Kanazawa, Ishikawa Pref. – After giving up the corporate life for one on the road, “campervangelist” Ikuma Nakagawa came to realize he wanted to help others experience the enlightenment his nomadic lifestyle brings.
To do this, he found an idyllic locale to set up a hub where like-minded travelers can enjoy the best of their four-wheeled accommodations.
In December 2019, Nakagawa, 41, opened the Inaka Backpacker House in rural Anamizu in Ishikawa Prefecture, dubbed Japan’s first “livable” campervan facility.
There, people who choose to travel in a way popularized on Instagram with the hashtag #vanlife, can park and enjoy the rural charms of the fishing village that captivated him.
The idea was born from Nakagawa’s days backpacking around the countryside nearly 10 years ago. While living on the road, he discovered the freedom, convenience and even creature comforts that RV life allows.
Nakagawa joined forces with Tokyo-based startup Carstay Inc., which runs peer-to-peer RV parking spaces, and the Vanlife sharing platform to create his version of a travelers’ paradise.
The term “vandwelling,” a portmanteau of van and dwelling that is used to describe the practice of living or traveling in recreational vehicles, has become popular as people increasingly pursue relatively simple lifestyles free of responsibility.
The development of modern technology has also given many a way to work while on the road with just a laptop and internet connection, affording them the freedom to choose an office with a view.
“This is a lifestyle where it is possible to be both mobile and settled in the way you live,” said Nakagawa. “I want to promote it and at the same time promote Okunoto,” he said, referring to the northern part of the Noto Peninsula where Anamizu is located.
The facility consists of a remodeled traditional rural share house and a parking area for campervans. A kitchen, living room, bathroom, shared office space and Wi-Fi, among other amenities, are provided, allowing people to work and live at the site for various periods.
One of the selling points for travelers is how cheap a stay at the site is, Nakagawa said while extolling the benefits of escaping to a nonurban lifestyle.
Nakagawa explains that facilities like his that can support people who wish to stay in a vehicle for a long period are still rare in Japan, though demand is growing.
A stopover at Inaka Backpacker House will set travelers back ¥7,000 (about $65) for seven days, ¥12,000 for 8 to 15 days, and ¥22,000 for 16 to 30 days, with the charge covering all facilities at the site.
While the RV community is still relatively new to Japan, it is well established in places like the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
As with all other types of travel, the coronavirus pandemic has proved a roadblock to van nomads as residents worry about outsiders bringing infections into their communities, causing them to shun visitors.
Nakagawa also admitted to being hesitant to take in people lately unless he is confident they are showing no signs of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.
“Honestly, I was really conflicted due to corona,” he wrote on his blog about welcoming a couple in April with a van that had Yokohama license plates. As a precaution, he set some conditions on their stay, asking them to keep their distance from others in the village for the time being and to wear masks.
But as restrictions ease, Nakagawa believes more travelers will seek fixed locations where they can stay for a little longer than the relatively short-term stops allowed at roadside rest areas and auto campsites that only permit naps or overnight stays.
Like most other things, life on the road is glorified via Instagram, with people sharing their travels to beautiful spots with the #vanlife hashtag — which has garnered some 7.3 million posts.
In Japan, there are over 4,000 posts on Instagram that include #vanlifejapan.
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Nakagawa was born in Tokyo and raised in neighboring Kanagawa Prefecture. But he left to study in the United States during high school and university, encouraged by his father, who described the U.S. as a country where “individual opinions are respected.”
That experience led him to realize that “It may be good to take a road different from that of other people.”
After returning to Japan, he worked for a decade as a publicist for various companies before quitting the corporate life in 2010 to embark on a 2½-year backpacking journey across Japan, seeking a life free of the typical Japanese hustle and bustle.
He discovered van life suited him as he traipsed across Hokkaido, Tokushima on Shikoku, Nagasaki in Kyushu and other parts of the country.
In 2012, Nakagawa set up a Toyota HiAce van as his “mobile base-camp” and realized that full-time van life was not only possible, but preferable.
He may have, to some extent, given up nomad life when he laid down roots with his family in Anamizu, but he did so while allowing others to live out their dreams of life on the road.
Even if he is not traveling himself, he takes great pleasure in promoting the charms of the area to anyone who passes through.
“I wish to share the fascination of Okunoto with everyone. By offering a practical experience that is also enriching, I hope to show people how they can enhance their lifestyles,” Nakagawa said.