Japan Trip – Week Five – Hokkaido


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The final week of the Nature School camp was a rather odd one, not least because despite a large number of young children arriving, the week was actually rather quiet. This was because I had been asked to assist on what the Nature School called a ‘Challenge Camp’.

For this camp the children involved are given the opportunity to plan their own camp – choosing the location, the sort of camp they want to do, activities during that time, and also the equipment that they would need for the camp to be a success. This is something of a different approach to these sorts of camps, and actually provides these children with the opportunity to understand how much work is required to put on a successful camp, even if in this case it is for a fairly short period (three days and two nights). Because of this, while many of the camp staff were involved with the younger children, the ‘Niyanchako course’, I spent the first part of the week helping the children choose, and then plan their camps.

Our first activity however was to go back to the sea, to a place called Benkei Point, where a fairly sheltered harbour can be found, one that is generally out of the wind, and other elements. The task was to collect at least twenty different kinds of sea creatures – something that was a little harder than you might think. The children loved finding Amefurashi, a kind of sea slug, alongside starfish, and a few Kani/crabs for good measure. The previous times we had been to Benkei Point, our collection bucket had been overflowing with Amefurashi, some probably a good foot long, and weighing a couple of kilos. In fact, on one memorable trip, one of these Amefurashi had been startled in some way, and the water in the bucket was turned a rather vivid purple – apparently these creatures defence mechanism is to squirt purple ink/liquid, thus making it difficult for predators to find them. But, in the end we managed to find at least twenty-five different kinds of creatures, despite the sea being a bit on the choppy side (meter swell, coupled with a strong wind).

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To prepare for what was to come, the camp leader – Tatsumi – also wanted to give the children the opportunity to take something with them that they had created, specifically sea salt. To this end we collected some sea water from around Benkei Point, roughly six litres, lit a couple of fires behind the school, and proceeded to reduce it in some very large pans over the course of about three hours. The actual salt making process ultimately took far longer, as we had to pour the sloshy salt mixture that we obtained after three hours into a smaller pan, and then slowly heat that for another few hours. Then, taking the wet salt from the pan, we put it in paper, left it out in the sun, and finally left it to dry in the office with a fan blowing cold air over it for a further day.

While the salt was nearly ruined, and turned into a combination of salt and lime scale, we actually had enough proper sea salt to give to every child. I do like the idea of making sea salt rather than just buying it, it gave the children a sense of accomplishment, as during the challenge camp they were cooking with the salt that they had collected and made (well, partly made). It also gave them some understanding of the work and effort required to make an ingredient as simple, yet essential, as salt. Indeed, they all mentioned how much work the process required – keeping the fires hot enough to boil the water, without going overboard, plus the two extra days it took to eventually dry the salt enough for it to be used – and were far more careful when using it during the camp than I think they would have been if it were simply a box that had been bought.

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Preparing for the camp itself was a little tricky – previously when I had worked at this Nature School we had at least twenty children staying for the full three weeks. This relatively large number of children made planning for the camps a little easier; we have enough children for a relatively large number of different camps, while the groups themselves were of a comfortable size. This time around a mere six children (five girls, and one boy) had stayed on for the full three weeks as part of the ‘Challenge Course’. On the one hand a smaller group is often welcome; it is easier to keep track of everybody, and you are less likely to have those children who are overlooked, and may not get a chance to fully express themselves, and choose a camp that they truly want to do. But at the same time, a small number of children meant that there were a limited number of camps that we could reasonably accomplish – in this case, only three – and the groups would be quite small, raising the possibility for people to get bored, or perhaps unhappy with their decisions.

Three camps were eventually decided upon; one would be a local ‘triathlon’, including a long walk, then a shorter walk using ‘kanpokori’ (basically cans with rope through them), and finally a long float down a local river; a second involved trying to jump off the breakwater at Benkei Point at least four hundred times over the three days; and finally a more minimalist camp that would be situated on a deserted beach on Hokkaido’s pacific coast. Because I have taught bushcraft for a number of years, I was asked to assist with the more minimalist camp, as they would be taking as little equipment as possible, and needed slightly more specialist knowledge than the other two camps.

While such activities might often attract boys (something of a stereotype, but over the years it is one that I have often found to unfortunately be rather true), this time around it was two girls who wanted to try a different style of camping. And although the staff were there to provide helpful information (and make sure that the camp would be safe, and doable), it would the children who had to decide on their activities, goals, and what sort of equipment they needed to bring along. This final fact resulted in a few rather entertaining little events and problems throughout the camp, since, despite their clear interest in this camp, the girls didn’t entirely know what they were doing, and certainly had no idea what sort of work, or tools were required to make the camp a success. They admitted as much on the first day, when we had to put up a shelter, and make a fire for cooking, all under an unrelenting sun, and in temperatures that were about 30ºC, but feeling much hotter.

