mountains. One mountain in particular was the cradle for the brand’s earliest beginnings. That peak was Mount Tanigawa – a craggy, crested ridge with multiple summits that rises some 1,977m (6,486 ft) along the border of Gunma and Niigata Prefectures in Honshu, Japan. Its steep faces and challenging climbs were to be the proving ground for Snow Peak’s founder, a young and talented Japanese mountaineer named Yukio Yamai.

Despite its relatively modest height, Tanigawa has been dubbed ‘the Everest of the East’, since its soaring aspects and stark relief give it a commanding presence reminiscent of its Himalayan namesake. For noted mountaineer and author Kyūya Fukada, these qualities also merited its inclusion in his classic tome, 100 Famous Japanese Mountains (‘Nihon Hyaku-meizan’), first published in 1964 and still in print today.

But as well as being famous, the mountain is also dangerous – so dangerous, in fact, that Tanigawa's other nicknames include the ‘mountain of death’, the ‘devil’s mountain’ and even ‘the mountain that eats people’. This fearsome reputation has been forged partly by its unique topography, since Tanigawa sits precisely where two weather systems meet, one coming from the Asian continent and the other from the Pacific. The resulting storms can be both extreme and unpredictable. This maelstrom of bad weather can catch out even experienced climbers, and more than 800 people have died on Tanigawa since records began back in the early 1930s. Consider that in the same time span, Everest has claimed just over 200 lives, and you start to get a sense of its very real hazards.

Snow Peak | The Story | Wildbounds
Yukio Yamai, Snow Peak’s founder, pictured in the snow-covered mountains of Japan (credit: Snow Peak)

In winter, the mountain is shrouded in snow. Ridges become heavily corniced and avalanches are common. The drifts often lie so deep and last for so long that a group of climbers who went missing in 1943 remained undiscovered for 30 years, when another climbing party stumbled upon their remains in 1976. In the 1960s, another group of climbers froze to death while scaling the mountain’s main face. Still dangling by their harnesses, the bodies proved impossible to retrieve until the Japanese Self-Defense Force eventually managed to cut the climbers’ ropes with gunfire.

Sadly, tragedy was familiar to Yukio Yamai too, even back in the late 1950s. His family home had been destroyed during the final stages of the Second World War. Like many others both before him and since, Yukio went to the mountains to find solace. Despite Tanigawa’s perils, he was irresistibly drawn to the peak – particularly Ichinokura, its notorious and technically demanding east face. He was to make multiple ascents. But as his climbing progressed in difficulty, Yukio required more and more specialist technical equipment, ranging from pitons to crampons. Some items he managed to import from Europe, but other designs and patterns he copied and took to the craftsmen of his hometown, Tsubame Sanjo in the Chūetsu region of Niigata – an area known for its fine metalwork.

As he saw his ideas and adaptations take shape in physical form, Yukio was inspired to create his very own line of superior climbing gear: a passion that became a business. In 1958, he founded Yamai Shoten, later renamed Yamako, the predecessor to today’s Snow Peak: a name that is a direct tribute to Mount Tanigawa. The company’s reputation was initially built on the literal strength of its forged steel crampons. Honed and refined by Yukio and his climbing partners over many winter ascents, they became highly regarded in Japan.

Snow Peak | The Story | Wildbounds
Ichinokura Sawa, the formidable East Face of Mount Tanigawa (credit: Kumpei Shiraishi via Flickr)

The company thrived and in 1980, Yukio made way for his son, Tohru Yamai, to take over. Both father and son realised that Snow Peak’s success to date could only be continued through a renewed affinity with the great outdoors, and so Yukio encouraged Tohru to find his own connection to nature. Tohru duly took off, travelling widely in Japan and beyond, even visiting America – where he rented a car and toured the campgrounds of the US National Parks and National Recreation Areas. Enamoured by the wholesome comforts of car camping, he returned to Japan and cultivated the nation’s own car camping movement, introducing a whole generation of families to the simple pleasures of time spent in the great outdoors.

Japan’s camping boom lasted throughout the 1980s, but started to wane in the late ‘90s, contrasting sharply – probably not by coincidence – with the rise of mass-market consumer electronics and the emergence of cable TV. MTV Japan launched in late 1993, while Sony’s all-conquering PlayStation was released in December 1994. By 1997, the Snow Peak business was virtually on its knees. Even loyal customers were turning to other brands, swayed by the vibrant colours and patterns of kit from North American rivals like The North Face, Columbia Sportswear, Eddie Bauer and Patagonia.

