Bumcamping in Japan




About: Tim Anderson is the author of the "Heirloom Technology" column in Make Magazine. He is co-founder of www.zcorp.com, manufacturers of "3D Printer" output devices. His detailed drawings of traditional Pacific...

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.

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Step 1: 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

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

I sewed the 8X10 tarp from http://www.seattlefabrics.com/nylons.html#1.3%20oz%20RS silicone-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 5x7 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

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

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. A lot of bad things.

Step 6: Light Bag, Light Heart

That little green bag contains all the stuff I needed to climb a mountain and camp comfortably near the summit in freezing rain and snow.

In The Bag:
The tarp,
pair of wool socks,
some plastic bags to put over them in my shoes,
sleeping bag stuffed smal,
an equally stuffable quilted polyester jacket,
stocking cap.
food for a couple of days and a bottle of water.

I'm wearing:
zipleg polyester pants,
a fleece vest,
a plaid puttondown 60/40 lightweight longsleeve shirt,
cotton boxers with the fly sewed shut,
a sun hat and
a pair of crocs.

After the mountain I gave the other shoes away. "you're sure these aren't the good ones?" my friend asked.

When bicycling, hang your bag on your bike, not your back. You'll get much less tired and enjoy the trip a lot more.

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    92 Discussions

    dugwylerSir TheadoreK

    Reply 4 years ago

    There's not a big distinction in Japanese between n and m for the ん sound. It's basically both. And in fact, 先輩 is usually pronounced with an m sound, because it's easier to say. Sure, ん is usually marked with n in roumaji, but nobody actually uses that stuff anyway, or really cares if it's accurate.

    Good article ... glad to get more first-hand experiences of this style of camping.

    For my part, I can say I've seen a lot of people do this, and it seems fine. Cops are not jerks in Japan, so even if they do catch you it should be OK. If not, a good ol' gaijin smash of only English should get you off the hook. Famously, they hate talking to foreigners in English, and will avoid it at all costs.

    Camping on or near beaches is particularly popular and nobody gives you a second glance. You can also have a barbecue anywhere you can set one down, including down by a river in open view, even if the area isn't designated.


    4 years ago on Introduction

    Are there enough trees around (typically) to sleep in a hammock?


    4 years ago on Introduction

    I too did some bumcamping trips through the balkans with two of my friends. We slept at the adriatic waterfront all the time and it was great! I think it´s the best way to travel: It´s dirtcheap and you get too know a lot of nice people.


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    Man, i can assure you, if i do this, it will not be the most dangerous thing i have done by a long shot. I have many hobbies that are dangerous, questionably legal, and not morally wrong. Something like this might actually be a welcome respite to crawling through drainage tunnels or buildering.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Wow, you got to go before the meltdown! Lucky you! It would be very dangerous to do what you did today! I envy you!


    So I'll be in Japan for 6 weeks this summer... hmm... this may be worth a try just to do something crazy!


    8 years ago on Introduction

    I feel like I got a little vacation to Japan by reading this. Thanks I really enjoyed it.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks your nice bumcamping report in Japan. I enjoyed very much.

    The signboard at Ueno Park is looking for the victim not a park attacker. It's too bad, his picture look terrible.


    9 years ago on Introduction


    This is great, I'm from Africa and our currency isn't great so it would prob be the only way for me to see Japan. I just have one question, where did you wash / use the bathroom?



    10 years ago on Step 5

    That is just a amazing piece of enginnering right there," said FaqMan while pointing to the entirety of Japan on the map.


    10 years ago on Step 6

    Thanks for sharing your tips and adventures! Really enjoyed. My daughter says we need to do that and is wondering if we can camp near Studio Ghibli.

    1 reply

    Reply 10 years ago on Step 6

    Absolutely! I don't know where that is, but since it's in Japan, there's guaranteed to be a park, bridge, or mountain nearby!

    Wade Tarzia

    11 years ago on Introduction

    Interesting as usual! I do miss the style of your old trip logs. I think the Instructables format is limiting your narrative creativity -- i.e., the medium is not matching the potential message. Don't take this the wrong way -- just an observation from a fan of your former reporting style!

    1 reply
    Leon CloseWade Tarzia

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    I agree. Also, I've read about it enough times without explanation: What's the reason for sewing the boxer shorts fly shut?