Roughing it in northern Japan's Yagen Valley
September 7, 2008
(See photos at end of story)
Was that rain?
In the wee hours of dawn, from the cozy confines of our two-man tent stuffed with three, I pried open an eye as rain drops splashed overhead.
My husband diligently scrambled to gather up the clothes, chairs and camping equipment we optimistically left outside the night before. I rolled over and went back to sleep.
What finally roused me and our 4-year-old daughter about an hour later was the first drops to soak through the tarp and land smack on our heads.
By then, my happy vision of waking up to sunshine and birdsong on our first family camping outing in Japan was quite soggy.
Lesson No. 1: Be prepared for rain any time of the year in Japan.
We spent one night in late July in the Yagen Valley, a remote mountain hamlet in northern Japan’s Shimokita Peninsula, about two hours north of Misawa Air Base.
Our prior camping experiences were mostly in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming and Colorado. On those trips I can recall plenty of chilly mornings huddled around a campfire drinking coffee, but never dashing through the rain in pajamas.
But where camping in the Rockies can be primitive — think hole in the ground — camping in the Yagen Valley was a notch below sleeping in a youth hostel.
The campground had a laundry facility, several shelters with tables and sinks, recycling bins, a large stone fire pit, and best of all, a sit-down flush john with toilet paper. All this for only 1,200 yen, for three of us.
The only thing missing: showers. And so, at 9 o’clock at night, we found ourselves driving down a twisty, dark mountain road searching for one of several open-air, hot springs in the valley.
Meoto Kappa-no-yu, the only gender-segregated bath, had closed at 6 p.m. The other two were for both men and women. Open all the time, the price of admission was modesty.
No matter. The pitch black night made us bold to be buff. With directions from the campground host, we found the unmarked (and unnamed) spring on the river side of the road. Descending the stone stairway by flashlight, we happened upon two elderly Japanese bathing by lantern.
My husband was the first to gingerly test the water. It was scorching hot. One of the bathers rattled something off in Japanese. Our daughter, who goes to Japanese kindergarten, understood: There was another pool below us, more shallow and cool. We descended again, this time into a pleasantly warm bath.
The slippery, mossy bottom took some getting used to; I sat on my washcloth. And there we rested for some time, listening to the rush of the river below and delighting in the occasional firefly. Civilization felt a million miles away.
The day had been a full one. Earlier, we hiked through an old-growth forest along a trail that at one point went through a tunnel. We needed headlamps to see our way out. The only wildlife we saw was a giant toad. And later, on a solo walk, my husband saw a deer-like animal with horns. The Japanese campground host later told us the woods are home to a type of Japanese brown bear. Be sure to put away any plastic bags at night, he advised, as bears associate them with food.
Lesson No. 2: Ask questions. We saw no signs about bears in camp.
Our goal is to go back in autumn, when fall colors in the valley are supposed to be spectacular. Next time, we’ll bring rain coats and bear bells.