Japan’s Digital Nomads: Interview with Ruth Aisling
Scenes of custom-built, cozy mobile homes with people gazing out at a stunning sunrise at the beach while sipping freshly brewed coffee has no doubt landed in your social media feed. “Van life” and camper van rentals have become especially popular during pandemic times as more people work remotely and actively avoid crowds while traveling domestically.
However, there are a few adventurous folks, like Ruth Aisling and Bappa Shota, who have completely embraced this minimalist, nomadic lifestyle and made their van their full-time home and office. This couple has been on the road since January 2020 and is currently making their way through Japan’s 47 prefectures in their converted Nissan Caravan. Outdoor Japan caught up with Ruth to talk about the perks—and not-so-glamorous realities—of van life.
Rie Miyoshi: How did you get started traveling Japan by van?
Ruth Aisling: My boyfriend Shota and I had been wanting to become digital nomads for a while. We’ve been working online since 2017 while living in Mexico, Scotland and a few other countries. I had worked a corporate job for six years prior, but in 2017, we started working on online businesses and a YouTube channel, which is our main focus now.
We decided to move to Japan in 2020 for a year. I’d been here twice before, once for a short trip to all the major attractions, and another time in 2017 for half a year traveling by motorbike throughout Japan.
This time, instead of staying in one location, we wanted to see other places and thought we could live in a van and travel while working online. We got the van in January 2020 and spent a month on renovations.
RM: So right at the start of the pandemic.
RA: We were so lucky we got here before borders closed or else we would have been stranded in another country and wouldn’t have been able to start our Japan journey.
RM: Did you and Shota grow up spending time in the outdoors?
RA: I grew up in Scotland, which is a great place for hiking and camper van travel. Both my parents are very adventurous. They like hiking and spent their honeymoon trekking the Annapurna Circuit. We camped a lot and had a caravan when I was younger.
Shota grew up in Himeji and he was interested in running and baseball. He left Japan when he was 19-years-old and spent a decade traveling the world and exploring deeper spots.
RM: Did both of you have experience renovating a van?
RA: When we started out, we didn’t have a big budget for the van so we got a 15-year-old Nissan caravan. We worked everyday for long hours. I didn’t have any DIY experience, but Shota had worked as a landscape gardener. He also did a working holiday in New Zealand where he had experience cutting wood and using the drill. We also watched a lot of YouTube how-to videos, like how to make a kitchen. Our van turned out better than we expected, and we’re so happy with the end result!
RM: What are some of the best parts of living in a van?
RA: It’s really nice to always have our “house” with us. We can make coffee any time and our clothes and gear are always with us so if we want to go, for example, hiking, all our hiking gear is here already.
Another thing I love about van life is waking up in a new place, whether it’s next to the sea, by a river or in the mountains. When we get tired of the view then we just head off somewhere else. We also get to explore off-the-beaten parts of Japan because we can take back roads to secluded mountain spots and find lovely spots to stay.
Thankfully our families and friends are really supportive of what we’re doing. As van life has become more common, especially during the last two years, we’ve had a lot of positive feedback. People are really interested in our van, especially if they see it from the outside—they want to see what it’s like inside.
RM: What about the challenges?
RA: A lot of people ask us, “How do you guys survive living in such a small space?” But we managed one year without killing each other! (laughs) A challenge many couples have when living in a camper van is giving each other space. So for example, one of us goes for a run or walk, and when needed, one person will rent a hotel or AirBnB for the night while the other one stays in the van.
We also have to be mindful of how much water and electricity we use. At home we have easy access to water and power, but on the road we have to constantly think about where we’re parked for the night and where to fill our water supply. We use solar panels to power our batteries. We also have to plan our exercise routine. There’s no shower in the van, so we try to exercise on days when we know we’re going to an onsen later.
Finally, the rainy season is the toughest season to van life in Japan. Everything gets soaked especially when we run out to use the public bathrooms (there’s no bathroom in the van) and it’s hard to dry towels and clothes. It’s also hard to get solar power. There are ways to overcome it, like recharging batteries at cafes or using dryers at the onsen. If it rains for one or two days, it’s manageable, but constant rain for four or five days is tough.
RM: What do you do when the weather gets too extreme?
RA: The camper van can get really hot in summer. But the good thing is Japan is a long country and the climates are so different between the north and south. So in summer, we head north: this year we’re heading up to Tohoku. When it gets too cold, we head south. Last year, we went to Kyushu.
