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. If you get permission from the owner's to camp, 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. Just because the homeless are being missed doesn't mean they are allowed to camp. In Japan, homeless people are also called "nojuku sha(nojuku people)". Think of it as a relief measures for those forced into homelessness that nojuku are not banned by law. Please understand that this is not a relief measures for travel.
Although it is often misunderstood, the true meaning of "nozyuku(野宿)" is to sleep outdoors without a tent, and if you pitch a tent, it becomes "yaei(野営)". I think you can think of it as yaei = camp.
Parks and other government-controlled areas are generally not allowed to camp outside of campgrounds, so you'll have to look for private land to camp on. Permission is of course required. Alternatively, there are campsites in the cities as well, so take advantage of them. If you want a safe and free camping experience without breaking the rules, we recommend using one of the few places but free campgrounds.
Basically, bonfires are not allowed.
Camping on a river. There is a historical notion that rivers (In the River Act, a river is defined as a Class A river and a Class B river (including river management facilities for rivers)) are free to be used (they are the land of the entire nation and therefore cannot be excluded by any particular owner). It is mistakenly believed in Japan that it is okay to camp anywhere along a near the river because of this. In fact, everyone is allowed to use the river beach, which is a natural area, and you are responsible for any accidents that occur. Of course, no unauthorized bonfires are allowed. Most managed areas, such as river management facilities and parks, are either prohibited or require a permit from the owner. Also, camping is not allowed in protected ecological areas, even on river beaches. Since the beginning of 2000, there has been an increase in heavy rainfall and rising rivers, please take extra care when camping on river beach.
Some general tips to remember :
- The Japanese word for Public Park is Koen (in romaji) or 公園 in kanji.
- 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; 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 take a picture of the page and then go looking. 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).
- 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 ! 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. 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 $9), 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.
You'd probably want to camp in the parks because of the high cost of lodging in Tokyo, but most of the parks in Tokyo are outlawed by the Tokyo Parks Ordinance (Tokyo to kouen jourei), which prohibits camping. However, that doesn't mean you can't camp in Tokyo. Of course you can camp in camping grounds.
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 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.
Keep an eye out for rivers also : rivers passing through cities usually have on their banks, which are usually good spots.
- 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.
Caution. This page may contain violations of district ordinances and park rules. Parks and other government-controlled areas are generally not allowed to camp outside of campgrounds. Please get permission from the management to camp to avoid trouble.
Here are some specific parks that have been tested first hand by urban campers.
The person writing may be introducing you to a place where you have broken the rules. Even if you are able to camp with permission on private property, etc., it is not a place to stay and should not be listed. It is an annoying and ungrateful act.
Be sure to check that the terms and conditions of the location state that camping is available. You can also avoid problems if you allow other readers to review the terms of service.
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!
Among other amenities, most konbinis (Family Mart, Lawason, 7-11) will have a bathroom, comprising of a toilet and sink. Useful for washing your face and teeth in the morning (you can get breakfast, too.)
Washing your clothes
For washing your clothes, you can do it by hand or find laundromats, which can be found pretty much anywhere. Don't wash clothes in a sink where others can view you, it's frowned upon. Use a sink in a single user bathroom but be considerate of not blocking others from use of facilities. e.g. make sure there is a second option available for others.
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.
It doesn't mean it's not a problem because they won't arrest you. Follow the rules and enjoy your trip.
Furthermore, camping provides the biggest amount of freedom (you never have to worry about having to find a hotel) and, best of all!