Urban camping in Japan
Japan is usually perceived as a very expensive country to visit; however, it is actually very possible to travel in Japan on a very tight budget. Perhaps the biggest way of massively cutting down your expenses is to do urban camping. Coupled with hitchhiking, you can effectively reduce your travel costs to food and admission fees alone.
First and foremost, keep in mind that if given freedom of choice, the Japanese would prefer to have their parks unoccupied by itinerant sleepers and sightseers who cannot afford a decent hotel room. Fortunately, you can benefit from the "foreigner factor", which makes everyone much more tolerant of you. However, it is a good idea to keep in mind that you are indeed doing an activity that stands on the margins of society, and so you should strive to be as discreet and respectful as possible when camping, so as to give the idea that you are a respectful traveler rather than a rude foreigner trying to freeload off Japan and its people.
If you choose to do urban camping, you will obviously need a tent, a sleeping bag and ideally a sleeping mat. You will need to carry your entire stuff all day and everyday so a good expedition backpack is also essential (around 60L is a good size). Because you always carry everything, it is in your advantage to bring the lightest stuff you can find, and carry very few clothes and non-essential items, as it makes a much bigger difference than in regular backpacking.
Japan is one of the safest countries in the world, and Japan already has its own tradition of people (usually students) sleeping in train stations, on benches, etc., called nojuku. On top of this, in major urban centers (such as Tokyo) there are many homeless people who sleep in public parks. Therefore, the sight of people sleeping or camping is not entirely unfamiliar to Japanese and it is very unlikely that you will get attacked or even disturbed in any way.
The main spots you will be looking for when urban camping are public parks. These come in a variety of fashions, from quiet parks in residential areas to big parks in the middle of downtown.
Some general tips to remember :
- The Japanese word for Public Park is Koen (in romaji) or 公園 in kanji.
- A park's "suitability scale" is usually measured in terms of quietness and intimacy. A small park where not many people are likely to pass through during the night is much better than a big park where a lot of people will see you. Many factors come in play: a park surrounded by 4 streets will usually feel very exposed, parks near train tracks are usually very noisy (because of the trains), downtown parks are usually not suitable at all (think sleeping in the middle of Times Square), etc.
- If you are able to hide (in woods or behind bushes, usually only possible in big mountain parks), you can do it, but it's not necessary at all ; sometimes, setting up peacefully in a corner of the park where you will not bother anyone is easier and less conspicuous than always trying to hide somewhere. In general, only be careful to not block anything in the park (do not camp in close proximity to the swings, for example, because the presence of the tent might embarrass people and prevent them from using the swing). The most important thing is not being invisible; it is not disturbing other people who might be there. That should be your main goal. That way, people are much more likely to be tolerant of a small tent in a corner of the park than a tent in the middle of a rest hut, completely blocking it. You WILL be seen; people WILL take pictures of your tent while you are trying to sleep; get used to it.
- Many times, when you wake up, you will see people : a group doing morning exercise, an old man sweeping leaves just beside your tent, a guy practicing his karate, etc. Do not ignore these people; greet them with a friendly ohayo gozaimasu ! ("Good morning !"), answer their questions, etc. Japanese people are very friendly and curious, and you will surely be asked many questions about where you come from, and maybe even offered coffee !
- Try not to pollute the park with your trash, use toilets whenever possible, etc. Urban camping is only possible because of the kindness and tolerance of people: keep this in mind, always.
- The first thing you should ALWAYS do when arriving in a town or city you are planning to stay in is to go to the main train station, which will almost always have a tourist office inside or nearby. There, you can get a free map (which will usually indicate parks, although in cities such as Tokyo the smaller parks will not be shown); tourist offices are also very useful in general, people there are very helpful if you want to find an internet cafe, a laundromat, a public bath/onsen, etc.
- A method which also works in a lot of cases (especially if you don't have a map of the area) is to find a convenience store (which should not be hard); inside, there are often atlases of the general area you are in. You can then locate the convenience store you are in, and on the same page locate nearby parks (if you have the money you can buy them, but you will have to buy a lot and they are quite bulky for a backpack). You can take a picture of the page and then go looking. It's always a good idea to plan a few parks, so if the first one is not suitable you have a backup park to check out without needing to look at another atlas.
