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Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011

Woman makes it a ritual to sleep under stars in Tokyo


Staff writer

Chiaki Kato has slept outdoors about three times a month for the last decade, regardless of the season or weather.

News photo
Happy camper: Chiaki Kato sleeps under the sky on Oshima Island, part of Tokyo, in 2007. COURTESY OF CHIAKI KATO

Sometimes she's alone in a convenience store parking lot or with friends in Yoyogi Park in Tokyo.

Taking extra care to keep warm in winter and to ward off mosquitoes in summer, she leaves the comforts of her Tokyo home to lie on the ground.

"It feels more free (to sleep) outdoors. . . . It's fun. I hope other people discover this as well," said Kato, a 30-year-old caregiver and chief editor of the magazine Nojuku Yaro (Rough Sleeper), which she established in 2004 as a compilation of stories by people who have slept under the sky.

"Looking for a place to sleep is part of the joy you get by camping out. That's one of the biggest excitements," she said.

When she finally falls to sleep, surrounded by the sounds of an urban night, including people talking in the distance and the hum of traffic, the feeling is good, she explained.

Hoping to increase the ranks of city campers, Kato published her first book, "Nojuku Nyumon" ("A Guide to Sleeping Out"), in October. She writes about the sense of liberty that sleeping under the sky can offer, or the appreciation of things never noticed, or the sensation of being toughened up.

"Sleeping out may not be something people are recommended to do. But I hope more experience it once," Kato said.

Kato, who graduated from Hosei University in Tokyo, has been living in her late grandmother's home in the western Tokyo suburb of Machida.

She works at a nursing home three nights a week and is allowed to take a special unpaid one-month vacation once a year. This is the time she truly pursues her passion for camping.

Kato hopes to engage more like-minded campers via her magazine, which is not published on a regular basis. Since its 2004 debut, its circulation has grown from 150 to 2,000.

"According to booksellers, most of the people who purchase it are men in their 30s," Kato said.

Her first night spent in the rough was in a ditch along Route 1, which stretches from Tokyo to Osaka. Kato was a 15-year-old high school student at the time.

"I had a longing to camp out since I was in junior high school. . . . Films like, 'Stand By Me' and 'Easy Rider' had a huge influence on me. Sleeping outdoors was the essence of adolescence," Kato laughed.

So she and a friend packed their sleeping bags and embarked on foot on an 80-km trek from Yokohama to Atami in Shizuoka Prefecture.

"By the time we reached Totsuka (Kanagawa Prefecture), it was dark. We were exhausted, so we just lay down in the ditch," she said.

"It was spring. But the air was still cold and we couldn't sleep," Kato said. "So we reluctantly began walking again at dawn. As we walked, we saw the sun rising and felt the temperature get warmer. It was exciting."

They spent their second night in a restaurant parking lot before reaching Atami, where they boarded a train home to Yokohama.

She was hooked by that first outing, Kato said.

"(Before the trip) I never imagined I would sleep in a ditch, let alone a parking lot. I realized I was able to do things I never experienced," she said.

Before graduating from high school, Kato and her friend decided to walk from Aomori Prefecture to Yamaguchi.

By the time they reached Niigata Prefecture, her friend dropped out. Kato kept going alone for about 50 days, sleeping in parks, abandoned stations and other venues, sometimes washing herself in public lavatories.

Kato said the 50 nights she slept under the sky honed her endurance "skills" and tricks for staying warm, including the vital use of a mat under her sleeping bag.

Her two-week ordeal was tiring but only whetted her appetite for more rough camping.

"I realized I can go far, far away if I keep walking and sleeping outdoors," she said. "It also taught me to appreciate things like sleeping in a house with the doors locked."

Since that trek, Kato has continued her occasional outdoor forays, spending her one-month vacations ranging alone far from her Tokyo home or camping out with friends every couple of weeks in the capital.

Kato uses a heavy sleeping bag in winter to keep out the cold, and even brings heating pads for extra warmth.

Since 2005, Kato has camped out five or six times a year in Tokyo, drawing about 10 people, mostly in their 30s, each time to a local park.

"Some are salaried workers and some are unemployed," Kato explained.

Asked which park she recommends for camping, Kato said: "Yoyogi — because it's spacious. And there are many foreign backpackers sleeping.

"Some travelers told me that Japan is a heaven for people sleeping out because it's safe," Kato laughed.

When she camps out alone, safety is a consideration.

"I often camp behind a convenience store or in a small park. In a large park, if something happens, help may be hard to find," Kato said.

"When I get older, I think (sleeping outside) get physically demanding. Fortunately modern camping gear is quite good. So I can keep going," she said.



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