Tuesday, 20 July 2010

One of the best campsites in Japan?

Lake Numazawa Camp Ground, Kaneyamamachi, Fukushima-ken, Japan

Pitches under the trees in the cooling shade

Situated around a sandy bay on a stunning extinct volcanic lake surrounded by it's mountainous rim, this is a heavenly and relaxing place. It is also ideal if you have children, as the bay is cordoned off and slopes gently, giving children somewhere suitable to splash around in whatever their ability (of course children in water should always be supervised). Usually the water is lower than in these photos, with nice sand for games and sandcastles. Cars have to be left in the car parks a few yards away, so they are not  a danger or a nuisance.

What could be better?

This hidden gem is usually very quiet because of it's remoteness, except for during the Numazawako festival, usually on the first weekend of August. This is a great little festival with food stalls, performances, and a floating dragon defeated by samurai and of course fireworks. It would be worth booking a pitch for this. These photos were taken on a national holiday 3 day weekend, and there was still plenty of space, but you can phone to make sure if you are travelling a long way. On weekdays and most ordinary weekends, there are usually very few tents.

One of the open areas, good for games

There is a toilet and shower block,  barbecue / cooking shelters, separate areas for motor home pitches, and firewood can be bought for use on the hearths scattered around for barbecues - also good for keeping the insects off in the evenings. A few small camping huts are available. It is a great lake for canoeing, and lessons can be booked through the camp site. There is a cafe open during the day at weekends selling ramen and udon noodles and other simple food. The shop beneath is open every day until 5pm and sells ices, cold drink, snack food, firewood, and a few useful camping items. For groceries there is a small basic shop in the village (easy spot by its stacks of beer crates), and mini-marts in Kawaguchi, 20 mins drive away. The nearest supermarket is in Yanaizu, 30-40 mins drive away.

Small chalets with cooking areas and sleeping platforms can be hired

Swimming in the bay - not advised in other areas
Canoeing - buoyancy aids/lifejackets are essential on the main part of the lake as it is very deep.
Easy Walking: around the villages, woods and plateaus on quiet roads and forestry tracks. 
Mountain Walking: superb 10km circuit of the mountains rimming the lake. Good walking (with a couple of exposed sections requiring care if with children). Approx 5 hours for fit adults, allow up to 8 hours for children. Takamori-yama, a rugged 1,100 metre mountain can also be walked from the campsite see here. If you have a car or bike there are numerous beautiful mountains in Aizu that can be done in a day from here, and guides in Japanese are available locally.
Cycling: as you will know from the rest of this blog, Kaneyama and Oku-Aizu is a superlative area for road cycling - all the routes in the cycling pages can be done from here. There are plenty of forest trails for MTB rides too. Families can do various road circuits of Numazawako, and for little un's there is a lakeside tarmac'd footpath to trundle along.
Onsens (hot spring baths). The onsens in Aizu are renowned, and there is one of the best, with outdooor sections overlooking the Tadami river just back down in the main valley 5km away.
Culture: There is (of all things) a fairy museum 500m up from the car park, and also a photographic gallery belonging to a well known Japanese travel photographer (which is occasionally open) right by the lake. The local shrines are worth a look, and if you have a car Yanaizu Bhuddist temple is famous. There are visitors centres scattered along the valley with cafés and good small museums rich in stone age artefacts. There is a 5th century Samurai burial mound about 6km away - but then the whole area is a living museum and you see sights and costumes that have not changed for 200 years.
Nature watching: I was there for a swim today and an eagle swept down and caught a fish with its claws and flew off again.
Please note: as with all Japanese camp sites there are lots of big ants around - but don't worry: I have sat in trunks many times and have never been bitten.

Getting there:
By train on the amazing Tadami line, get off at Hayato station then walk or take a taxi
By car, Lake Numazawa is well signposted from route 252 along the Tadami valley
Google map here

Prices at 2010:
Camping ¥1,000 per tent plus ¥300 per person per night
Motor homes ¥3,000 per vehicle plus ¥300 per person per night
Camp huts: from ¥5,000 to ¥8,000 plus ¥300 per person per night
To book phone ++(0)241-55-3140

I have no connection with the site - it is run by the council, I have just spent lots of happy time here - hope you enjoy it!

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Kabutomushi kids

A kabutomushi or Japanese Rhinoceros beetle

No Japanese childhood is complete without bugging bugs, inspecting insects and pestering pests. Kings of the crop and prized captives for all the mini marauders in the area are Kabutomushi, Japanese Rhinoceros Beetles. Along with Japanese stag beetles, these are objects of great desire for local boys, and for girls too, no squeamishness there. The school even provides them - or at least acts as a conduit, though who provides them I'm not sure. Playtime might see a clutch of kids surrounding a joisting tournament to determine whose beetle is the strongest, using their instinct to push away rivals Sumo style for mating grounds and food.

These beetles are strong, big, and they fly. My son was wary of touching insects last year, especially being used to puny English bugs. I used to annoy pond life* as a boy in Lancashire, and we were very proud if we found a Great Diving Beetle, which are only the size of the first joint of your thumb. Rhinoceros beetles would have blown our tiny minds, although the Great Diving Beetle admittedly has habits more satisfyingly nightmarish to the boyish mind.

My son gained his badge of courage and has now learned to handle them confidently. This was somewhat shaken this week when the beetle he was holding by the point on it's shell managed to latch onto his hand and crawl up his arm. You should know that they have sharp claws and they clamber around by sticking them into any available surface like an ice climber whacking axes into an ice cliff. In this case the surface was my son's skin, leaving a trail of red pin pricks up his arm. This softened him to our insistence that we only kept the two he brought home form school for a week, so they could go off and do their romancing and wild living in the woods. 

Most kids keep them in plastic tanks for months, and they spend half their time trying to get out. That would be my plan too. We spent an hour in the garden today  crushing and drowning the small beetles that were daring to eat our potatoes, then came over all squeamish and protective about the beetles in the tank. No inconsistency there then. Vegetarianism seems to involve rather a lot of killing as it turns out.
My son doesn't have a lot of luck with Kabutomushi - this one fell out of a tree onto his arm last year. It hurt.
We took the reprieved prisoners up to the playground at the shrine this afternoon. The big one knew exactly what to do with his freedom and escaped through the holes in our logic. He was axing up the big tree at speed in no time, higher and higher until it fell off from a dizzy height, apparently by accident and took wing instinctively, sailing off into its luvin' future through the tree tops,  humming a Barry White song. The other fell off after three inches onto it's back, heaved itself half-heartedly up the tree a few feet, then crammed itself into a crack and hid. I don't know, you do your best, but they just have their own personalities right from the start don't they? You just have to let them go in the end though, the little darlings, don't you?

*Now I am pond life


Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Rainy season

River of mist over the Tadami river

July is rainy season in Aizu, and my, how it rains. The heat and humidity take their toll, and the first words out of everyone's mouth are "It's hot!" At the sides of roads in discrete places at midday the road workers and construction crews who have been hard at it since early morning are flaked out in their cabs, only their socked feet crossed over the steering wheel visible. Others kip on the verge, the remains of their lunch boxes by their side. Siesta's are supposedly foreign to the work obsessed Japanese, and it must be difficult to get away with it in an office, but round here they are all the rage, and long may that continue say I.

It is in the twenties and thirties every day, with at least 80% humidity, and sleep beckons at every moment, especially when, like us, you don't have air conditioning. You know it is humid when a drop of water on the kitchen table that was there when you went out in the morning is still there when you return late in the evening. Your body takes on a fungal quality, and paper feels slightly mushy. Cold showers and ice cream appeal, hot tea does not, and a wet towel round the head hits the spot. The Japanese appear to be made of tissue paper, as they won't go out in the rain unless they have to for work - even otherwise tough runners and cyclists. Landslides are a reason commonly given, though the chances of being actually hit must be tiny, and apply equally to driving, which is not an issue apparently.

A rain storm about to hit a mountain top taxi and bus stand and it's soon to be electric chairs

On very humid days you long for the rain to come and break the looming tension in the air. Sometimes it comes with electrical storms cracking down on the grumbling mountains. We were once caught on the motorway in a storm of truly epic proportions, the like of which I have never seen. The wipers couldn't cope, the blinding flashes came every few seconds, and a service station was the only option. We were soaked to the skin in the three seconds it took to run to the café. As I write, it has rained without a break all day, and the dips between the rows of beans and corn in the garden are full, the water spattering down from the roof, cars and timber trucks thrashing past on the valley road outside the window.


McChildhood and the real McCoy

What happened when we asked local children where they would like to live when they grow up.

The hydro-electric dams across the valley were unexpectedly popular

At a recent after school club session we decided to ask the children (aged 7 to 9) to think about where they thought they might like to live when they grew up - here in Kaneyamamachi, in a nearby town or city like Wakamatsu, or in Tokyo. It is important that children are involved in thinking about this, as by the time they reach adulthood the exodus from the countryside will effect them more than anyone. We used a decision line method, with two opposing options at each end - the children were asked to stand where they would like to live. They then gave their reasons for standing where they did, and afterwards made drawings of what they liked about where they chose.  The session was enlivened by the presence of a film crew from TV Asahi, who were filming us as part of the travelogue series 'Beautiful Japan.'

No surprise that the school's outdoor swimming all summer is popular

Nearly half of them chose to go to the Tokyo end of the decision line, with three in the middle opting for the nearer towns, and nearly half standing at the Kaneyamamachi end of the line, predicting that they would stay here.

It was interesting that the Tokyo group couldn't immediately think why they had chosen to be there. With some prompting, they came up with shopping, Disneyland, and in the case of my son, Sunshine 60, a huge building with a panoramic viewing floor. They could think of what they might play with or eat, but they didn't really know what work they might do. When it came to making drawings of what they liked about the city they were really nonplussed, and sat blankly staring at white paper while the group who wanted to stay here launched exuberantly into their drawings. In the end some of what they drew could equally be experienced here -  a hamburger, some dogs, fashionable clothes. One drew the Tokyo Disneyland Hotel, another a skyscraper. 

McChildhood comes to Japan: dumming down one of the healthiest diets in the world

It felt a little as if they were the puppets of television advertisers, with invented needs that could vaguely somehow be met by Tokyo, or perhaps were simply wanting what they felt they couldn't normally have living in the mountains. The most articulate little mite, all of seven years old and tiny, drew a big blue question mark:

He said that he knew that he didn't really know what Tokyo was like, but that was why he wanted to live there - to find out. An amazing thought for his age.

The group who wanted to stay in this area new exactly why they liked it. Swimming! Skiing! My family! The dams! The food! Stag beetles! And in the discussion they launched enthusiastically into defending Kaneyamamachi. My favourite drawing was of the child's house (with a yellow roof) connected to all the other houses in their village by paths, which seemed to express perfectly the closeness of the community and the warmth of feeling for children.

The village- wide web

It was rewarding and thought provoking to see one of Japan's major issues, the continued centralisation of life in two big cities and the emptying of the countryside, played out in the imaginations of children. Before long it will be a choice they will face for real, and one that may be determined by the practical necessities of work and money rather than personal preference. In the meantime I hope they can have a say in what happens, while enjoying what must be one of the best places anywhere to grow up. Childhood's real McCoy, beautiful, innocent and healthy in mind and body.