However, convenience stores do not always have these atlases for sale, or they are sometimes sealed (but there are so many convenience stores everywhere that you should be able to find one that has them).
- Parks with 山 or yama (meaning "mountain") in their name are usually (you guessed it) on mountains and are consequently very quiet and often constitute very good spots (because not many people go there at night). Example: Genjiyama (源氏山）Park.
- Athletic parks are usually also good, although people tend to run laps on the track until quite late and start quite early so be sure to pick a spot that's not full of people running 2 m away.
- If the city has a castle, it will most likely be in the middle of a huge park, which are usually suitable.
- At first urban camping will obviously be a little intimidating, especially in Tokyo, but stick with it and you will learn that it is actually quite easy and even fun once you've done it a few times ! The more you do it, the less you will need to search for parks and the easier it's gonna be. Everywhere you go, you will see potential camping spots, and you will have unlimited freedom in where you want to go.
- A VERY good book you can buy in Japan is Japan Compact Atlas (コンパクト日本地図帳), it's very very small (perfect for backpacking), contains maps of all Japan, PLUS detailed maps of cities, usually including some public parks. It is an invaluable resource if you plan on traveling a lot (absolutely necessary if you hitchhike). You can find it in many bookstores, it's around 1000 yen (USD $12), a bargain considering area-specific atlases are around 3000 yen and are much more big and cumbersome. The only drawback is that it's in Japanese, but it's still very helpful. All the main train stations (which almost always have the name of the city itself) are in hiragana, a syllabary used in Japanese that you can actually learn to read quite easily (as opposed to kanji ).
Below are some more area-specific tips.
Obviously, urban camping in Tokyo is the hardest place of all Japan, but with a little practice it is very easily manageable.
Your goal while in downtown Tokyo should be the small, quiet parks in the residential areas just outside downtown. In other big cities, big parks are usually the ones you should be aiming for, but in Tokyo the big parks are usually quite poor for those looking for a good night's sleep: Shinjuku's Central Park and Ueno Park are filled with homeless people (who are not really dangerous though, if you don't mind the lack of intimacy), Shibuya's Yoyogi Park closes at night, etc. There will usually be a lot of people there at night, which is not great for intimacy and/or quiet sleeping.
Thankfully, on almost every street corner in the downtown areas there is a map which indicates parks and other stuff. A good method would then be to go to a map situated on the outskirts of the downtown area, and from there find a few parks which seem to be in quiet locations, then go and check them out until you find a suitable one.
Also, in each train station there is a map of the surrounding area, which can also be very useful if you are not in a downtown area of Tokyo.
If you find yourself absolutely overwhelmed by the sheer number of people in Tokyo, you can take a train to a random station a few hundred yen away and from there, check the map at the station and find parks; you will be almost certain of finding suitable parks in the area because these areas are virtually empty at night (everyone is sleeping or in downtown Tokyo). You should practice finding parks wherever you are standing at the moment though, this way you never need to pay for trains and you will be truly free in terms of where you choose to sleep (with a bit of practice, it becomes second nature).
One big drawback of Tokyo is that there are basically no rest huts in the parks (because otherwise all the homeless people would be there), which means that when it rains you will need to camp in the rain (which is not always fun no matter how waterproof your tent is). Although if you get away from downtown areas the chances of finding one increase a lot.
Also, in Tokyo, there is definitely some trial and error involved; a park will look great on the map, but when you get there it will be very bad for one reason or another. After a week, you will become very good, so do not get discouraged !
Tokyo is in a category of its own; in other big cities, it is usually possible to sleep in the big public parks (ex: Osaka Castle Park, Kumamoto Castle Park, Fukuoka Central Park, etc.).
However, most cities do not have the handy street corner maps like in Tokyo, so the first thing you should do when arriving in any city is get a map from the tourist office in the train station. Also, like in all cities, in the train stations there are maps of the immediate surroundings; you can usually find parks in the vicinity.
You can also do the convenience stores' atlases method, but it's usually not necessary, you will probably be fine with a paper map (from the tourist station) and the train stations' maps (in some smaller cities, they basically show the whole city, complete with parks).
Keep an eye out for rivers also : rivers passing through cities usually have public parks on their banks, which are usually good spots.
