“Look, on Amazon, it says my tent can fit eight people!”
From the first message exchange with my outdoor enthusiast friend, I should’ve known things wouldn’t end well.
I’m not an outdoorsy person. My comfort zone extends from my bed to my favorite burger joint a dozen blocks away — and even then, I’d much rather pay for delivery. Yet it was her birthday wish and the other people she invited all seemed fun to hang out with, so I figured I’d make an effort.
Being a bona fide slacker, I didn’t do much to prepare. I entrusted my future to the more entrepreneurial members of our group, who seemed to be doing well. A camping veteran who couldn’t make it lent us a big box of gear and recommended a campsite suitable for beginners: a region known as the Southern Japanese Alps.
My fellow campers brought tents, chairs, cooking equipment, futons — even some decorative lights. All I needed was a sleeping bag, which I promptly ordered online. I also packed up a yoga mat and a portable desk lamp, as well as a bunch of board game, because what else were we going to do?
“Bring it on!” I thought.
When the big day came, I was feeling ready, gripped by an overwhelming sense of adventure. In my mind, I was picturing what it must be like to be Bear Grylls.
My trusty camping suitcase — a nice compact model I often use on domestic flights — was packed with games and my backpack was stuffed with clothes and toiletries. I got up early in the morning to help pick up the van that would carry us into the bosom of Mother Nature.
We slightly underestimated the time it would take to pack all our gear, so we were running about an hour behind schedule, which was very acceptable by our standards.
Roughly thirty minutes into our trip, just as we got past the toll and onto the highway, my optimism took its first beating. That day was the beginning of a four-day weekend for all of Tokyo, and we thought we were outsmarting the entire city by leaving early to beat the traffic.
Takeaway number one, you cannot simply beat Tokyo traffic.
In a metropolis of 40 million souls, traffic always wins. Even when you think you’re ahead, you eventually find yourself surrounded by thousands of other drivers who were harboring the same dying flicker of hope.
A drive that should have lasted two and a half hours turned into six — which wouldn’t have been too much of an issue, had we not made our second amateur mistake.
Takeaway number two, before you go camping, check the weather.
Since we decided to stop for lunch along the way, it was early afternoon when we reached the campsite. There, for the first time in my life, my Google phone was simultaneously displaying alerts for thunderstorms, flooding, landslides, and tornadoes.
As we rolled in, everyone else had already set up camp and was taking refuge in their tents. We were drenched, most of us without even an umbrella, waiting for lulls in the heavy rain to quickly look for our own plot of land.
The longer we looked, the worse the deluge got. Before long, it had poured so much the ground could barely hold in the water, resulting in giant muddy puddles forming in every bit of flat terrain.
In our defense, we had checked the weather. For a nearby city. In the mountains, weather can vary significantly from one valley to the next. Online, you can find precise radar information for all of Japan — something we discovered as we were watching the storm wash away our weekend plans.
We decided to regroup in the only area that had a bit of shelter — in front of the campsite restrooms. As we held our noses and graciously donated copious amounts of blood to the local mosquitoes, we held a strategy meeting.
There were only a few hours left before sunset. There was no way to set up camp at our current location, and if we were to find another campsite, it would have to be within an hour’s drive.
We searched frantically.
Takeaway number three, most Japanese campsites require a reservation.
About half of the sites we called turned us away. The other half were either full or closed due to the pandemic. Out of desperation, we even contacted a so-called “adult campsite,” but apparently you need a membership to camp there. I did some further research — out of pure sociological curiosity — and it turns out “adult” simply means a quiet child-free site for experienced campers. Another slight disappointment to add to the list.
While I was conducting my investigation, the group found a viable alternative. About 45 minutes away, in a different valley where it hadn’t rained as much, there was an “Auto Camp” site, which is a place where you park your car right next to your tent. Most Japanese campsites make you park in the designated lot. This was perfect. Destiny. The heavens were smiling down on us.
Or so I thought. We still had two nights to go.
By the time we got to the new campsite, we had a solid hour of daylight left and the rain had stopped. The ground was muddy, but not swelling with groundwater. The camp managers allowed us in and gave us two options, either the regular campsite or the “deluxe” campsite.
Turns out “deluxe” was a bunch of football fields on which people could pitch their tents. A handful of people had set up in between the goalposts, but we went with regular, as did almost everyone else.
Finding a large flat spot not surrounded by people was a challenge. Most of the other campers were families. We didn’t want to be close to any children when we were burning the midnight bug-repellent candle, drunk on a strange Okinawan alcohol called Awamori, and screaming every time someone scored a point at Cards Against Humanity.
In the end, we couldn’t find a discrete spot in any of the designated camping areas. Instead, what we found was a decades-old abandoned stable, replete with broken glass, rusty nails, and bloodthirsty insects. How surprising that no Japanese family had set up their tent anywhere near the horror movie slaughterhouse!
