Japan's semi-urban campers get almost back to nature


TOKYO -- "Excuse me," says Kumihiro Yashiro competing with the roar of an airplane close overhead as he pulls a portable phone from his belt. "I'm working."

He's also vacationing in the currently booming Japanese style of a semi-urban camping. A prolonged recession has prompted many Japanese to rethink holidays. For those who can't afford to take advantage of the high yen by going abroad, a new word has been coined to describe what's desired: ankintan, from the Chinese characters for cheap, close and brief. Translation: exposure (ever so slightly) to nature.

That isn't easy on the relatively small island that is Japan. Areas landscaped primarily by the whims of the environment are rare. Beaches tend to be used as garbage dumps.

But the Japanese are working on the problem in their own industrious way. A serious survey by Japan's government on what the Japanese want to do when they are not being serious has bolstered the case for improved outdoor recreation. The result is that the once-deserted places where that can occur are packed tight and more are being developed.

Mr. Yashiro has come with his family and assorted relatives as a first-time camper to a 2-year-old campground, Jonan Jima Seaside Park. It's a few hundred yards from the runway of Haneda Airport, the country's main domestic terminal, a few minutes from downtown Tokyo.

He is one of the 1,320 lucky ones to grab an available slot. Four years ago, the area was a desolate landfill built in Tokyo Bay out of the assorted detritus dredged up during the construction of the city's subways and skyscrapers.

Some $6.5 million later, precisely 758 trees, topsoil and assorted greenery have created an 18-acre mini-paradise, sort of. The sewage treatment plants and factories on the inland side of the ** park are screened from view. On the bay side, the sight of a vast garbage island built in the middle of the bay is blocked by a wall. As for the airplanes coasting literally a few feet overhead as they come in for landing every two to three minutes, no one seems to care.

And better is yet to come. Once badly polluted, Tokyo Bay is becoming steadily cleaner. Swimmers are still notably absent, despite a heat wave. But another 18 acres of landfill surrounding the campsite are visible at low tide. Soon, sand will be added for an artificial beach. "Within two years, you will see women in bikinis," promises Fumio Takeyama, a government worker who spent a long career in government tabulating salaries for the Education Ministry before being transferred in April.

Mr. Yashiro, for one, appears to be ready for a new challenge. "Now that I have mastered camping, I hope to do it again," he says, folding up the phone antenna while he observes his children and nephews bathing in small, inflatable pools and other family members preparing the barbecue.

Others are similarly pleased. Nearby, three Tokyo cabdrivers sit under a small lean-to, meditating on the good life as they look out on ships in the bay. In the past, they had gone fishing or hiking or went on long jaunts with their families, but this summer has been debilitatingly hot. They have no desire to move.

"We're not old, but worn out," says Masahiro Sakata, 46. He rests on a cooler filled with chicken and noodles intended for a barbecue. In the meantime, there is a case of beer, and if that runs out, Japanese vending machines sell more in sizes ranging from the usual small bottle up to three-liter jugs.

Unusual for Japan, other machines are absent, in deference to the back-to-nature trend. Yet this is a controversial issue. A major question raised by the back-to-nature boom is how far back should one go.

At the Ohara Campground in Chiba, a peninsula split off from the mainland much like Maryland's Eastern Shore, campers used to come with almost nothing.

Now camp manager Daiji Nakada has had to ban deliveries of sushi and pizza to the grounds. "If we permitted it, 30 percent would order out; we couldn't handle it," he said.

Denied common sources of food, campers have found alternatives almost as convenient. They arrive in vans and four-wheel-drive vehicles, which then become part of the site, screening off adjacent neighbors, serving as a stable anchor for clotheslines and providing a place for an air-conditioned snooze.

They bring multi-burner stoves, tables that fold into briefcases, chairs made of telescoping rods and entire portable shelving units.

"In the beginning, my family wasn't really excited," said Yasunori Katahara. That was a year ago, when the tent was small and the cooking facilities limited to a single flame. This year, he has a modest kitchen to go with a tent that's the size of a Tokyo house -- which is not very large. He has a cooking unit that is better than what can be found in some small restaurants.

L. L. Bean, the Maine-based retailer of rustic wares, has opened several outlets in Japan and would seem to be a prime beneficiary of the enthusiasm. But at one of its Tokyo outlets, a sales clerk says buyers mainly want clothing. The equipment is a bit austere.

One floor below, a local store offers the truly sophisticated gadgets -- for instance, electronic portable barometers and a tiny geodesic tent, perfect for the family pet.

While traditional campers may see this as excessive, it should be viewed in context. A large component of the Japanese work force considers itself permanently at work, and, thus, any time away from an office is a dramatic change.

Yoshitaka Suzuki, a salesman for NEC, the vast electronics company, says he has forgone bringing a telephone in deference to the rustic quality of the experience, although he does carry a pager. "Not having it ring is a tranquilizer."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad