09.08.2010 - 10.08.2010
BGM: Panini Pua Kea by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole
Sometimes, you come across one of those places that just captures your heart and won't let go. Self-help books always suggest that we each have a "happy place." I can't help but smile whenever I remember beautiful Daigo, Ibaraki.
The terrain of Daigo and neighboring Hitachi Omiya is lumpy with irregular emerald-green mountains and lush vegetation -much like the set of the old TV series "Land of the Lost." I kept expecting to see a dinosaur come bumbling out of the trees!
Daigo is known for its waterfalls, hot springs and sweet fish. We of course love it for these, too, but fell hard in love with its inexpensive yet beautiful camping facilities.
We came here one night out of desperation, looking for a cheap place to stay but we didn't want to pay for a hotel. We ended up sleeping on thin cushions in one of the bungalows here at Camp Village Yanase (キャンプ村やなせ, Kyampu Mura Yanase). It cost about the same per person as a square teishoku set meal at a typical restaurant, it was that affordable!
Camp Village Yanase has all the major facilities: Western and Japanese-style toilets, rental showers, water pumps, covered barbecue and sink areas for big groups, vending machines, rental barbecue equipment and much more. We didn't lack for anything -except maybe bug spray.
We were free to drive up and make camp anywhere on the premises. Many people chose to stay up on the hill away from the river, closer to the facilities. My husband expressed that he wanted to sleep "under the stars," so I pitched my tiny flaming-red two-man tent in the open air next to Puppy, the Wonder Subaru.
Camping in Japan is a little different from camping in, say, Alaska. People tend to pitch their tents closer to other campers in this part of the world. This would annoy the heck out of a typical privacy-loving Alaskan, yet here in Asia, there's a "safety in numbers" mentality that permeates nearly every aspect of society. Where I'm from, the further away from people, the better. I tried sharing my point of view with my husband. He thought my people were nuts! He said he felt safer knowing that other campers were nearby. This time I decided to experience camping from his perspective. (He said he'd try it my way in the future. Sounded cool).
We were a tad embarrassed by fact that my pipsqueak tent was nearly as big (or as small) as our car. We shrugged off giggles from our more affluent, boisterous neighbors, flashing them that "yeah, we know, we know" smile. At least we could laugh about it!
My husband "borrowed" what looked like a broken wooden school chair from the side of a tool shed and used it as a stand for his mini gas stove. We had a little styrofoam cooler full of meat and veggies that we bought at the local supermarket: chicken, steak, corn on the cob, sweet potato, fresh tomatoes, white onion and a loaf of white bread. That was it. When he realized we didn't pack a fire-starter kit, he walked over towards our closest neighbors with their elaborate tent setup and asked to borrow a lighter, cracking jokes about our humble but happy condition. They were kind enough to oblige. Once our BBQ was ready, we returned the favor and gave them a big bottle of green tea.
Anything, no matter how simple, tastes awesome BBQ'd!
After a meager but extremely satisfying lunch of meat and fresh tomatoes, we spent the next few hours cooling our feet in the clean, musical waters of the lovely Kuji River, searching for colorful rocks that would make interesting jewelry. The smooth, polished river stones came in nearly every color of the rainbow! It was too hard to make a decision!
Resident frog in fashionable camo gear
We trudged up from the river loaded down with our booty, pockets bulging like the stuffed cheeks of a greedy hamster. Just then, our neighbor (Mrs. Yoshida from Utsunomiya in neighboring Tochigi Prefecture) intercepted us, thanking us once again for the tea and inviting us to join them for dinner. Before we had a chance to do the customary hesitation, she emphatically told us with the warmest smile we'd ever seen that her whole family would really love our company.
I offered to help cook or stir something, but Mrs. Yoshida said it was all under control and told us to make ourselves comfortable under their tarp. It was tough not to be envious of their massive provisions: 4 tents, tables and chairs, 2 barbecues, a whole food tent, lighting, spices and sauces for cooking -it looked like enough for a small army! Mr. Yoshida, a young company worker, said this was their favorite spot because the kids liked it best. The family came here twice a year, all the way from Tochigi (on the other side of the mountain range). Mr. Yoshida kindly suggested that next time we try to get a spot under the trees for shade and protection from the rain, since it rains often in the mountains of northern Ibaraki. We were grateful for the advice.
Their two young daughters, shy and studious Chiaki (in junior high) and spunky Himari-chan (in elementary school, with the gorgeous straight long hair), told me they sometimes like to practice speaking English together just for fun. This tickled me absolutely pink and right away, I switched languages to see how much they knew. Chiaki's pronunciation was clean with only a slight hint of accent on her R's. Their mother explained to me that they hoped to go to America someday. I couldn't help but smile and tell them that dreams were made to go after. Himari-chan switched seats to sit beside me and enthusiastically introduced to me all the pink cartoon characters on her favorite homework folder. What a cutie!
