Bear es­sen­tials in Ja­pan


Re­liv­ing our ad­ven­tur­ous Euro­pean camp­ing hol­i­days in a mini-van in the 1970s, my hus­band and I hire a camper­van in Tokyo and head off on a three-week road trip around the main is­land of Hon­shu.

Though com­pact, our van comes with all of the nec­es­sary equip­ment for a road ex­cur­sion: iPad with lo­cal in­for­ma­tion and GPS, Wi-Fi, stove, fridge, ta­ble and chairs, uten­sils, sleep­ing bags and thin mat­tresses. We even have a shoe horn chained to each slid­ing door for re­mov­ing our footwear.

We sleep well in our van for the first three nights, stay­ing at the won­der­ful “park and stays” found through­out Ja­pan. Th­ese are free car parks, usu­ally on the out­skirts of a main town, and are ser­viced with clean toi­lets, some­times a restau­rant and al­ways a con­ve­nience store.

As we ven­ture into the Ja­panese alps, the evenings grow cooler so we de­cide to treat our­selves to a real bed and forgo another night in the chilly van. The small tourist of­fice in Kiso pro­vides us with an origami sou­venir and the name of a nearby ryokan. “We don’t know any­one who has stayed there, but it is bud­get-priced and only a short drive into the moun­tains,” we are in­formed.

Af­ter much back­track­ing and many dead ends, we find the ram­bling old farm­house. Be­ing cau­tious, I in­form my hus­band that if we don’t like it, we won’t stay. To our sur­prise we are greeted by Mariko, a sprightly 87-yearold, clutch­ing her mo­bile phone and in­di­cat­ing that we should lis­ten care­fully. She then talks into the mo­bile in Ja­panese and a clear English voice re­lays her in­struc­tions to fol­low her up­stairs to our ac­com­mo­da­tion.

As we en­ter the bed­room my heart leaps. It has tatami mats, thick fu­tons, ar­tis­ti­cally folded yukata gowns, buck­wheat husk pil­lows and painted paper screens that sep­a­rate us from an ad­join­ing room, where Mariko later serves us green tea and lit­tle bean cakes.

Af­ter set­tling into our de­light­ful abode with breath­tak­ing alpine views, I men­tion to our land­lady we are go­ing for a walk in the nearby for­est to ad­mire the cherry blos­soms. To my sur­prise, she hur­ries down­stairs and re­turns with a small tran­sis­tor ra­dio. Putting it in my hand, she turns the vol­ume to max­i­mum and in­forms me, “This ra­dio is for keep­ing the bears away!” We have ar­rived in the au­then­tic Ja­pan. Send your 400-word con­tri­bu­tion, with full postal ad­dress, to: [email protected]­ Columnists re­ceive copies of Lis­bon by Re­becca Seal and Dal­ma­tia by Ino Ku­vacic, newre­lease hard­backs fea­tur­ing sump­tu­ous photography and recipes from the heart of Por­tu­gal and Croa­tia’s Mediter­ranean coast. $95. More: hardiegrant­

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