It still gets pretty hot in summer regardless of where we are, and we don’t have air conditioning in the van because it would use too much power and hurts the environment. So we have mosquito nets and a fan and leave both doors open, which feels really cooling especially when we’re near the sea.
RM: Where are you currently calling home?
RA: We’re in Toyama Prefecture now, waiting for the weather to clear up so we can hike Tateyama.
RM: How long do you usually stay in one location?
RA: It depends, for example we’ve been at this campsite for five days now. On sunny days, we’re usually doing something outdoors and filming for our YouTube channel. On days in between, we’re researching where to go next and stay that’s close to an onsen and supermarket. We also catch up on editing and other work.
RM: Japan is a pretty safe country, but have you encountered any weird or dangerous situations?
RA: Like you said, Japan is very safe. No one’s ever tried to open the van at night or broken into our van, which I’ve heard stories of in other countries. If anything, it’s the animals. We stay at a lot of rural campsites and there are always warning signs about bears and snakes. We always have bear spray and bells.
The only time we encountered bears though was in Shiretoko while we were driving. We saw three bears crossing the road. We’ve encountered a few snakes at campsites, especially in Okinawa where there are lots of habu (pit vipers) around.
RM: What’s your favorite place you’ve traveled to so far?
RA: Last summer we spent four months in Hokkaido. Hokkaido in summer is van life paradise! There are a lot of free campsites, amazing driving routes, outdoor onsens and delicious food.
I also enjoyed Tokushima. We were there for three months as we got stuck there because of the state of emergency. We explored the Iya Valley a lot and I’d love to go back in autumn when the leaves change color.
We’re also aiming to climb the Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of Japan), so I’m really looking forward to Nagano as a lot of the Hyakumeizan mountains are there.
RM: How did you manage to get your van to Hokkaido and Okinawa?
RA: It’s actually pretty easy to bring your vehicle to Hokkaido. There are vehicle ferries from Niigata and Kyoto—we sent ours from Kyoto for around ¥40,000. It took 24 hours.
Sending your vehicle to Okinawa is a bit more difficult. We took the ferry from Kagoshima to Naha. When we sent the van to the other islands like Miyakojima and Ishigaki, we used a house moving company so we can’t ride the ferry with the van as it’s in a shipping container. The process is all in Japanese.
RM: I noticed you call your van “Toni” in your YouTube videos. What’s the story behind the name?
RA: When we first got our van, we knew we wanted to give our van a name but weren’t sure what name to choose. While working on the conversion, we were looking at the number plate. Japanese number plates usually start with a letter followed by some numbers. Our number plate started with the Japanese hiragana character と (to) followed by the number two which is に (ni).
When combined together, the first two characters read as “Toni” and the name for our van was born!
RM: What advice do you have for someone interested in van life?
RA: The number one thing I always tell people is that if you’re interested, rent a camper van first and see if you like it. It’s not for everyone and you can’t bring a ton of luggage.
Shota and I were already living minimally as we were constantly traveling. But you really just need one of each thing when you travel: one pair of hiking shoes, one pair of sandals, a rain jacket and so on. So just focus on one thing.
To save space in the camper van, we also store some clothes at Shota’s parents’ house. In summer we have one wardrobe, then when the season changes, we send back those clothes and Shota’s parents send us our winter clothes package.
RM: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned through van life?
RA: I learned a lot living off the grid and having a minimal impact on the environment. It’s hard to find places to throw trash away in Japan, which made us conscientious about how much trash we create. We also rely on solar power: the solar panels on the roof of the van are connected to portable batteries. Once they’re charged, they can last about four days. Even if it’s a little bit cloudy, we can get some solar energy and the batteries will charge by themselves.
RM: What are your future van life plans?
RA: Van life will always be a part of our life, but I don’t think we’ll live in our van forever. At the moment our main goal is to visit all 47 prefectures and experience them at a deeper level, spending two to three weeks at each prefecture instead of rushing through. We’re still on our 10th prefecture so we still have a way to go, probably another year or so. We already traveled Hokkaido and Okinawa which are quite big ones, so we’re currently back on Honshu and focused on that for the rest of the year. After that, we’re not sure yet!
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Japan’s Digital Nomads: Interview with Ruth Aisling