Small Mountains, Big Emotions

There’s a saying that goes something like, “A wise man climbs Fuji once. Only a fool climbs it twice.” I’ve climbed Mt. Fuji twice now and plan to climb it again this year. I remember on both occasions when I reached the summit, there was a lot of excitement around me, pouring out of emotions, and even tears. “Banzai!” (ten thousand years of thanks!) Considering the difficulty level and the stunning view, this was certainly warranted.

But there’s something peculiar I’ve noticed after climbing several mountains in Japan; no matter the size of the mountain, Japanese people tend to have “over-the-top” reactions. For instance, there’s a beautiful hike I took near Karuizawa city in Nagano prefecture. The trail starts at the town and winds through the mountains, dotted with architecturally unique summer houses that don’t seem like they quite belong in this part of the world.

There were two Japanese girls behind me who arrived to the summit at the same time. We all stood there gazing at the lush, green and rocky horizon — it was a clear day, and there was a calm breeze that welcomed us. They both started commenting on the view. There conversation went a little like this:

“Wow! We did it. Those mountains are REALLY amazing. ”

“Yeh, it’s such a beautiful view. This is super great.”

“So green, so pretty!”

“Otsukaresamadeshita!” (“good job/job well done”)

They went on for a bit, all while gazing at the view in front of us and quite loudly expressing what they liked about the view and how they were feeling that moment. Their voices were emphatic and almost screechy. If you were hearing this for the first time, you might think their reactions were a tad bit much. I mean, the view was nice, but come on, it wasn’t that nice.

But I don’t think there was any sarcasm or exaggeration in their voices. I believe they were genuinely letting their emotions pour out with no restraint, no filters, and with pure, unadulterated gratitude. Childlike, even.

I don’t know about you, but when I get to the top of a mountain I usually smile, maybe take a picture, and if I’m with other people I’ll say something like “that’s pretty cool,” and then crack open a beer and have a picnic. Naturally, it intrigued me that Japanese people would have this sort of reaction. What’s going on here? Let’s explore.

The Holy of Holies

Japanese people have cherished mountains for a long time, and for hundreds of years Shinto practitioners would frequently make spiritual pilgrimages from one of several lakes at the bottom of Mt. Fuji all the way to the breathtaking, often gusty summit that could knock you off your feet. It wasn’t an easy hike, and arrival at the peak sandwiched you between the heavens and the earth with little interruption. It was as close as you could get to the gods.

Shinto shrines, gates and lodges were built along the mountain path, which was only open to monks and ascetics for religious purification. There were various kamis (gods) and deities that lived on Mt. Fuji, but it was only by reaching the top would you attain salvation, and of course gain witness to the breathtaking view of the sunrise, or goraikou. A predominant belief was that Kamis and spirits resider rivers, oceans, mountains, rocks and nature in general.

For the past one thousand years only men were allowed on the mountain, even though, ironically, the goddess of Mt. Fuji and all volcanoes (“Konohana Sakuya Hime”) was a female spirit. Eventually, both women and foreigners Mt. Fuji were allowed to climb Meiji Restoration post 1868. The first British diplomat in Japan, Sir Rutherford Alcock, was also the first foreigner to climb Mt. Fuji, and his ascent marked the start of a shift from religious to more leisurely and recreational hikes.

Nowadays, roughly 300,000 people climb to the top of the World Unesco site each year, although most of them start form the “5th station,” or half way up the mountain (I personally recommend starting from the bottom). While most climbers are no longer monks, the shrines remain in tact, the hike remains arduous, and the summit picturesque. The tradition of seeing the sun light up the world at the crack of dawn — goraikou — is still very popular. The hike has simply transformed with the people and culture throughout time, but the sacred nature of the climb hasn’t changed much.

Lastly, the idea of the animist kami is, albeit less explicitly, also prevalent. While most Japanese people don’t identify as being Shinto, many people practice Shinto traditions, the most common being going to a Shinto shrine on New Year’s Day to say your previous year’s thanks and coming year’s prayers. For people in Japan, these traditions are not really conscious decisions, but rather something that is inherently part of the Japanese culture.

High vs. Low Arousal

Mountains, and arguably the appreciation of nature in general, hold special stature in Japan, but the over-the-top reactions I heard that day (and many other days) are still counterintuitive in light of what we know about cultural differences in emotional expression between individualist and collectivist cultures. That is, Western individualism values ‘high arousal emotions’ (i.e. excitement, joy, elation, fear etc). By contrast, Eastern collectivism tends to value ‘low arousal emotions’ (calm, serenity, pleasure).


I live and work in Japan, and I’ve definitely seen Japanese people really bottle up their emotions. In this situation, though, Japanese people had no problem speaking their hearts and their minds — more so than most Westerners I know. And by the way, I’ve observed this mountain-top reaction with both guys and gals.

Of course, emotion is influenced by environment so it’s possible there’s something about the feeling of “awe” in particular that externalizes the focus, and makes it more comfortable for people from collectivist cultures (like Japan), versus an internal focus on what you’re feeling. Because they could focus on the mountain as the source of emotion, maybe it was easier to express the feeling they had.

Beyond the cultural considerations, simply being in nature plays a big role in creating a sense of release and carefreeness. We know that when people are asked to draw portraits of themselves before and after looking at awe-inspiring pictures of nature, the after-awe self-portraits take up a lot less space. As Michael Pollan put it, “awe is a powerful antidote to egotism.

This doesn’t necessarily explain why there’s a cultural difference being observed here; but it does lend support to the argument that connecting with nature begins a process of ego loss that would lead Japanese people to be more likely to identify and express authentic emotions in relation to the external environment.

The Geography of Thought — Aristotle vs. Confucius


The Western perspective and much of what we consider ‘modern’ culture was shaped by Greek traditions of debate, logic and philosophy that were precursors to scientific empiricism. This has evolved over time, and now in the West we’ve come to believe that each individual has a set of characteristic, unique attributes that differ from others, that we are largely in control of our own behavior, and we feel better when we maximize that power of personal preference.

On the other hand, inherent in the Japanese view is a mix of Confucian, Shinto and Buddhist ideals that are common across many Asian cultures. These emphasize a greater connectedness with everyone and everything, the importance of relationships, and context. Blending in a group is more important than individual distinctiveness, and collective action is valued over individual action.

In his book The Geography of Thought, Richard Nisbett outlines the tangible effects of these fundamentally different views. These are fascinating and come in shades ranging from stark to subtle.

For example, If you show a picture of a cow, chicken and patch of grass to Asian children, they’re likely to group the grass and the cow together, “because the cow eats grass.” Western children tend to choose the cow and the chicken, because “they are both animals.” Furthermore, studies have found that Western infants learn nouns at a much higher rate than Eastern infants, whereas Eastern infants learn verbs at a much higher rate.

A study using eye-tracking technology found that when you showed a picture to Chinese and American students, the American’s eyes would more likely go to the focal point or object in the picture, whereas the Chinese students more often scanned the periphery of the picture. In other words, the Chinese spent time working out the context of the situation — whereas people in America tended to spend more time on the “main” part of the picture. Lastly, a linguistic factor: In English, we have one word for “I.” In Japanese, Chinese, Korean and many Asian languages there are several words to represent I. All of them are dependent on the situation, and the relationship you have to the person you’re speaking with.

In sum: the Greek world was made of classifying objects, the Asian world was made of emphasizing relationships.The West has a tendency to categorize objects as separate, that is, they are independent from each other. This creates an idea that we are individual, independent actors, and this naturally leads to a focus on me, me, me. The Eastern way tends to look at the relationship between people and objects, and thus a focus on we, we, we.

What does this have to do with mountains?

Naturally, in English, one way of describing our mountain climb would be to say that one “conquered” the mountain — thus denoting separation rather than connection. In Japanese, the climb is a journey, and we simply say we’ve “reached the summit.”

And sure, anyone can experience feelings of connectedness and sense of awe at the peak of a mountain, and even elation. But if you have this cultural and linguistic legacy (regardless of whether you truly believe it or recognize you’re inside of it) that you’re part of an intricate web in the world, rather than a separate object, then reaching the summit of a mountain is perhaps more than just an individual act. Man is part of the natural world, not separate from it, constantly interacting and shifting with it.

I’m not necessarily saying that Japanese people are “happier” to this extent, but simply that there might be a greater sense of connection and relationship with nature that arises from this way of thinking.

What Can We Learn?

While it’s tough to change the origins of our language, culture, or immediately flip a switch that allows us to favor a relationship-dependent view over an individual-object dependent view of the world, we can learn a couple of simple but valuable lessons from the over-the-top mountain climbers that perhaps transcends culture.

#1. Climb the mountain and just let it all out.

When it comes to expressing our emotions, we’re usually not very good at it. It’s much easier to do so when we designate a certain place to do this. A mountain is a pretty good spot where you can express your emotions — a “safe zone,” of sorts.

Furthermore, spending time in nature is associated with ego loss and transcendence. (i.e. similar to what is reported during psychedelic experiences). According to the Transpersonal school, disidentifying from the ego can lead to greater levels of openness, authenticity, trust, support and connection to the external environment.

Maybe it’s a different place for you — a beach, lake, garden, park, anywhere in nature — but there has to be somewhere where you can allow the floodgates to open. Scream at the top of your lungs if you want.

#2. To feel more connected, you have to connect with others.

The Buddhist perspective is that our happiness depends on our ability to appreciate that everything is connected. In a world where we’re always focused on ourselves, it can be hard to imagine what this means. Fortunately, it’s relatively straightforward to put into practice.

The one action you can take to foster this mindset is to simply do things for others out of your own will. Specifically, offer your time, ideas, friendship, or a nice deed without expecting anything in return (Adam Grants “givers”). It might seem trite, but we live in a world where we’re trying to control our environments (our bank accounts, schedules, and other stuff we deem important), or worse, like exchanging vapid messages via Facebook messenger. This leads to all sort of problems, like the increase of existential boredom, and it’s thus understandably harder to appreciate the simple (yet powerful) presence of a mountain when we’re locked on our phones and constantly bored.

Letting go of the incessant need to control every aspect of our lives and focusing on someone or something else creates an amazing spark. We momentarily forget about ourselves, and this in turn brings back meaning into our lives. Ultimately we’re reminded that we’re always standing on the shoulders of others — and the dominoes go on forever.


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