Van Lifers special feature explores the inspiring lives of the next-generation people living in vans. An unflappable nomad, Umeno (うめの) talks about her everyday journey around Japan in a camper van.
Tell us your van life story and how you got started
I started this lifestyle in July 2017. I'm originally from Sapporo and a high school dropout, actually. There was also a time when I got depressed and shut myself off from everybody for days. But knowing that I had to work to keep living, I got myself into a trade school and also found a part-time job when I was 16. But that got the best of me too. I didn't want to blame it on my work or my environment, so I decided to get away from my hometown and go on a road trip in a camper van. Note that I barely knew how to drive much less how to camp in a van at that time. (laughs) Anyway, I didn't want to lose myself again and also kind of wanted to see what else is out there, so I saved up money and bought a 2.5 million-yen secondhand camper van, whom I named "Poppo-Goh."
For someone who barely knew how to drive, I'd say you absolutely had the drive! Was it hard at first to live in a van?
Looking back at it now, I didn't have a college degree or a career to brag about, not even a boyfriend, so I didn't have anything to lose. (laughs) But I’d say parking was my biggest challenge at first. I started my road trip in Hokkaido, which had relatively bigger roads in Japan, but that unfortunately didn't help me much when backing into a parking spot. Thankfully there were those kind hearts at campsites and roadside stations that helped me, but there were also those who were watching with crossed arms, laughing at me. I really hate failing at life, so I spilled blood, sweat and tears to get my parking right and also to let everyone know that even this noob driver girl can go on a road trip herself!
Wow, that sounds like a pretty daunting start! Is there a particular experience or place that stands out to you from your trip so far?
There are too many to pick just one. (laughs) In fact I have so much fun time all to myself that I decided to start blogging on YouTube and using Twitter to give updates about my current location. Not very long, I got flooded with encouraging messages from my followers and some even went out of their way to look for me with what became my trademark pink hoodie. These kind acts got me emotional sometimes while driving on the road. Thanks to them also, I was able to eat fantastic local food. (laughs) Oh yeah, if I actually had to pick one place, there's this one place I’d highly recommend to road freaks like me.
Road freak? Now that's a pretty big jump from the noob driver girl! (laughs)
Well, that's what happens when you keep driving a camper van. It's not really that surprising if you think about all the long hours of driving all over the country. After a while driving becomes second to nature and you get tired of the same old road again and again. Anyway, I wanted to mention this dangerous stretch of Route 441 that winds along Shimanto River. It's so narrow that it's basically a one-way road except that you actually have to share it with oncoming trucks from the opposite direction. I actually got a rush from it. (laughs) Also, the road to Kamuiwakka Hot Waterfall in Shiretoko is not one to miss either. Its hot spring is only accessible by wading through water and climbing minor waterfalls after a 10-kilometer bumpy ride, which is literally a pain in the butt. (laughs)
I guess that's another way to enjoy a road trip! How do you usually decide where you're going?
I basically go where my followers recommend me to go, especially to off the beaten track areas, historic spots, and aquariums. So, for example to Teradomari Town in Niigata, which has a gorgeous sunset on the beach (something you won't find in Hokkaido) or to this "power spot" in Yahiko Shrine, where you can also eat seafood—which by the way is soooo good! Other than that, I go on a "cherry blossom scenic drive" from Kyushu all the way north to Hakodate. I do remember this one time, though, when cherry blossoms bloomed in Kagoshima, Kochi, and Tokyo all on the same day. Yikes! (laughs) The constant driving to catch the bloom can be a little hectic sometimes but totally worth seeing all the different kinds of cherry blossoms in Japan. Then, on my way back, I always look forward to seeing more and more stray cats because there seems to be more of them as you go further south. They make me happy.
I was pleasantly surprised to see a lot of good content in your website Umeno no Tabi. How do you think has your trip around Japan changed you?
You know, this is really hard to put into words. But I'd say that just being able to do something pushed me through life, and that all my experiences from this are my greatest treasure. Nowadays you can pretty much find everything on the Internet. But still, being able to actually feel things with your hands and see things with your own eyes... it's as if your body makes a connection with them. It even got me into in things I didn't realize I liked before.
That answer speaks a lot about you. What would you say are you really into right now?
The idea of living in different parts of Japan. I've been everywhere here, and now what I want to do is try living in those places for a period of time while I camp in my van. It's just that there aren't very many places where I'd get good reception from the locals being a lone traveler and all. (laughs) I usually get asked if I'm gonna go backpacking or travel around the world next, but it's not really in my radar right now. I'm more interested in the local culture, and also, I have this pipe dream of helping others through my experiences living in different parts of the country.
Traveling and living in different parts of Japan sure does sound like the life for you! What's your last message to the readers that may be interested in the van life?
Actually, I end most of my YouTube videos by saying, "Cherish your every day." What I mean by that is to appreciate every day that you find yourself in good health and spirit, because you can have all the money and material things in the world but if you're sick physically or mentally, they're all worthless, right? So, don't worry about what other people say and just be yourself and have an amazing, healthy every day!
Interviewee: Umeno (うめの)
Unflappable nomad. Full-time camper van traveler 330+ days a year. She visits and blogs about all the prefectures and completes the cherry blossom scenic drive in 289 days. Right at this moment, somewhere in Japan, Umeno's van life continues.