A washed-up Japanese comedian made an unexpected comeback when he began broadcasting his solo camping expeditions on YouTube several years ago.
Lasting anywhere from around 10 to 30 minutes an episode and often attracting millions of views, the footage typically depicts the man, who goes by the stage name Hiroshi, pitching a tent somewhere in the nation’s wilderness and cooking food on a fire while sipping a mug of coffee.
There’s a meditative ambience to the simple videos, an ethos that resonates with urbanites dreaming of escaping cities and reconnecting with nature. And now that COVID-19-induced social distancing has become an accepted part of life, the call of the wild is more tempting than ever, spawning a new trend: buying plots of affordable forestland for camping expeditions — a prospect that turns out to be easier said than done.
“The number of inquiries is skyrocketing,” says Masaki Tatsumi, president of Mountain Voice, a company that runs a website called Sanrin Bank, which lists forested land for sale. “The ratio of supply and demand has generally been even, but now we’re overwhelmed by those interested in buying,” he says.
The company typically mediates around 10 to 20 deals a month, but in August, for example, it received 500 inquiries, a fivefold increase from the same period last year. And in September, it received around 650 inquiries, of which only 20 or so were from land owners who wanted to sell their properties. The remainder were from those wanting to own plots of land for personal purposes, including building private camping grounds. Many have seen Hiroshi’s videos — the comedian purchased his own plot of forested land on the outskirts of Tokyo in 2019 — or read comic book series such as “Laid-Back Camp” and “Futari Solo Camp” that promote the liberating virtues of camping in solitude.
The trend is a fresh change for a market that had been primarily dominated by forestry companies and large corporations. Those firms would typically buy hundreds of hectares of land for timber that could be sold as lumber or used to feed biomass energy power plants, Tatsumi says. Many individuals, however, are now interested in owning much smaller, manageable plots of land.
“I think people have realized how cheap woodland can be,” Tatsumi says. A hectare, or 10,000 square meters, of forested land is typically offered for anywhere between ¥300,000 to ¥800,000. Compare that to central Tokyo, where a few square meters of land is traded for millions of yen.
On Sanrin Bank’s website, for example, there’s a 25,600-square-meter plot of land in Wakayama Prefecture on sale for ¥842,130. Many of the properties, however, don’t have listed prices. That’s because some owners would rather sell their land — often inherited over generations — to people they can trust. Unlike situations involving a typical urban real estate transaction, the highest bidder is not necessarily the winner.
And once a successful purchase is made, then comes the real challenge: tending to and managing the woodland.
Cheap land, hard labor
Kyohei and Chisako Ueyama share a hobby in camping, and have visited numerous sites since they got married. Together, they would analyze the accessibility, conditions and facilities of the camping grounds they stayed at, fantasizing about their perfect location.
“Then one day my wife suggested that we buy our own plot of land and build our dream campground and rent out campsites,” Kyohei says. “I thought she was joking, but after some research we realized that prices were quite affordable.”
The couple checked out the Sanrin Bank website and sought Tatsumi’s expertise in assessing the ideal place. They visited several properties in Okayama Prefecture in western Japan before settling on a roughly 430,000-square-meter forest plot in Kami, Hyogo Prefecture, around three hours by car from where they live in Sakai, a city in Osaka Prefecture.
The property was owned by sisters who inherited the land after their father, a local landlord, passed away.
“None of them lived in the area and they wanted to let go of the land,” Kyohei says. The price was ¥8 million, somewhat in excess of their budget, but manageable with financial assistance from their parents.
“The property has plenty of level land that could be used as a camping ground. What’s more, it looks over Ojiro, an idyllic village chosen as one of Japan’s most beautiful villages,” Kyohei says. Many campsites the couple visited in the past were either over-crowded or, in less popular areas, lacked adequate facilities. This property has plenty of space and an accessible road leading up to the envisioned campsite. If they could manage to build the necessary infrastructure, it could be something, they thought.
Since both Kyohei and Chisako have day jobs, the two began visiting the plot on weekends, pitching a tent while tending to the land. They dug out weeds and leveled the earth, built a composting toilet for themselves and drew water from a stream running through the property. They constructed a lodge with a concrete foundation, seeking occasional assistance from professionals. They’re currently planning to build another hut next to the lodge to house toilets for campers, with the goal of opening the grounds to the public for a fee next summer.
“It’s a lot of work, but we have no regrets and in fact enjoy the process. However, I think folks who are thinking of buying forested land would be better off understanding the amount of effort it takes to take care of the land prior to their purchase,” Kyohei says.
“Land prices may appear cheap, but maintaining the land takes significant time and money,” he says. “You may need to buy fences or a weed cutter. And in the event you cut down trees, you can’t just leave them there. You’ll need the necessary transportation to haul them away. And, finally, you’ll need to maintain good relationships with the locals. Some in areas where we’ve scouted for land in the past were not very welcoming of strangers.”