We feasted on a delightful (and elaborate!) banquet of barbecued pork, two kinds of beef (salted and marinated), daikon radish salad, boiled potatoes, barbecued squid, hot and mouth-watering tonjiru (pork and vegetable) soup, grilled chicken and hot, fluffy rice cooked up fresh in a traditional kama rice pot. They offered us beer, too but since we don't drink, we enjoyed some cooling, refreshing barley tea. We didn't need the beer! We were already drunk on campers' bliss!
Mr. Yoshida asked us why we weren't planning on seeing the city's fireworks festival that night (August 9th). We explained that we were just enjoying the natural beauty and quiet too much to wanna head into town. He seemed pleased with our answer and told us that was why they decided not to go out there this time, too. Around 8:00pm, however, we could see the clouds on the other side of the mountains pulsing with eerie reds and golds as the fireworks set them alight from afar. As we watched the colorful smoke rising up into the sky, Himari-chan, jumping and pulling at her father's tee-shirt, hounded him with the words "hanabi! hanabi!" (fireworks) and with that, he hauled out a brightly-colored plastic family-pack of sparklers and a pail full of water. We were going to have our own fireworks festival!
It's always a blast watching grownups turn into children.
We entertained ourselves for a good hour this way, shrieking with the kids as our sparklers cracked and hissed, shooting off gorgeous sparks of colorful fire. By the time the last sparkler fizzled out, so had Himari-chan's energy. Within minutes, she was curled up like a baby in her big sister's arms, slightly snoring. We understood that it was time to bring our magical evening to a close and with warm good-nights and sleep-wells, we slowly returned to our tent, bare feet gratefully soaking up the cool evening dew with every step.
There weren't any stars for my husband that night, but he looked too happy to miss them as I unzipped the door flap to the tent and stepped carefully onto the crinkly vinyl floor. I spread out sleeping bags to use as cushions and we both plopped down exhausted upon them. It was surprisingly easy to fall asleep to the ethereal whistles and chirps of katydids and mole crickets. I turned to look at my husband -already out like a light. The fresh mountain air worked nicely on him!
I awoke with the dawn and the pitter-patter of gentle rain splattering on the top flap. Watching continuously through fuzzy eyes, I kept touching the back wall to make sure that the 20 coatings of Scotch Guard I'd sprayed on were enough. Fortunately, no rain came through. (To quote Han Solo, my little tent "may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts"). The bright, playful melodies of sparrows, woodland tits and wagtails serenaded me as I sat there in the neon red glow of my tent, drinking in the peace. A swig of green tea and I set to work weaving a small happy-first-camping-trip present for my husband, grooving along to the drowsy, easy crooning of Bruddah Iz on my mp3 player. No doubt, I was in my element!
Once the rain had stopped, the music of children's laughter punctuating the shrills of cicadas filled the air. I unzipped the tent screen to peek out and see what morning had brought. Some kids were catching tree frogs in the grass near the bungalows.
Men are masters of the barbecue no matter which country you're in. My man is no exception. Breakfast rocked!
Now we're cooking!
We were both on a legitimate camper's high. My husband, a metropolis child, had never experienced anything like this before and I could feel the soothing power of nature working on his soul as it did mine, sweeping out the stress and cold from years of urban life. It's so healing to sleep in a place surrounded only by living green -no concrete, no steel. The senses become sharper, too, as if you can actually smell and hear better after spending a night in the wild.
Himari-chan snuck over to our tent when she caught a whiff of the smoke from our grill and greeted us a cheerful good morning. She kept looking back and forth, from her mom sitting in a lawn chair to the contents of our barbecue -long hair comically flying in her face with each turn. My husband smiled and handed her a chopstick with half a grilled hot dog skewered on it. Good girl that she was, Himari immediately ran over to her mom to get her approval, then ran back to us with the biggest smile and gratefully pulled the hot dog from the chopstick, gobbling it up. She ate a piece of tomato, too and with that, presented us with a tiny gift: a heart-shaped stone hand-picked for us from the waters of the Kuji River. (I still carry this precious stone to this day).
Our new friends made sure to give us their contact info before we tore down our camp. Thanks to their help, I had come to realize the wisdom of my husband's camping ways. Having neighbors can be a joyous blessing! I felt my world getting that much friendlier as I relished the smiles of the beautiful Yoshida family one final time.
The hot, late summer sunshine had dried up the final rain drops from my trusty Old Red and allowed me to roll it up and stick it in the car -just before the UV rays got too painful for our skin. We bought a few cans of coffee from the vending machine near the campsite office and asked the ever-helpful groundskeeper for his idea of a good place to get cleaned up. He said an old friend of his ran the small hot springs lodge called Kajikaen (河鹿園）up the road near the Kamiogawa train station. It was really easy to find -just follow the tiny toy train!
Access to Yanase Campgrounds: Take Route 323 (also called 118 in parts) up from Mito, Ibaraki through Hitachi Omiya until you reach the intersection with Route 32. Turn left onto 32 and look for the sign near the small bridge that reads キャンプ村やなせ (kyampu mura yanase).
Ahhh! Life is good!
(All names have been changed for privacy reasons. The place names are very real, however). ;-)