“Phoebe, do you remember when you mentioned that cool new campervan company? Well, how about a challenge…”
A simple enquiry from a Tokyo Challenge editor sparked fervent brainstorming as the concept became clearer and shimmered into view.
With many people working remotely more often and realising there is absolutely no reason to be squashed into a big city, workations are trending. What if I were to go somewhere not very far at all… but pretend I had set sail (or, in this case, road-tripped) to tropical climes?
The plan was born: I would rent a Dream Drive custom-fitted camper van, replete with a plush comfy bed (oh yes), and drive to somewhere just outside of Tokyo. Over the course of three days, I would take a series of photos and post to social media to fake a workation in some unspecified far away and definitely very exotic location.
Who can resist the freedom that a campervan workation offers? Fun, safe travel, and wherever you decide to stop, you can open your laptop in front of a fresh, beautiful view (yes, Dream Drive all come with in-van lights, battery packs, and camping chairs — that’s basically your office sorted.)
Would I be able to fool everyone? Could I avoid any recognisable landmarks while still visiting famous sightseeing spots? Could I be an Instagram darling with a seemingly picture perfect life?
These, I were to discover, were probably the least of my worries — although I can smugly attest to fooling many people. I was, in fact, to quickly learn one very important thing:
There is a fine line between an exciting challenge and an absolutely bonkers idea.
While the concept was great, I hadn’t really thought through the details. There were vital things to consider such as:
- As a not very confident and only occasional driver, how would I handle taking a large campervan to an unknown part of the Japanese countryside?
- Heading out on a solo voyage, who exactly was going to take these pictures of me?
- Would I actually be able to find a place to park and sleep?
- Would I be able to find a suitable onsen (hot spring) or would I be doomed to driving around in a bubble of my own stink?
- With all this stress, would this actually be a workation or just work?
And there was a small matter of an incoming typhoon…
Where Did Pheebz Actually Go?
There are many easy getaways from Tokyo. The hot springs of Hakone with Mt. Fuji views. The sandy, wide beaches of Shimoda and fresh sashimi found all along the coast of the Izu Peninsula.
But I was heading to… *drum roll*…
Ibaraki is a lesser known prefecture, but lies only two hours drive from Tokyo. Many people don’t seem to have any strong images associated with it. It’s often overlooked, but as you can see from these photos, totally unfairly so.
The fact that Ibaraki is relatively off the beaten path was an advantage for faking my way to a workation paradise. But could I really make somewhere on the coast north of Tokyo look as exotic as tropical Okinawa?
Campervan Workation Challenge: Day 1
My relief was palpable. I was looking at the smallest size van that Dream Drive had to offer. While their Hiaces are fantastic — equipped to accommodate up to four people and with a working sink — I knew I was not the right person to drive one alone through the countryside. Instead, I settled for a cozier, smaller model and set off on my adventure.
My first destination was Unomisaki located midway along the Ibaraki coastline. This is a resort-like area: a hotel and onsen complex is perched on some cliffs with striking views of the sea and nearby beach. It ticks all the boxes for someone workationing in a campervan; that “out there in nature” feeling, with essential amenities: food, a bath, and rest space with WiFi that could be used as an office.
I had appealed to my friends at Ibaraki Prefecture Tourism Association to show me some secret Ibaraki spots. They truly outperformed and organised a very special schedule for me. This meant that some very exciting things happened but that timing became very tight. Any “vacation” on my “workation” would be 100% fake. However, while posing for envy-inducing “holiday” snaps, I reflected that this probably brought me one step closer to becoming an actual Instagram darling. #authenticity #trueself
I began my adventure with delicious Hitachi beef at Restaurant Shiosai with a seaside view, before taking a coastal stroll… followed by some very serious work by the lily pond. Can we marvel at how relaxed I look given that I am making two poor government officials take photos of me?
I then found myself standing at the edge of death.
Yes, things took quite an unexpected turn when I was introduced to the wonderful Yasushige Usami, manager at Unomisaki, who gave me a tour.
