"The mountains are a man's world…" well, not any more. These past few years, in Japan "Yama girl (mountain girl)" meaning females who enjoy the outdoors in fashionable outdoor clothes have become a trend. They especially became popular at outdoor music festivals, where they dressed in various colorful outdoor clothes to enjoy music and the outdoors. Of course, even now, mountain climbing is well liked by the middle-aged as well, to relax, for exercise, or for their concern towards ecology. It is not an overstatement to say that the people's interests towards nature and outdoor sports are higher than ever among all ages.
But the beautiful nature can sometimes be harsh. At times like this, outfits and tools that are especially made for outdoor use can give you a chance to rest or even be a lifesaver. Since it concerns one's life, the qualities that are required are much more severe than the clothes we wear or use in our daily life. Every outdoor gear brand is seeking for advanced material, sewing techniques and designs that can maintain the high qualities to survive in the wind and rain, but also be light-weighted, compact and comfortable. The distinctive functional beauty of outdoor clothes has become a genre of its own.
Many outdoor sports originate in western countries, so big names in outdoor products must be western brands…you may think. Not exactly. Actually, here in Osaka, Japan, we have one of the best outdoor product brands in the world… mont-bell. They have outfits and tools for mountain climbing, camping, canoeing, fishing, cycling and all other outdoor activities. One of the world's largest overall outdoor product brands – that's mont-bell.
The home of Japan's leading outdoor product brand, mont-bell, is in Nishi-ku, Osaka. They have been a popular brand among outdoor fans for a long time because their products are functional, reliable and useful and they are sold at a reasonable price. Their products are also popular around the world and are sold in the United States, Switzerland, South Korea, China, Taiwan and Singapore.
If you have never come across their products, you should visit one of their shops. There are 77 mont-bell shops in Japan (as of March, 2013). You'll be surprised at their wide variety and line-up they have. A variety of outfits, shoes, backpacks, tents, cooking tools, etc. to choose from to fit any purpose or weather. All of these products are made to "have fun" outdoors. By actually seeing them and touching them, imagine how to use them… you'll surely become excited and look forward to having fun outdoors with them.
Who came up with ideas to produce such products? We asked the founder of MontBell, Mr. Isamu Tatsuno. He is a mountaineer and adventurer himself.
Mr. Tatsuno was born in Sakai City, Osaka, where his family ran a sushi restaurant. His first step as a mountaineer and adventurer all began during his junior high school days when he often went to Kongozan. Back then there were no ropeways or any other man-made objects to help people climb the mountains. So he remembers climbing up the Kongozan along with his friends and putting up a tent near the mountain stream and cooking meals in a camp fire.
"It was fun to walk through a place where there are no paths. Back in those days I wasn't the type that followed after someone; a path was made after me." Of course he didn't have enough money to buy enough equipment, so what he did was "Be creative and created things I needed, such as sewing blankets together to use as a sleeping bag." These experiences might have been the beginning of Mr. Tatsuno's craftsmanship.
He really started becoming a mountaineer when he was 16. He was deeply impressed by an Austrian mountaineer, Heinrich Harrer and his book "White Spider" in which he wrote about his first ascent of the north face of the famous Eiger in Switzerland. "I want to climb it too." he thought and started training himself in climbing and in just 6 years, at the age of 21 he became the second Japanese to climb the north face of the Eiger. At the time, he was the world's youngest climber to succeed. Behind his great achievement was his creativity in preparing his gear.
"I prepared the best gear possible in Europe back then, but they didn't have Gore-Tex or waterproof moisture permeability material (*1) like we have now. So what I did was I wore a double layer of water resistant (*2) jackets. That way I can maintain the permeability without getting stuffy, and also if the jacket gets soaking wet I can always take it off but still have a layer left on. If the water resistance of the outside jacket seems to have dropped after one day, I could always exchange it with the one I was wearing under it." says Mr. Tatsuno. Even in these situations, he never forgot to consider 'lightweight' as a keyword as well. His creativity and mind is the secret to the fabulous craftsmanship of mont-bell.
16 year old Mr. Tatsuno dreamt of ascent of the north face of the Eiger, and at the same time he was determined to start a business concerning the mountains at the age of 28. He was thinking of mountain guiding or a mountaineering equipment shop. But his experiences at a textile trading company lead to establishing MontBell Co., Ltd. What gave him the opportunity was a "new" synthetic fiber that he handled while working at the trading company. "For example Kevlar and Nomex which DuPont in USA succeded in developing. Kevlar is a tough material used for bulletproof vests, and Nomex is used for firefighter uniform because it doesn't burn easily (*). I thought that these kinds of materials could improve mountaineering equipment too. At that time, not many people realized this."
