The northern base of Fuji is home to five lakes, formed during past eruptions of the iconic Japanese mountain. One of them is Lake Sai. A campground at the water’s edge, nestled between forested cliffs, was my residence for a rainy week in October.

I was joining a team of teachers from The American School in Japan to help supervise the annual Grade 8 trip to this remote destination. Having landed in Tokyo only a few days prior, I was still fighting jet lag when I arrived at my empty cabin. But the chilly morning air, which I confronted only with the aid of steaming hot-chocolate-laced-coffee in a thermos, snapped me into routine.

The breathtaking scenery seemed almost surreal at times. The surrounding peaks were perpetually swathed in mist, their trees brushed with the first hints of Autumn. We hiked trails up to the damp cliffs, where the students had the opportunity to strap on harnesses and climb vertical rock faces. After long afternoon expeditions, we returned to camp with drenched jackets, worn faces, and growling stomachs. When we were lucky, the clouds cleared enough to offer the campground a humbling glimpse of Mt. Fuji, dwarfing the hills behind us.

Fuji

The students had a range of activities to take part in over the course of the trip, but perhaps the most challenging was cooking their own meals over open flames. I had the pleasure of watching them dart around gathering ingredients for yakisoba, prod their fires with delicate precision beneath bubbling pots of chilli, argue over whether the peppers should be mixed with the chicken in the pan, and react dramatically to overly scorched toast. Of course there was plenty of humour, but in all seriousness I saw a noticeable improvement in communication and teamwork between group members as the week progressed. They prepared some good looking meals – better than I could have managed in Grade 8!

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The physical challenges were demanding, but based on my observations in student debrief sessions every evening, they were equally rewarding. The emphasis on teamwork was evident regardless of activity; transferring all eight group members from the ground to the top of a 15 ft wall required the same amount of strategizing and cooperation as navigating a forest using photographic clues.

I didn’t make the connection until the end of the trip that the area designated for the student orienteering activity was part of Aokigahara – better known as the “Suicide Forest” in Japan. Though it’s a terrible and unfortunate truth, I’m fascinated that so many Japanese people choose to take their lives in the silent depths of this particular forest. It seems such a tranquil place; the absence of wildlife lends a stillness to the trees. Signs offering help and urging people to reconsider are distributed along the trails, yet abandoned cars slowly accumulate in the nearby parking lots. It’s enough to send goosebumps up your spine, but the concept is ultimately sobering. Check out this short Vice documentary on Aokigahara, which introduced me to the forest before I ever stepped foot in it:

It was a busy week. We rose before the sun, spent the day outdoors, and didn’t climb into our sleeping bags at night until all the students were settled in their own cabins. Though our schedules were crammed full of activities and we were responsible for students at all times, there was thankfully some designated downtime. Each evening I had the opportunity to bathe in the nearby onsen. In the Japanese language, onsen (温泉) means hot spring, but the term also refers to the manmade bathing facilities that are spread across the country. I quickly learned proper onsen technique; like many practices in Japanese culture, whether it be sushi-eating or tea-making, there is a precise method. Attending an onsen requires attention to detail as a foreigner, but the whole experience was worth it; my stress vanished as I sat in the hot bubbling water, feeling the cool rain on my upper body. I look forward to visiting an authentic hot spring full of natural minerals, or perhaps one of the flavoured baths (green tea, red wine, etc). Onsen rule #1: don’t drink the liquid in the bath.

Another nice break followed the afternoon activities. It was a short walk from the campground to the beach at the edge of Lake Sai, and it was here that we mingled around a bonfire, ate Japanese snacks, and drank hot apple cider.

Lake Sai Bonfire

My isolation from the world was a highlight of the Lake Sai trip. I didn’t use a computer, and the only phone I had was the school’s backup flip phone for making local calls in case of emergency. It was liberating – I plan on discussing my “off the grid” realizations in a later post.

When I first booked my plane ticket to mega-city Tokyo, I never imagined I’d kickstart my Japanese adventure in a campground in the mountainous wilderness. But it’s unexpected episodes like these that make travel so worthwhile.