Ultimately, the solution to the brand’s difficulties came from its core customers. In 1998, the company held its first ‘Snow Peak Way’; essentially, a camping trip organised for the benefit of customers. Sat around their takibi fire pits, ‘takibi time’ sessions provided an invaluable opportunity to listen to a multitude of customer comments, constructive feedback and the occasional complaint. These trips remain an integral element of the business today. Alongside Snow Peak’s advanced R&D facility in downtown Tokyo, the brand’s regular and informal camping ‘ways’, hosted in various locations across Japan, are a chance for staff to reconnect with customers by allowing them, in turn, to reconnect with nature. The bonus is direct, face-to-face interaction between end users and the collective brains behind the brand.

Snow Peak | The Story | Wildbounds
An essential aspect of Snow Peak’s philosophy is the importance of ‘takibi time’ – talking and relaxing in camp beside the fire pit (credit: Snow Peak)

As the focus for this vital ‘takibi time’, the packable and portable takibi fire place can therefore be seen not only as a core Snow Peak product but also as an essential part of the Snow Peak story. That’s fitting, since the design was originally created back in 1996 to try and influence the establishment of a campsite rule that prohibited direct fire on the ground. Snow Peak’s designers had noted that campfires often scar the earth, leaving an ugly burnt patch. Arguably, it worked – today, minimising campfire impacts has become an accepted part of ‘leave no trace’ principles. Of course, the takibi fireplace makes a great BBQ too, while the inverted triangular shape creates a simple pillar of fire that makes a mesmerising focus for any camp.

In 2014, the next chapter of the Yamai family story began, as Yukio Yamai's granddaughter, Lisa Yamai, joined the brand. A forward-thinking design graduate, she brought a new fashion-focused sensibility to Snow Peak, culminating in the launch of a well-received apparel collection as well as a major expansion of the company’s versatile outdoor lifestyle collections – products designed to be equally at home on city streets, in urban apartments and on remote hiking trails. The eye-catching Tsuzumi flasks and double-wall vacuum Milk Bottles are both cases in point: practical yet stylish objects that stand out in form and function. Similarly, go to the ramen bars of Japan’s biggest cities – Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe or Yokohama – and you’re as likely to see Snow Peak’s titanium chopsticks being used by workers on their lunch breaks as you are to find them stashed in the rucksacks of long-distance backpackers, alongside Snow Peak’s ultralight cookware. Even the brand’s titanium backpacker’s cup – which features a shallow bowl to help you scoop water from mountain streams, plus stamped graduated measurements to measure out liquids when reheating pouch meals on a canister stove – works just as well for serving up al fresco olives, nuts and nibbles.

Snow Peak | The Story | Wildbounds
Snow Peak’s Backpacker’s Cup is a simple illustration of the brand’s multi-functional design approach, creating products that work for a range of outdoor lifestyles, from lightweight backpacking to al fresco dining (credit: Snow Peak)

The product range is about more than just visual aesthetics or even modern multi-functionalism though. Snow Peak kit is designed to encapsulate Japanese feelings and attitudes towards nature and the external world, usually referred to as the twin notions of wabi-sabi and zen. The former is the philosophy of accepting your imperfections and making the most of life. It encourages us to focus on celebrating the way things are, rather than lusting after desires and wants. Zen is a far more difficult concept to explain, though it is rooted in profound meditation on the true nature of things: a complete state of focus that incorporates a total togetherness of body and mind. Zen is a way of being, as well as a state of mind. In this sense, Snow Peak is more than merely a brand that sells tents or camp furniture or apparel. In the words of Lisa Yamai, the aim is: ‘To increase the value of the life of each customer with our products and service.’

In a world in which we are all consumers looking for value, yet also individuals searching for meaning, it’s a philosophy that has proved to have mass appeal beyond Japan’s borders. There are now Snow Peak HQs and flagship stores in diverse cities across the globe, from trendy Portland in Oregon to classy St James’s in central London. And it’s an ethos that we also share here at WildBounds – which is one more reason why we love Snow Peak.

Snow Peak | The Story | Wildbounds
For Snow Peak, simple and elemental outdoor experiences are enhanced and uplifted by better products, like the brand’s superb lightweight camp stove cookware (credit: Snow Peak)

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