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Bumcamping in Japan

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My cousin Donna and I went “bum camping” in Japan with two folding bikes.
Bum camping means plunking your bum down pretty much anywhere and calling it a night.
Japan has less crime than we’re used to and a tolerant attitude toward homeless people.
Their little blue tents are tucked here and there in parks and under bridges.
We figured “How hard can it be?”.

At Nikko, we found a nice spot in the woods. In the next town we camped on an out-of the-way terrace in a park. That went so well, the next night we camped in a prime waterfront spot in Ueno park, Tokyo.

Donna’s folding bike cost $60 at a “Cainz Home” hardware superstore in Japan. It’s nice. Buy your bike there unless you’re very tall or picky. Her sleeping bag cost $10 in a Japanese discount sporting goods store (sports authority I think). It’s plenty warm. Remember when things were expensive in Japan? They’re a lot closer to China than we are, and it seems like they get better stuff from there for less than we do.

Step 1: Cops Have Low Prestige in Japanå

Picture of Cops Have Low Prestige in Japan

After we were fast asleep a crew of patrolmen woke us up with flashlights. Their gutteral exclamations indicated we were in a place not aproved for sleeping bums. Our Survival-Evasion-Escape instincts kicked in. We spoke to them in English.
This paralyzed them for two reasons:
1: They were too embarassed to attempt their English in front of co-workers.
2: Not knowing where each stood in Sempai order for English, it was impossible for any of them to take the lead. (Sempai is seniority in a mentorship structure. Two people can shift in and out of Sempai role as they engage in various activities depending on who has attained highest rank in the specific activity.)

They made various gestures seen in Manga comics and went away. We slept well for the rest of the night. Park Attacker Man seen in that poster also left us alone. (I’m illiterate now, is that really what it says?)

When I’m by myself I’m paranoid and stealth off somewhere to sleep invisibly. If I’m really paranoid I’ll disappear even more, pitch a tent and sleep in the scrub a few yards off to one side of it. I’m told I snore like a dying monster, which isn’t great for a stealth program, but oh well.
On this trip I had Donna to protect me, so we boldly camped like the great bums of old.

Step 2: Train Pass and Bike Cover

Picture of Train Pass and Bike Cover
Picture of Train Pass and Bike Cover

I had a JR rail pass which is only for tourists. It must be bought outside of the country. It’s still expensive, but a lot cheaper than individual train tickets. When bringing your bike onto a train, you have to put a cover over your bike. I used this big brown bag. Later I bought a much lighter bike cover in a dollar store. In the station I partly folded the bike as seen here for ease in wheeling it around.

Step 3: Ultralight Tarp Shelter

Picture of Ultralight Tarp Shelter

I sewed the 8X10 tarp from http://www.seattlefabrics.com/nylons.html#1.3%20oz%20RSsilicone-impregnated nylon. I sewed loops at the corners instead of using grommets. The whole thing weighs 1.5lbs including tarred nylon codline guy strings.
The ground cover is a 5×7 poncho I sewed from the same material. It weighs 1 lb.
Pretty good for shelter for two people. And raincoats.
That silnylon is great stuff. Water beads up on it in a really satisfying way.
www.seattlefabrics.com used to sell roll-ends and seconds for cheap.

We used the bikes to prop up the front of the tarp and form a psychological barrier.
We shoved our umbrellas out the sides to close the sides. There are lots of ways to pitch a tarp.

It’s fall so bugs aren’t a problem, but it can rain and get pretty chilly, especially at altitude.
At a buggier time of year it you’d want a mosquito net.

Step 4: Sleep on Cardboard

Picture of Sleep on Cardboard
Picture of Sleep on Cardboard
Picture of Sleep on Cardboard

Cardboard is really great stuff to sleep on. It’s kind of like a tatami mat.
We’d look for cardboard when it was time to camp.
There was a closed kiosk in the park with a nice selection of cardboard for the floor of our bum palace.
We had a beer and looked out over the lights of the city.
It drizzled a bit but our overhanging tarp kept it mostly off us and our stuff.

If you can’t find cardboard and it’s at all cold, spread out your pack and any extra clothing and sleep on that. Put a pair of socks around your neck to dry them out. Pile vegetation under your ground sheet for a mattress. A hat and a scarf are big helps for sleeping warm.
Any garment can be used as a scarf or hat. If you’re dry and out of the wind, you won’t freeze to death unless you have a real talent for it.

If you sleep under a bridge or overhang, put something down to sleep on, it tends to be dusty and dungy under such things. Hang your food from a tree branch if pests try to get in it, just like wilderness camping. A metal cookie tin is also good.

If strange dogs approach you, pick up a stick or pretend to. Badly behaved dogs have already learned to avoid anyone with a stick. Dogs never bothered me in Japan.

Step 5: 7000 Museums

Picture of 7000 Museums
Picture of 7000 Museums
Picture of 7000 Museums
Picture of 7000 Museums

Donna and I went to 3 or 4 museums a day. I started calling her “two-speed” because whenever we were going somewhere, I could barely keep up. Once we got to a museum she would slow way down, staring at each exhibit as if to memorize it. She REALLY LIKES MUSEUMS.

When I was a kid in Akita in the last century there were lots of people doing crafts and trades in a shop in front of their house and living in the back. I spent a lot of time biking around watching people at work.
The country is a lot different now. Those people are all retired and their kids are riding bullet trains to office jobs. Japan is a country that doesn’t like to lose any traditions. To help remember how things used to be, the country now has 7000 museums.

One of the most amazing museum buildings I saw was the Osaka Maritime Museum. It’s in an artificial island dome, and much of the building is underwater. You walk to the museum through an underwater tunnel looking up at fish through the skylights. Inside the museum is a reconstructed Edo era merchant ship. Their old shipbuilding techniques are unique in the world. Steaming and bending huge timbers and fastening them with gigantic staples. A typically Japanese example of taking on a hugely ambitious impractical project. Then forcing it to work with amazing teamwork and skill. Kind of like the building it’s housed in.

At the other end of town is the huge Osaka Ethnological Museum. Probably my favorite museum in the world. Here’s an African textiles exhibit there. Multiply by 100 countries studied, and that’s the museum.

The Japanese government is just as far in debt as ours, mostly from building amazing projects like these, the other 7000 museums, and the nice parks I slept in.
My own government debt is mostly for, well… Look it up.

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Rohit Sharma is an author of several Travelling Blogs and Magazines. Rohit Sharma is a regular contributor to sites on topics like Travelling, Domestics Travel and International Travels.