So you’ve checked the tourist traps off your list, visited a shrine (or ten!), and have spent the night in a capsule hotel—now what? There is so much to do and see in Japanese cities, that it’s easy to forget that the great Japanese outdoors is just a train ride away and well-worth your time. I lived in Hokkaido, Japan for a year while working as an English teacher through the JET Programme. There I learned that, as any Hokkaido resident will tell you, Hokkaido and nature are a package deal. I highly recommend camping in Japan because you’re bound to see things the average tourist won’t, not to mention that access to campgrounds often costs as little as 500 yen (about five dollars)—perfect for travelers on a budget! However, camping in Japan is usually as rugged as it gets; you won’t be “glamping” in the Hokkaido wilderness. It’s important to come prepared, so without further ado, here is my guide to camping in Japan, specifically Hokkaido:
Gather Your Supplies
The first time I went camping in Japan, I wasn’t sure what I would need to bring… as a Miami native, I didn’t have any experience with cold, mountainous landscapes like those I eventually encountered in Hokkaido. Poor me, I thought shorts and a backpack would suffice! A couple of stressful situations later, I came away with the knowledge necessary to embark on a successful camping trip. It’s important to not over-pack, especially if you will be taking the train across a long distance, but here are what I consider to be the essentials:
- a sturdy tent, preferably with a quick-assembly function and a mosquito net
- a sleeping bag, the more compact the better
- insect repellent and anti-itch medicine, because Japanese mosquitoes (カ, or ka) begin to hatch in April and remain active through the fall
- heat rash spray, if camping in the summer months
- an external backup battery for your phone, because—take it from me— you don’t want to get caught in the middle of nowhere with no way to look up train schedules or the route home!
- Navitime, the best way to look up said train schedules
- water bottle, because the nearest convenience store (conbini or コンビニ) may be very far away
- snacks, see above!
- rain jacket, because even in the summer, Hokkaido nights are chilly
- comfortable hiking shoes,
because nothing will ruin a camping trip like inadequate footwear can
- plenty of spare socks, because nothing will ruin a camping trip like cold, wet, aching feet will
Hokkaido is also home to the ferocious Ussuri Brown Bear, or black grizzly. These bears have a reputation in Japan for being man-eaters, due to a series of attacks that occurred in Hokkaido throughout the 20th century. However, they are usually shy around humans, and conventional Japanese wisdom holds that a bear bell will suffice in scaring them off.
Choose a Good Location
In my experience, camping in Hokkaido is most enjoyable when you’re off the beaten path, but not so much that you’re too far to enjoy local attractions. Without question, the most enjoyable camping trip I took in Hokkaido was to Lake Akan, a beautiful national park that has the added benefit of being near the largest Ainu settlement in Japan. The Ainu are people indigenous to Japan, but ethnically different from Japanese people. They have unique customs and clothing, and are master woodworkers. At the Lake Akan Ainu Village, you can watch dance, music, and theater performances by the residents, buy beautiful folk art, and visit a small exhibit showcasing traditional Ainu structures.
- Choose a beautiful, natural area
- Look for towns with attractions within walking distance
- Conbini can be a huge help!
- Choose a town near a train station, unless you’re driving or have a friend with a car
Enjoy it to the Fullest!
I’m sorry to say that I never made any return trips to the places where I’ve camped. It’s not because they weren’t beautiful, or because I didn’t have the time of my life, because they were, and boy did I ever! It’s because, due to my work schedule, they were simply too remote for me to visit again. That’s the sad reality of travel, especially when you’re holding down a 9 to 5, but here are a few tips to mitigate the Wanderlust Blues:
- Stop and smell the roses—no, literally, do it! Studies show that olfactory information passes through areas of the brain strongly tied to memory and emotion, more so than any other sensory information. When I am missing the Japanese wilderness, I conjure up the smell of the sea and wet earth near Cape Erimo, and I can instantly feel the cold biting wind, and the struggle that culminated with my umbrella being turned inside out. If I think of the smell of burning firewood, I can feel the prickly warmth of my campfire in Samani, and see the flickering ruby glow it gave off.
- Buy all of the souvenirs! Well, maybe not all of them, but if a certain marimo in a jar tickles your fancy, or you can’t stop staring at that plushie shaped like the town’s mascot, don’t think twice!
- Make friends with your fellow campers. I found most campsites to be full of friendly faces, and was able to pick up quite a few camping tips from them!
- Drive if you can. Taking the train to a remote village or town can be an adventure in and of itself, but some of my fondest memories of Japan are those of driving through the Japanese countryside. It may take a little longer than the train, but you can stop for unlimited photo ops, roadside farm stands, and souvenir shops!
To learn more, visit this site to see a list of all the campsites in Hokkaido—happy travels!