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The plan that they ultimately decided upon was to camp on an ‘uninhabited beach’, making their own shelter, and cooking on a fire rather than taking along any form of stove – they had also decided to make a drum bath while on the beach. Both me and Tatsumi, the Japanese staff leading the camp found this last little detail rather entertaining – a minimalist camp that would still have a bath – and it would ultimately turn into one of the camps more entertainment moments, as the girls had to clear the drum, load it onto the car, and then roll it all the way from where we parked onto the beach, only to discover that the drum had a very small hole in the bottom, so was completely useless as a bath.

The girls also had to decide on the sort of equipment that they would need, along with their camps menu – two areas that we had to provide rather extensive ‘advice’, particularly with the meal as they kept choosing dishes involving lots of meat, and even milk in one case. Camping on a beach in relatively high temperatures, with very few realistic options to keep food cool meant that we would need to eat food that consisted mostly of rice and vegetables, a fact that they weren’t best pleased about. Similarly, in relation to the required tools, I had to make a few adjustments, specifically so that we would be able to make a successful shelter, and a proper fire pit. Ultimately the camp wasn’t minimalist in any true sense of the word; we took some large pans, and much more complicated food than you really want to cook on a beach, but by their standards it was minimalist, and at least we didn’t have to cart around heavy tents and the paraffin burners that the Nature School used.

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I think the first day was actually the hardest – we had to cart all the equipment to the beach, which involved a ten-minute walk from our parking place, through very long grass, and bushes – and then build a shelter, and dig a fire pit, all under a very hot sun. Luckily I had made sure that we brought along a spade, so we could dig post holes to bury large branches found on the beach, these in turn were used to sling a rope between, and eventually a tarpaulin was suspended across the rope, with guy ropes anchoring the middle, and corners. It was a fairly low shelter, dipping in the middle, but it was a shelter that worked, and most importantly of all, offered some shade, and respite from the sunshine, which by the time we had completed the shelter, was actually very hot, and really quite unpleasant. We even had a few tears as one of the girls was very tired, hot, and generally upset after pushing the oil drum all the way to the beach in such hot weather. We spent a couple of hours during the hottest part of the day resting under the shelter, before the necessities of camp life took over, and we had to start collecting firewood, and build a proper fire pit. The sunset was at 6:30, so everything needed to be completed, and dinner cooked by about six, otherwise we would quickly lose enough light to work by.

A good fire pit is important for beach camping, and actually quite useful for other forms of camping – it keeps the fire hot, and, if you surround it with stones, and build a sand bank around them, offers some shelter from the wind. Many people, upon learning about fire lighting would likely think that the more wind you have blowing onto your fire, the better, but if you have too much wind any fuel you use will likely burn too fast, and it can become increasingly difficult to keep the fire going for an extended period of time. The fire pit also helps to keep any fire in one place, and makes sure that you do not have the possibility of stray pieces of wood falling out and setting anything else alight. In this case, once we had dug the pit, and lit the fire, it was kept alight until we left, so for roughly 48 hours – and while there was plentiful wood at our disposal, feeding the fire became an all-consuming task in itself, and I found myself waking up in the middle of the night to add large logs so it we would be able to cook on it the next day. You really don’t realise how much wood a fire needs, until you have to use one for cooking – and the girls certainly didn’t – they specifically mentioned how they simply couldn’t imagine the effort required to cook on a camp fire until they to make one, and keep it burning.

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Cooking on the camp fire was actually one of my favourite aspects of the camp – I built a tripod, and rigged up a hook system using rope and bent tent pegs to hang the pans from. Once we god a good fire going the heat was pretty immense, and food was cooked in fairly quick time. In fact, the fire, as all good fires often do, became the focal point of the camp. But, while the necessities of camping – cooking, and keeping the fire going – were important, they were not enough to fill up the three days and two nights. As the drum bath had become impossible, the girls decide to collect one hundred buoy, and decorate them, a task that took far more time than you might think, despite the beach being littered with buoy of all different sizes and colours. Once this task had been completed on the second day, the campsite looked more like some sort of curious ritual space, with the campfire and wood pile completely surrounded by a circle of buoy, all decorated with different faces and features. It was a rather surreal, but incredibly fun space, and the girls really enjoyed collecting and decorating all of the buoys. It is rather amazing how simple activities such as collecting fire and buoy can become so important to a camp, and how much time they can take up, despite being apparently very simple and straightforward.

Despite a few little issues the camp was a great success, and while everybody was incredibly tired at the end of the three days, we all enjoyed ourselves – and most importantly of all, the two girls in question both said that they had tremendous fun, and had discovered a new way to go camping. This camp also represents a fairly significant moment for me – while I have been teaching bushcraft for a number of years, it has always been in woodland – building tarp shelters with plentiful trees to string a rope between is fairly easy, but in this case we had to find, and part bury two stout branches to tie our rope between.

Furthermore, I have always used purpose made tarps for my shelters, ones that come with multiple anchor points which make the process of erecting, and securing it in a number of different shapes fairly simple, and also makes it possible to create a shelter with little more than a few pieces of cord and a trekking pole, or handy branch. But in this case we had a fairly simplistic tarpaulin or ‘blue sheet’ as they called it, with simply metal rings to anchor it – furthermore, we were camping on sand, and I had to spend a lot of time properly anchoring the guy ropes with large pegs, wood, and heavy rocks so that they didn’t get pulled out by the wind. I knew in principle how to do all of this, but had never been presented with the opportunity to actually practice such tasks, so this camp provided me with the opportunity to learn through practical experience.

Similarly, the tripod was also a bit of a learning experience – every other time I’ve used a premade metal tripod and hook, while the pans we’ve used have had a single, long metal handle that makes hanging them over the fire incredibly easy. By comparison, the pans used at the nature school were quite clunky, and very large, and what’s more, were of the two handled variety. As such I had to create a very specific way of hanging them, using two bent tent pegs as hooks, while also working out the best way to keep the pan balanced while it was over the fire. Again, I knew all this in principle and theory, but being provided with the opportunity to actually put that knowledge into practice offered me one of the best learning experience I could have ever asked for.

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Ultimately the best result from this camp was that the two girls really enjoyed themselves – both me and Tatsumi were a little worried that they would either become bored, or start to get fed up with the hard work required to keep the campsite going. So seeing them enjoy themselves throughout was both reassuring, and very pleasing. It was also gratifying to hear that Tatsumi had learned some new skills over the course of the camp, and that camping using a simple tarp, and fire pit with tripod had also reinvigorated his love of camping once again. The Japanese are a little like the French in that they often appear to be taking everything with them when they go camping, even the kitchen sink, which can become a little tiring really, especially when you are carting around large baskets of equipment, and in one memorable case, and entire boot full of concrete breeze blocks to start fires on.

So offering people the opportunity to try something a little more memorable (even if we still took far too much for my liking) represents one of the best experiences from the whole camp. But, my fondest, and perhaps best memory may be waking up to see the sunrise over the Pacific Ocean, without any mountains, hills, or buildings to obscure that moment when the sun pops up above the horizon. Yes, I didn’t sleep much, was hungry at times, and found sand absolutely everywhere (fairly certain every meal had sand in it), but those quiet moments just before dawn as the sky is getting light, and the camp fire is burning low are truly special, and certainly worth it.

Once we returned from the camp the children had to create reports about what they did, and what they enjoyed about, or learned from their experience to present to the entire camp during dinner. Unlikely previous camps, our return was actually rather quiet, as the younger children, and a number of staff had all left over the weekend, and the Nature School was actually quite empty. But that evening meal was glorious, especially since in our case, it didn’t contain any sand, and came after a trip to the onsen – it is astonishing how dirty you can get spending a mere two nights on a beach. But then the final day of the camp arrived, accompanied by the now familiar rituals of cleaning the school, and helping the children pack all their belongings. Previous camps have been rather hectic affairs – lots of children and staff all packing, and leaving at once, bound for Sapporo, or Shin-Chitose airport – so a morning of intense energy, followed by a very quiet, even lonely afternoon. But, because this year we had a mere six children, when they, and a number of volunteers and staff left, the contrast wasn’t quite as extreme. Although it was still a sad moment, knowing that the three weeks had finally finished, and everybody involved would eventually go their separate ways. But, despite this, the summer camp had been an enjoyable affair, and the challenge camp in particular was actually a rather peaceful experience that offered the children participating the opportunity to take control of their chosen activities in a way that I haven’t really seen in any other country.

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About illogicalzen
An Illogical anime fan in a very Zen-like way.

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