Pandemic-fueled camping boom
The growing interest in buying forested land is underscored by how camping is regaining popularity after a mid-1990s boom spearheaded by the country’s baby boomers born in the late 1940s. Since then, various new camping options have been introduced, such as glamping (glamorous camping), which offers luxury tent stays complete with food and amenities.
Solo camping, as well as conventional family camping, is also popular as apparel companies and sporting goods stores cash in on the trend, introducing fashionable wear fit for the great outdoors. The Yano Research Institute estimated the market for outdoor goods at ¥500.8 billion in 2018, up 7.5% from the previous year.
According to the Japan Auto Camping Federation, the number of people who made campings trips by car in 2019 rose for the seventh consecutive year to an estimated 8.6 million. The average age of campers was 42.6, showing how the trend is being led by so-called second generation baby boomers born in the early 1970s. Many have taken up camping to introduce their children to the wilderness.
It’s good business for campsite operators as well, with 2019 seeing an average operation rate at campsites of 17.5%, up 0.9 points from the previous year and marking the fifth consecutive year of record growth. No special permit is required to run a camping ground, although operating lodging facilities or leveling a large plot of forest requires permission.
Takuro Iwahashi, co-founder of Yamaichiba, a company that runs a website listing forested properties, says the number of visitors to the site has grown fivefold since March. He says the phenomenon has likely been triggered by the start of the pandemic, when many camping grounds were forced to close.
“A lot of folks are interested in owning forestland for solo camping and other outdoor recreational activities, including making dog runs,” he says. The most popular locations are around one and two hours by car from large cities, which limits the number of available plots considerably, he says.
Still, Iwahashi believes the trend will continue.
“There’s been a steadily growing interest in relocating to the countryside and living closer to nature,” he says, “and while we’re seeing a strong uptick in demand for plots of forestland these past few months, the phenomenon itself is nothing new.”
However, he stresses, “folks need to remember that we’re dealing with nature, and so it’s not the same as purchasing property in cities.”
No man’s land
Despite the soaring interest in forested land, Tatsumi of Sanrin Bank says there aren’t enough adequate properties in the market to satisfy demand. His website has featured land from all of Japan’s prefectures except the southern island of Okinawa.
“And, obviously, not all mountains and forests are fit for camping, and the desirable ones are bought up immediately,” he says.
Japan’s forests cover approximately 25 million hectares, accounting for two-thirds of the nation’s total area. Of this, approximately 15 million hectares are privately owned by individuals or corporations. While that may sound like a vast amount of land, most of the forested properties don’t appear on the market, either being held by their owners or, as the nation ages and the population shrinks, left unattended with no readily contactable owner.
According to the land ministry, roughly 60,800 hectares of forested land was traded in 2018. Meanwhile, an independent expert study group estimated in 2017 that around 4.1 million hectares of land — equivalent to the size of the island of Kyushu — is unclaimed. It projected that figure to climb to 7.2 million hectares — roughly the size of Hokkaido — by 2040 as inheritors opt out of registering properties to avoid taxes.
Certainly for many who have inherited land, the asset taxes and maintenance fees are a burden. There are growing numbers of cases of people who would rather have someone else take their land for a small sum, or even for free.
Atsuo Tanaka, a journalist specializing in Japan’s forestry industry, manages a small plot of forested land whose ownership was transferred to him from a relative. He frequently visits a site that sits on the border of Nara and Osaka prefectures to mow the weeds that seem to grow back the instant they are cut. There’s also a bamboo forest near his plot he’s wary of — he digs out the bamboo shoots every year so that the fast-growing plants won’t take over his land.
“I think it’s great that people are interested in experiencing nature, but reality is often quite different from the scenic footages of forests and mountains you see on television,” Tanaka says. “You get sweaty and dirty and there are insects everywhere. I support the idea of owning land in the wilderness, but unless people are prepared and determined, there’s a chance they may give up maintaining the property after a few years.”
There’s also the issue of getting along with the neighbors, he adds. Many rural villagers are skeptical of outsiders buying land in areas traditionally owned by their ancestors.
“Unless the plot of land is in the middle of nowhere, I would advise potential buyers to go around and introduce themselves to the locals,” he says. “I’ve heard of cases where the fire department was called when someone was camping out and made a fire.”
Tanaka himself had a similar experience when a neighbor came shouting at him for lighting a campfire, despite Tanaka being prepared with water to extinguish the flames.
“In Japan people had this image of camping being something enjoyed among a group of people,” he says. “Now that solo camping is a thing, I think people have realized how spending time in the wilderness is a great way to reflect on yourself. But obviously, you will need the necessary equipment and knowledge to savor the solitude.”
And for those who are well-prepared, the rewards are worth the effort. In one of his latest YouTube episodes, Hiroshi, the comedian, savors a steaming pot of curry cooked over a fire. He then pours himself a piping hot cup of coffee and lets out a deep sigh of satisfaction as the camera focuses on the quietly glowing embers and the rich forest surrounding him.
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