Van Lifers special feature explores the inspiring lives of the next-generation people living in vans. A humble Van Lifer, Kentaro Ota (大田謙太郎) talks about his long journey with the waves. ＊"Van" and "car" are used interchangeably in this article
Tell us your van life story and how you got started
I started living in my car in July 2017. I was originally a sushi chef in Kyoto until I was 23, then I changed jobs to work in an office. When I turned 27, one of my senior colleagues invited me to go surfing. I was instantly hooked. Soon I went looking for better waves and found Fujisawa in Kanagawa Prefecture so I moved there. (laughs) Now I've been surfing for 14 years.
When I moved to Fujisawa I brought a lot of furniture and clothes with me. But I realized that all these things were just baggage to carry around since I loved traveling so I asked myself, "Do I really need all this stuff?" Then I started throwing large appliances and furniture away and moved to a share house in Kitami in Kamakura and then to another one in Chigasaki. At first it was very convenient living with housemates and sharing basic amenities, but after a while I realized that I was away most of the time traveling or surfing. Once again I wondered to myself, "Do I really need to pay rent?" At this time I had a Nissan Moco minicar so I minimized my possessions down to just my surfboard and a few others, got out of the house, and started living the van life.
That was a big decision! Did you get used to sleeping in your car right away?
To be honest, it was a bit difficult at first. (laughs) I didn't know where it's safe to stay the night. One time my wetsuit got stolen while it was hanging out to dry, and another I was awoken by the flashlights of the police. Now I just go to public parking lots in the city or by the beach or at roadside stations in the countryside, but there's still that lingering uncertainty if it's really okay to stay there.
Feel free to use Carstay to camp safely at night. (laughs) Is it comfortable to sleep in your minicar?
Thanks, I'll use Carstay. (laughs) Actually it can be pretty comfortable inside my minicar. My car seats don't fold flat completely so at first I slept with my legs lower than my heart, giving me the economy-class syndrome, and I also didn't have much room to move around so I slept lightly. But after I got a mattress I was able to sleep comfortably. Soon I had more privacy and was sleeping better then when I was living at a share house.
I guess you always sleep with your surfboard then. (laughs) Do you give surfing lessons and do other things too?
Yeah, actually I represent this one organization called “Surf Photo Caravan” that holds different coastal events like teaching surfing for first-timers and beach cleanups. When I started surfing I saw a lot of garbage being thrown into the sea and all over the coast of Japan. But surfing also made me realize that we owe our everyday lives to Mother Nature, so I gathered my friends in September of 2017 and started a beach cleanup effort. I thought this is a good way to give back to Earth.
That sounds awesome—contribute to society by going surfing!
It is! People usually understand that this is our social responsibility, but there isn't really a lot of motivation to get them to pick up trash. On the other hand, a lot of people want to try surfing, so I used the opportunity with "Surf Photo Caravan" to combine both. We even have this guy Fujiwara as our cameraman to snap photos and capture all our fun moments, and then he uploads them online and shares them with everyone. Everyone raves about these photos! Sometimes we also do photo shoots, yoga, recycled art, photo exhibits, and more.
Would you say that your van life got you to start "Surf Photo Caravan?"
Yeah, I'd say so. I mean I usually park close to the beach and wake up to the sunrise with the surfboard in my hand catching the first waves of the day. This lifestyle got me closer to nature, and once you're close to nature, your senses become more attuned to your surroundings and ideas just come to you. That's how I came up with "Surf Photo Caravan." And while you clear the clutter on the beach, more ideas come into you. I call this my mental "clearing." I thought it'd be nice if I can get even just one person to appreciate this lifestyle with me. That's my motivation for continuing this.
Sounds like there's a hint of Zen spirituality there too... But doesn't it get tiring living in a car all the time?
Actually I don't sleep in my minicar everyday. When there's a typhoon, or when I simply feel like taking a break, I go to an Internet café and read manga until I fall asleep or to a public bath and sleep in the resting area after a warm, relaxing bath. Quite surprisingly, I feel better heath-wise than I did before I started my van life. I have better food options and am able to eat more healthily now with all the money that I saved from cutting back on my living and transportation expenses dramatically. Not to mention I used to suffer from back pain, which I noticed I don't feel anymore since I've made the lifestyle change to live closer to nature. (laughs)
That's fantastic that you can eat great food! Before we end this interview, can you give your last message to the readers that might be interested in the van life?
I want to say that living in a car is surprisingly liberating! It doesn't matter if it's a rental car or a camping van, you can easily customize it and make it comfortable. If you try it once, you'll know which ones you need and which ones you don't, and if you liked it you could experiment some more. I'm having a blast with the van life, I'm sure you can too!
Interviewee: Kentaro Ota (大田謙太郎)
Born in May 12, 1975. Representative of "Surf Photo Caravan." Left his house in July 2017 to venture into the van life, traveling from the coasts of Shikoku to Kanto and riding the waves of life.