30 Years Ago

Auto-Camping Arrives in Japan

Snow Peak released its first tent, the Amenity Dome series, in 1990. Until then, campers used tents built for mountain climbers, as impractical as that was. But Snow Peak’s dome tents were built more ergonomically. With a unique framework and silhouette that upended the industry, the tent became known as the Amenity Dome. It still carries that name today, having become the standard in family tents.

Just a few years earlier, In 1986, Tohru joined his father’s company, known at the time as Yamako. Yukio assigned him to Marketing Department No. 2, telling him, “You are the only person in the department. Do whatever you like. Maybe you already have something in mind?” Indeed, Tohru was already envisioning a new business. He wanted to build a new market, different from the mountain climbing and fishing gear that his father had broken into. The new market was auto-camping.

When he spent time in America, he had experiences that were lacking in Japan, despite its wealth. Tohru was convinced he could offer those experiences. In Tokyo, he had sensed the strong human instinct to seek out nature, and that gave him a push. And he had grounds for thinking that such a business would succeed: the rising popularity of sport utility vehicles. Outdoor-oriented SUVs could be seen more and more frequently even in Tokyo, but mostly they were only being used for city driving. Tohru knew that if he could show SUV owners a lifestyle more attuned to their vehicles–loading up with gear and heading out for a camping trip–they would certainly take to it.

The only thing standing in his way was his father. Tohru showed him a plan to develop camping gear, but Yukio rejected it flat out. Yukio argued that you couldn’t accurately predict figures such as sales when you’re starting up an entirely new market. He refused to approve the plan unless he could see some proof. Tohru rewrote his plan again and again, but Yukio would not agree. Yukio was not speaking as gentle father but hard-nosed executive. While mountain climbing and camping were both outdoor activities, climbers and campers had different purposes and ways of thinking.

Tohru was stung by how difficult it was to get his father to understand camping’s appeal. Soon, he was going around to the small workshops of Tsubame-Sanjo and talking to local craftsmen to absorb their manufacturing know-how. After 10 refusals, Tohru approached his father one more time. He showed Yukio orders he’d gotten to buy the products he was proposing, if only he could make them. Taking an approach similar to today’s crowdfunding, he showed the value of the orders–and these were not estimates, but firm orders–relative to the scale of investment. Finally, Yukio gave Tohru the go-ahead.

Yukio had once forbidden his young son from climbing mountains. Now, Yukio himself was the first sheer precipice that Tohru scaled. He had to find his own route and ascend under his own power, but he was not going to give up. He was sure his intuition was right, and he was as prepared as possible. That experience proved to be a living lesson in economics and boosted Tohru’s confidence. People latched onto his dream. The dawn of the auto-camping culture, something new in Japan, had arrived.

Before Snow Peak, the image that Japanese people had of camping came from their school camping trips. Instead of that, Snow Peak invited people to think of camping as a luxurious time spent in nature. This put Snow Peak in an unprecedented genre, one very different from earlier camping. What Tohru particularly disliked on his school camping trips was digging a trench around the tent. The tents at that time consisted of a ground sheet and walls. They were separate pieces–not even sewn together. Campers had to do the heavy labor of digging a trench to keep rain from flowing into the tent. On hard, gravelly ground, the shovel could peel skin off the campers’ hands. Snow Peak’s camping concept skipped that.

In Snow Peak’s vision, any task associated with camping should be a pleasant one and a chance to enjoy the comforts of nature. People should be able to get outdoors, quickly put up a comfortable tent and tarp, prepare and enjoy a meal, chat, and sleep. That is all it takes to spend a rich time in the outdoors and restore the human spirit.

Tohru turned his attention to developing a tent that proves that time spent in nature is a luxury to be enjoyed. Most of the tents available up to then sold for prices of about $70 or $140. Tents in those ranges were not exactly comfortable, nor did they stand up well to heavy rain and wind. In contrast, Snow Peak’s first tent sold for about $1200. Built with the finest materials and technology, it was made to withstand the worst weather and still be comfortable, but it came at a high price.

Older employees laughed and said it would never sell, but contrary to their predictions, 100 of them did. Tohru believed that if you make something with confidence, people will get the message. This was the moment high-end camping became established in Japan: when a tent came along that appealed to customers wanting something better.