About 10 years ago, when many Japanese were averse to getting wet or dirty, sleeping outdoors in tents or on ground sheets carried the stigma of poverty. Camping was for homeless people or earthquake victims.
In one shop near Komazawa University, a good Coleman tent cost only ¥3,000 — about a tenth of the American price at that time — because companies were trying to spread the concept of camping to Japan.
A decade later, many Tokyo youths have their own tents, and they are spending increasingly more time in them, at weekend rock festivals, beaches, highlands in the Japan Alps, and beyond Japan’s borders. Though camping is normally not allowed on many beaches or parks, increasing numbers of Japanese are sleeping in tents anyway, being unable to afford minshukus or hotels. The way Japanese behave outdoors reveals a culture increasingly going back to its roots, closer to nature.
Like villagers of yore, Japanese such as these campers at the Fuji Rock Festival in Naeba and the Summersonic festival in Chiba tend to pitch tents as close to each other as possible, for security and a comfortable communal feeling, as compared to Westerners who prefer the privacy of a site separated from others.
Japanese use tents in clever ways: as storage areas for food or BBQs, and as sun shields for pets or themselves on the beach. On Kujukuri beach in Chiba, for example, it’s common to see a cluster of tents on the beach, for day use only, since many Japanese women in particular do not like to tan, believing that “porcelain” skin is more beautiful. A tent also gives people a place to keep their purses or gear while swimming — something not possible on the crime-ridden beaches of Rio de Janeiro, for example.
Camping has become so popular, in fact, that camp-sites at Kamikochi and other touristy areas high up in the Alps often fill up quickly on Friday nights, forcing many hikers to find other areas to stay, such as this spot beside a jade river. More and more campers are dying each year from bad weather in the wild, including a pair of Tokyo students swept away in flash floods in Hokkaido this summer.
Though Japanese have long had a reputation for ignoring global environmental issues, the camping boom is creating a new generation of domestic eco-conscious youth who bring along garbage bags with them outdoors.
Teepees erected near Marine Stadium during the Summersonic festival give fans a place to sleep overnight instead of taking trains back home. About a dozen strangers will share a teepee and doze on sheets or sleeping bags, before heading off to catch their favorite bands.
Thanks to Japan’s low crime rate, many youth will sleep rough on the grass, without fear of being mugged or molested, though ants and mosquitoes can be a problem.
While millions of Japanese head south for winter, a campsite along this white-sand beach of Okinawa’s Zamami Island, which is easily reached by ferry and a few minutes walk, is almost totally empty during the Christmas and New Year holidays. With warm weather year round and campsites scattered across the archipelago, Okinawa is one of Asia’s best spots for camping.
Cycling across Asia from Shanghai to Turkey the past 14 months, this tiny tent has become home for Shyu Momozaki, a sushi chef from Tokyo who says he doesn’t mind such a small tent “because Japanese rooms are so small.” Japanese travelers can often be seen cooking up “white cream stew,” curry rice and other outdoor favorites.