In general finding parks in big cities is much easier than in Tokyo; the one you spot on the map is likely to be the one you end up sleeping in.
Obviously, the small towns' public parks will almost always be perfect. However, there are a few other ways to sleep in rural areas.
- In rural areas, you can often find shrines at such places, make yourself known to the neighbors first. Shrines are always open (as opposed to temples which usually close for the night), usually empty, and they give a terrain for you to sleep on.
- Even though temples close for the night, it is usually possible to sleep in the parking lot of the temples (if it is a rural temple). If you arrive at a temple and there is someone there (a monk or someone tending the grounds), you can ask them if there is anywhere you can sleep. Sometimes, they will direct you to the parking lot and they will let you use the temple's facilities. Obviously, if they tell you that you cannot sleep there, be respectful and don't sleep in the parking lot.
- Michi-no-eki (meaning "Road Station") are rest stops on the side of the road all over Japan. There are always toilets, vending machines, etc. You can almost always find rest huts there. Some michi-no-eki are open 24h so you can sometimes sleep inside.
- If there is really nothing available, you can usually sleep in empty, out-of-the-way parking lots.
- In rural Japan, pretty much anywhere where you do not bother other people or step on private property is a good spot (ex: shore, beach, forest, under a bridge...). Note that fields are private property and by sleeping there you also destroy people's fields, which is not very nice.
Here are some specific parks that have been tested first hand by urban campers. This list is by no means exhaustive and you are encouraged to find new, unlisted parks: if parks get used too much, it can become hard to sleep there, because the feasibility of urban camping depends a lot on people's tolerance. Finding your own perfect little park is also a great feeling, so go out there and explore ! It should also be noted that you should try to be nomad as much as possible, i.e. stay no more than 2-3 consecutive nights at any given park. This list can be useful if you are new and don't really know where to begin and want to build up your confidence a little bit. Some of them are not that great (especially those in Tokyo), but at least they can be used as stepping stones for developing autonomy in finding parks.
Obviously, when you camp everywhere you do not have always access to showers or washing machines, as you would if sleeping in a hostel.
For washing yourself, there are a few methods.
Public parks and toilets
If the weather is warm, you can wash in public parks, using available water. Sometimes the parks have toilets for handicapped people, which usually consist of a room with a toilet and sink, and is lockable; very convenient for washing !
Public baths and onsen
If it's cold outside or you do not want to wash in public parks or toilets, you can go to onsen (hot springs) or sento (public baths). In practice there is no real difference between the two, so just ask for the cheapest (they are usually around 400 yen).
In the big internet cafes (such as Manboo Cafe or Media Cafe Popeye) there are sometimes showers available. They are usually free (if you also use the computers) but there is sometimes a fee. By the way, do not hesitate to take advantage of almost all Internet Cafes "unlimited free drinks" policy!
Washing your clothes
For washing your clothes, you can do it by hand or find laundromats, which can be found pretty much anywhere.
The police are the only people who are likely to wake you up. Usually though, the police do not really care about you camping: they will care more about controlling your identity to check if you are not illegally living in the country (because a foreigner sleeping in a tent obviously has something to reproach himself with). If they see you sleeping during the night, they will most likely wait until morning to tell you to leave.
In Tokyo, if you sleep in the big homeless spots, you should pack up by 06:30. After this hour it is likely that the police will come to tell you to leave, but nothing worse will happen.
Everywhere else, if policemen see you they may tell you to leave but if you usually leave by around 07:00 there will almost never be a problem. Some parks also have security guards, who will also usually wait until morning to tell you to leave if you are not out soon enough in the morning.
IF you are awakened during the night by policemen, just ask them if you can stay this night only, and they will most likely accept (after you showed them your passport). In any case, always be polite and collaborative and there will never be a problem.
Some travellers are known to have camped everywhere in Japan for 9 consecutive months and had encounters with the police around 15 times, which is not a lot considering the amount of nights spent in a tent. Only once have they been awakened during the night and they have never been expelled during the night.
Due to Japan's extraordinary safety, camping everywhere is very doable and Japan is a very good country to try this lifestyle. Furthermore, camping provides the biggest amount of freedom (you never have to worry about having to find a hotel) and, best of all, it's free!