I quickly learned that the “U” of Unomisaki refers to cormorants — large birds that are related to pelicans. Locals use them to catch fish, which are stored in their throats and spat out later. Unomisaki is one of only around 12 places in Japan where they still practice this traditional fishing method called ukai, although it is primarily for tourism. It’s also a capture site — the only one in the country — and sends the birds to the other locations. I was led through a tunnel and allowed out onto the ledge where they tie decoy cormorants in order to lure wild ones as they hide behind a straw fence and try to grab their legs.
After this educational detour, it was time for my bath. One cannot overemphasise the importance of a bath when one doesn’t know when one will next encounter a bath. I was looking forward to a good soak at the onsen in Uraranoyu.
It was at this point that I found out Uraranoyu is closed on Tuesdays. But my friends at Ibaraki Prefecture had kindly organised a special opening so I could peak inside. This is how I found myself walking fully dressed through the men’s onsen in one of the more surreal moments of my life in Japan.
And I was so grateful for the sneak peak: Uraranoyu truly has incredible views from its baths, both indoor and out. I added several snaps to my fake exotic workation photo ammunition.
However, I was probably most excited by the shaving set vending machine. A shaving set! In a vending machine! I wonder if men would have the same reaction to a tampon machine? I am guessing not.
I then proceeded to “work” in the break space.
In retrospect, I realised I should have actually dressed like I was in a warm, exotic location. Black cardigans don’t inspire tropical images. I also realised that I am terrible at posing.
Next, the Ibaraki tourism crew and I drove a few minutes’ south to Kogaigahara for a short cliff top walk. It was an excursion at my suggestion which would include a stop at Kawajiri Lighthouse. I had been very excited to discover it gets a glowing write-up on a lighthouse enthusiast website (WOW!) by a person who has visited it TWICE!
We trekked along an overgrown path, getting lost along the way, one member stumbling in high heels (my plans were clearly a little unexpected). Whatever it took, we were determined to reach this lighthouse. Finally, rounding a corner, we come across… a comically ordinary structure. It receives a solid 4 stars on its Google Maps rating, but I think it seems a little lonely. I appeal to you all to visit it and give it a 5-star rating. You can file the picture under “Random stuff I saw on my holiday #memories”.
It was growing dark and so we hopped back into our vehicles. My Ibaraki Pref. tourism friends had prepared another awesome surprise — they guided me up some very steep slopes to Hitachi Kamine Park for a sparkly night view over Hitachi City.
Then, I was on my own, albeit armed with recommendations for parking, dinner, and bathing. I drove a little down the coastline and found a quiet road. I tucked my van just along from a shrine by the sea, and felt mildly accomplished.
My next goal was a decadent dinner at an old-school izakaya Chiyuu that has been running for 50 years. Pushing open the door, I put on my biggest confident grin and prepared for the shock and confusion on locals’ faces. At my entrance, there were a few open mouths and raised eyebrows… and then, a whole lot of excitement!
Ibaraki does hospitality excellently. The owner, Furodate-san, insisted that he would just provide a course of food for me, while other members of staff asked me all about my work and poured me local sake from bamboo.
I barely made it in time to possibly the most important destination of the day, Hotel Hitachi Plaza, where I would actually take a bath, as opposed to fake a bath. It was 10.30pm when I showed up sheepishly at their reception, hoping I hadn’t missed last entry. Outside guests can use the bath and sauna for a bargain price at 500 yen until 11pm at night.
I returned to my van, refreshed, and nestled into the comfortable bed. I felt like this crazy plan might just be a success. By the end of the day, I had multiple beautiful photos and places to show off to people. My fakery game was strong. There was just one catch: I hadn’t had time to actually start the trickery campaign…
Bedtime… sort of
Campervan Workation Challenge: Day 2
After a mere three hours sleep, I awoke at dawn and realised I had truly parked my van in the most perfect place. A faint blue started to spread across the sky before I watched the most magnificent sunrise. Just me and the sound of the waves.
I could definitely get used to van life. I wanted to take my Dream Drive and jet off along the coast, waking up every day to sunrises in remote locations.
