Glamping, or ‘glamourous camping’, has become wildly popular in Japan recently, in large part thanks to the dreamy Instagram images that result. In 2017, Okuibuki Kanko Co. opened a glamping site in Maibara, not far from Mt. Ibuki, the highest mountain in the Ōmi region. Once a small golf course, the rolling grassy hills are now dotted with white canvas tents and smart wooden cottages, all arranged around a shallow lake. Red canoes are moored at landing stages in front of each accommodation unit. Each unit has its own private, semi-outdoor dining area, and there’s also a public area with a café, bar, lounges, bath and sauna.
Until now, Glamp Element has ended its operations at the end of November for the winter, but this year, due to popular demand, they’re open until mid-December. I went to stay, eat, and play there, and to chat with Kusano Jōta, who created and manages Glamp Element. We wandered around beside the lake, and sat in the lounge overlooking the big wooden deck. Mt. Ibuki loomed large through the picture windows.
“What does the name ‘Glamp Element’ mean?”
“It reflects the four elements water, earth, air, and fire. The accommodation units are named after aspects of these elements. There are no volcanoes or anything around here, so you may wonder about the fire part. At night we have a bonfire on the deck, burning locally cut thinnings. It makes a nice atmosphere.”
“The interior design is very attractive. Who was responsible for that?”
“We hired a design architect for that part. But our company was originally a construction company, and I did all of the surveying and layout to convert the site.”
“You must have been one of the first places in Japan to see the potential of glamping.”
“That’s right. We’re one of the first ten sites to get started. Now there are about two hundred.”
“How has corona affected your business?”
“Before the virus, we were full nearly every day. Then for a while, the local authorities asked us to close. When we restarted, we were full on the first day, and have been ever since.”
“Given the popularity of this site, have you thought of opening a similar place elsewhere?”
“Since what we’re doing here is based on offering a taste of this unique place, I don’t know that we’d succeed anywhere else.”
Dusk is quickly closing in, and guests are arriving and heading off to their tents, taking photos as they go. There seems to be a high proportion of young women.
“Women represent about eighty-percent of our guests. The site accommodates a total of sixty-six people, and there have been many occasions when the site is full of female university students.”
“I suppose Instagram is a major source of word-of-mouth.”
“Definitely! But these days, there are so many apps for changing the sky and other dramatic edits, that it makes me a bit nervous at times. We obviously wouldn’t use a trick like that, but we can’t really ask our guests to desist…”
“How do guests spend their time here?”
“Check in is at 3 pm and check out is at 11 am the next day. Guests can paddle the canoes, play tennis and golf, there’s a sauna and rotenburo a short walk away, and in the evening, an all-you-can-drink bar. Everything’s included in the price of the stay. Our guests are kept really busy trying to enjoy it all! There’s also free soft serve ice-cream. I think our customers leave satisfied.”
“So nobody goes off the premises in general?”
“That’s right. There’s so much to do onsite, that people are here just for the experience of staying here.”
I’m curious to know how food is served.
“When we were planning Glamp Element, we struggled with the definition of ‘glamping’, and how best to serve food. Some glamping sites just provide firewood and a pack of meat for barbecues, while others have full-service restaurants. Here, the staff do all the cooking and tidying up for you in the semi-open dining area.”
“So the guests don’t have to do anything?”
“All the guests have to do is lift the lid off the stew pot and serve themselves.”
“And clearly, they’re happy with that.”
“Yes. The biggest reason why women don’t like to go camping is that inevitably they end up having to prepare food, despite being on holiday. Our approach frees them from that chore, while maintaining the other joys of outdoor life.”
“Do you serve largely local dishes?”
“We thought about doing that, but Maibara doesn’t produce any meat. So we decided to serve tasty, photogenic, glampingesque food for dinner including meat from elsewhere, although rice and other available foodstuffs are sourced locally. But at breakfast, about ninety percent is produced locally.”
When darkness falls, lights come on around the lake. Some people set out in their canoes and potter around on the water. Tempting scents of outdoor cooking waft out from each temporary home. It’s truly a magical scene.
Mt. Ibuki is the imposing mountain at the north end of Lake Biwa, marking the northernmost part of the Ōmi region. In winter, it’s covered thickly in snow while in summer, the top is a carpet of alpin