And he followed his determination he had from when he was 16 years old, and left the textile trading company at the age of 28 to establish MontBell Co., Ltd. in Osaka. "From long ago, Osaka has been the center of the textile industry. Many textile manufacturers have their head offices in Osaka, so it is convenient to communicate with relevant people. Also I like the rationality that Osaka merchants tend to value." He went out and bought a secondhand Singer sewing machine and started making samples according to his creativity.
From his experience in climbing such as the north face of the Eiger, he thought mountaineering gear had to be light-weighted to move faster. In doing so, it increases the possibility of mountaineers to reach his/her goal safely. He wanted to use the new functional type of material, to create gears that are lighter, more compact and quickly dry after getting wet. These were ideas that other westerners could not have come up with – it was because Mr. Tatsuno was not well built like westerners and because he lived in Japan which had frequent rains and high humidity. Later, mont-bell brand rainwear shocked the people in the United States. No other country made such 'light- weighted' rainwear.
"What's always important for us is 'not what will sell well, but what is really necessary'. That's where all our ideas begin." says Mr. Tatsuno. For example, they used to sell solar power chargers which were suggested from his experience in Tibet and Nepal. He knew that some other people would wish for the same thing, but he also knew it wouldn't be a product that would sell 100 pieces a year. It would take 20 years to sell a batch of 2,000 pieces. "But it is the true pleasure of a manufacturer to be able to produce such a product. The value of a product is not how many pieces of it can be sold; it is how much a person can be saved by the product. That's where craftsmanship has to begin."
His frame of mind has not changed ever since he established MontBell. Project meetings are held a couple of times a year in which anyone who wishes to attend can, regardless of what department they belong to. That's because almost all the employees of MontBell are outdoor lovers, so everyone has their own idea of "What I would want when I'm enjoying the outdoors". Actually many of the big hits came from ideas that were brought up during this meeting. You can see from their catalogues that the spontaneous corporate culture is the key to their wide range of products fit for various needs.
One of the most unique products they have is the "Nodate set". The idea came from the playful mind of Mr. Tatsuno. "I made a chashitsu (tea ceremony room) in my house, so I thought 'Well, why not make tools to make (Japanese) tea!'." That is why he came up with the idea to create a portable compact tea ceremony set that people can bring to the mountains.
Mr. Tatsuno's aim is not just to create products and have people buy them. "What I want to do is enjoy Mother Nature with nature lovers." He once dreamt of becoming a mountain guide and in fact, in 1970, he established the first mountaineer school. "We walk along the mountain trail and eventually we cross a pass. The faces of the people who followed me look amazing when they see the scenery…it's just fabulous!"
He thought that the employees will want a chance to have this experience as well, and that is why he established the MontBell Outdoor Challenge; an outdoor activity department. Currently, all the MontBell stores in Japan occasionally organize a tour that is planned by the employees according to where they would like to take their customers. "From a management point of view, this is not a smart idea. But I believe that letting one do what they want to do is an important thing." Being the president of a company with 1200 employees, even now he organizes 5 to 6 tours a year and guides them himself. He has many fans, so once he posts for participants the seats are filled very quickly.
MontBell has a lot of fans and the members of the "MontBell Club" is soon to reach 400thousand members (as of March 2013). "The annual membership fee is 1,500yen. We have 400thousand 'mates' that are willing to pay that fee. This is really a fabulous thing. In a sense we consider it heavier than one vote casted for a politician." A part of the membership fee is used for wildlife conservation, supporting sport activities for the disabled, and recently for the reconstruction support of the Great East Japan Earthquake and other social contribution activities.
After 38 years from establishment, MontBell handles thousands of marvelous products. But they still have more ideas, says Mr. Tatsuno. "The other day I was surprised to see a wood stove that can generate electricity. These kinds of products can change our life. It's more than just outdoor gear, but I'd like to create products that can make the people of this country a little more 'happier'. Now I have 400thousand mates that I can share my values with. As the number increases to one million or two million, I am secretly thinking that something may really change."
The awareness towards "nature" is increasing in other Asian countries as well. Mr. Tatsuno wishes that the nature and Japan and the way we live can be somewhat of a model for other countries. MontBell's craftsmanship seems to have more chances to expand their creativity.