But this was work(ation) and the lack of sleep was getting to me. By the time I set off in my trusty van at 8am, I was beginning to question whether I would still be functioning by lunchtime. I had also yet to look in a mirror. Neither of these factors were conducive to faking a most peaceful and harmonious workation in photos.
Today’s plan was to show off the beautiful mountains and forests of Ibaraki. Palm trees might be in short supply but the dramatic contrast with the coast was sure to get people guessing.
My first stop was at the magnificent Ryujin Suspension Bridge, 100m-high and named “ryu” (dragon) after the dragon-shaped river below it. It’s an awe-inspiring sight, especially when you see someone bungee jump off it.
My very important job, however, was to up the ridiculous factor.
Our next stop were the Fukuroda Falls. This is a place you have to see to appreciate its immense scale and its sheer power — four tiers of water, thundering down, from a height of 120m. (Heads up, it looks particularly beautiful in autumn.)
There are also plenty of onsen in the area, which campervan workationers can visit and do the one thing I wasn’t doing: relax. Although I did get apple pie from Honen Mansaku… because apple pie.
Exhausted or not, I was determined to climb a mountain. Because Ibaraki has wonderful hiking trails that no-one knows about. And I’ll do anything for the ‘Gram, baby. Also, it should be pointed out that the mountain was called Nantaisan (男体山) — literally “Man Body Mountain” — and I had absolutely no objections to climbing on top of it.
I bid farewell to the wonderful Ibaraki team, and set off for a pre-hike lunch with my photographer for the day. We called by Oenjisansou, a wonderful old soba-ya (buckwheat noodle) restaurant.
It specialises in Hitachi aki soba, a variety known for its rich flavour. I got the kenchin tsukesoba, buckwheat noodles served chilled and ready to be dipped into a warm, nourishing vegetable broth, and my friend (read: poor photographer) got the hot version. We also added some tempura, which included tempura pear… which is possibly the best thing in the world, and almost threw me into an existential crisis. Where has it been all my life?!
With the sky growing dark, and warnings of the impending rain in our ears, we began the trek up a steep, uneven path, through the lush green forest.
Our luck was in! The rain held off at the summit and Ibaraki showed us its absolute best. Nantaisan might not be a very big mountain, but he clearly proved that size doesn’t matter.
Yet a typhoon was hitting the southern part of Japan and the rain did make its arrival as we hurried back down. My beautiful plans for relaxing in a stunning sea view cafe and onsen the next day were looking bleak. After a refreshing soak in Sekisho-no-yu Onsen, we made a snap decision to return to Tokyo.
This turned out to be very wise, given the deluge that was to follow. After 8 hours sleep in 2 days, and non-stop activities, I was near delirious. Some warming, hearty miso ramen at the very welcoming Aomoriken, which serves Japanese Western and Chinese-style dishes, was just what I needed.
A most important question, however, remained…
The social media scheme: did I fake it to make it?
Had I done enough to turn Ibaraki into a workation paradise? It was time to put the photos to the test.
It turns out that releasing them after the events worked in my favour. “You can’t be in Tokyo with those sunny skies…” was one comment, during the three days of torrential rain that followed.
What do you think of my efforts?
Photo round 1:
Photo round 2:
Photo round 3:
As expected, the seaside pics generated a fair few guesses for the beach destinations of Izu and Shimoda, with some wilder far out guesses of Wakayama, Tottori, and Akita — which, while not so exotic, are far away and impressive.
The hashtag #TokyoChallenge led to many people assuming the Izu islands that are technically part of “Tokyo”. Guesses came in for Oshima and even Ogasawara! Let me just drop a picture here for comparison:
Only one person got it on the first guess from the first lot of pictures — although once the bridge emerged, a few people in the know jumped on the mark. But that wasn’t really the point. What I was really aiming for were comments like this:
And the good news is… YOU CAN!
Check out this three-day Ibaraki campervan workation itinerary.
Many many thanks to Ibaraki Prefectural Government, Dream Drive and, of course, #TokyoChallenge🗼.