Not only were we isolated, we had a lovely view over the rest of the campsite, impeded only by some thick wires tethered to a nearby electric pole. All things considered, we were not so much Bear Grylls as Tom Hanks’ character in Castaway. A stark contrast from how Japanese people camp.
Takeaway number four, Japanese people don’t camp. They CAMP.
As we gazed over the bustle below, we were greeted by a sea of beige. The tents, the tarps, the equipment; even most fellow campers’ clothes were beige. Everyone’s gear was made by the same Japanese outdoor equipment manufacturer, Snowpeak, and a quick Amazon search revealed that even the cheapest tents went for at least $500.
Then there was the sheer amount of stuff. Proper dining tables and high-end foldable chairs. Stoves, torches, and lanterns. Generators. Portable showers. One family even brought their rice cooker.
Despite Japanese futon culture, campers don’t sleep on the ground. They bring their own foldable beds on which they lay their sleeping bags.
In contrast, we had an old plastic bench, a couple of chairs, a knee-height plastic table, and a crate we found in the shriek shack.
Instead of torches and lanterns, we had my USB-powered desk lamp.
Instead of a stove, we had a single burner and a half-liter pot.
Our main tent was bright orange, our side tent was blue, and strung over them was a bright green tarp for shelter in case it rained. We stood out like a drag queen in a nunnery.
Also, about those tents.
Takeaway number five, check your equipment beforehand.
Eight people, claimed the online description for our main tent. Turns out, the inside was roughly two meters by two meters. It could fit three people comfortably, four if you squeezed.
What I described as a side tent was actually a sun tent, meaning it was designed for sitting, not sleeping. The inside was 120 centimeters long, so if someone were to lie down in it, they would only be sheltered up to their thighs.
Luckily, one enterprising gentleman brought his own solo tent — a culturally acceptable neutral khaki — which he set up just far enough away to ensure plausible deniability.
That left five of us, three ladies and two gents. The ladies took the main tent, which meant for my first night camping in Japan, I was stuffed in a sun tent, shoulder to shoulder with a man I’d only met for the second time, sleeping on a yoga mat, with my legs jutting out at the mercy of the elements. Good thing it was 2:30 am and I was wasted.
Takeaway number six, Japanese summer only has two settings, tropical storm, and volcanic heat.
Since Japan has no daylight saving time and is situated on the edge of its time zone, the summer sun rises very early. Around 5 am. You notice these things when you’re packed into a tent that doesn’t close properly.
Another fun quirk of our rapidly warming planet is that Japanese summers are hellishly hot and humid. I woke up in the early hours of the morning with an elbow in my face, sweating in the 30C (86F) degree heat, to notice that every morsel of my legs had become fodder for a generation of mosquitoes, and my left ankle had somehow swollen by about a third.
Being the first one up, I lumbered down the hill to get water and use the restroom, at which point I was made painfully aware of the fact that our campsite had no showers.
Upon my return, the others began emerging one by one. We started to make plans. We were going to go for a swim in a nearby river, then go to a Japanese hot spring, or onsen. The only caveat was that it was supposed to rain. And rain it did.
Takeaway number seven, seriously, for the entire trip, CHECK THE WEATHER.
Just as we were about to head off for lunch, the sky fell down. Torrential wind and rain surged out of nowhere, posing an existential threat to our already precarious campsite. We had the green tarp, but it was nowhere big enough to cover the main tent. We rushed to shove all our electronics in either the car or the sun tent and, in a swell of inspiration, lifted the main tent up and spirited it off into the dread shed.
There we stood, all six of us clustered around our main source of shelter, packed in a room that was missing an entire wall, trying not to cut ourselves on anything sharp as we waited for the heavens to relent.
Quick side note, the khaki tent was perfectly fine. Our resident MacGyver had splurged for waterproofing.
After about half an hour, the rain showed no signs of letting up. We decided we were done. Ran to the car leaving our tent in the shack and drove off.
The rest of our trip was rather uneventful. We had a fine lunch and the onsen was fantastic. When we got back to the campsite, the rain had mostly stopped. While our equipment was damp, at least it wasn’t drenched. We squeezed the tents closer together under the tarp for protection. One of the ladies decided to sleep in the car, leaving a spot in the main tent, which I graciously offered to my sharp-jointed tentmate.
That night, we tried games, music, and booze, but our exhaustion got the better of us. By midnight, everyone was fast asleep. I had the sun tent all to myself. Five hours of pure, unadulterated slumber.
Return to civilization
The third day, we packed up and left early. We stopped a couple times on the way, once for lunch and again for another round of onsen. As often happens after a terrible trip, everyone was in surprisingly high spirits. When we weren’t belting out karaoke songs, we were laughing about how unprepared and unlucky we’d been. All six of us, washed out in every possible sense of the term, still somehow, somewhere finding the strength to enjoy ourselves.
That’s how you know you’re in good company. Despite everything going wrong, every roll of the dice coming up in our disfavor, we still managed to part ways brimming with fond memories.
The following day, I was even surprised to find myself scrolling through an online catalogue of Snowpeak tents.
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