Recently I published an article on English education in Japan. It is obvious that I am deeply connected to this issue as an English teacher here for the time being.
One of the main points of the article was that Japanese people need a place to use English. Japan’s Ministry of Education needs to help create a demand for English so that Japanese people have a chance to consume in English and to exercise speaking and listening skills.
Enter: Sosha and Shinobu Mitsunaga and their brain child start up, Earth Camp. Earth Camp offers tours in a mix of Japanese and English that focus on nature, sustainable fishing, agriculture and local businesses. I met Sosha through a friend of mine who lived in Japan and got involved with Earth Camp shortly after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Earth Camp has been featured in local and national news coverage for their efforts. Earth Camp has been described as an “innovation of tourism” in the news.
I have attended three separate Earth Camp events as a volunteer and conducted an interview with Earth Camp owner and CEO Sosha Mitsunaga Smith to find out more about Earth Camp and to experience their mission and values first hand.
Sosha was born in California but has spent the majority of his life in Japan. At the age of 2 his family moved from the United States to Tokyo and he has been in Japan ever since. An M.B.A. graduate from Waseda University, Sosha is a self professed lover of start-ups, river climbing (sawanobori) and eating.
From the Earth Camp website:
“Earth Camp’s mission is to create experiences that bridge people together, closer to nature, to inspire and implement social change.”
Planning and operating tours and events related to tourism and education
Support and consulting services for study abroad programs and planning and operating study tours abroad
English web marketing services and consulting for the global market
English translations, interpretations services
The rubber really meets the road with Earth Camp out in nature. Most of Earth Camp’s tours are centered around Minamisanriku, a coastal town in Northern Japan that was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Devastated is a strong word but a quick tour of the Shizugawa area left me actually thinking it was an understatement.
I asked Sosha how he came up with the idea of Earth Camp.
The idea of Earth Camp began after we (we were volunteers after the disaster) saw farming and fishing revitalization efforts in disaster affected areas. The farming and fishing industry was hard hit by the disaster, and even with volunteer help, creating revenue from crops was difficult. We saw that by creating value-added tours, it would provide a new channel of income for local industries and a chance to connect rural communities with tourists sustainably. Sustainability is extremely important to us, which is why we chose to make our company for-profit.
So why has this company got me all hot and bothered about English in Japan? One of Earth Camp’s primary tools to add value to their tours and experiences is the use of English. Sosha and Shinobu are both fluent in English (although between each other they still mostly converse in Japanese). To Sosha, English is a chance to step out of the box and get away from the daily routine for a Japanese person and a way to connect with the rest of the world.
At the first event I attended in Sendai, Sosha spelled out some of things that a person could expect with an Earth Camp tour. Foremost for an Earth Camp tour are nature and community. Everything that the Earth Camp team plans in an event will be centered around these to ideas. The event at Mizunomori park was a day event where the age range was very wide with two elementary school kids, several college students and two businessmen (not counting my wife and I) as well as the Earth Camp team Sosha, Shinobu and J.P. There were several games, leadership activities, a nature hike and finally a barbeque. During the event Sosha lamented to me that while he felt the one day event was going great, the real Earth Camp was on one of their 2 or 3 day camping adventures.
I said, “Sign me up.”
After my wife and I got back from our tour of the Kansai region and South Korea, I was able to participate in two experiences with the Earth Camp team on consecutive weekends in September. My wife joined me for the second one.
In a typical tour you may experience:
rural farming and learning about sustainable lifestyles from a local farmer
hiking off the beaten path and discovering trails where local monks historically trained, with waterfalls for meditation and hidden buddha carvings.
the local fishing industry with local fishermen, going out into sea on a boat and tasting the freshest (literally) seafood! Afterwards, enjoying a barbecue with the fishermen community.
You download an actual itinerary here:Itinerary 9.14-16Minamisanriku
The tours I went on were focused around getting back out into nature via the Kamiwarizaki campground, tsunami education in Shizugawa and a fishing experience with two different groups of local fishermen. Sosha and Shinobu arrive early the day before the tour starts to set up a group area with a grill, food table and go over their plans for the following day. I joined them for the early start the previous evening to give them a hand with the set up and get a good overview of the their event from top to bottom.
Sosha and Shinobu have structured their itinerary to include as many things as possible in the span of 2-3 days. One of the more difficult things about doing anything in Minamisanriku is that it’s a logistical problem to get there if you do not have a car. The Earth Camp team takes this into account is very generous with picking up campers at the closest station that is still accessible by train (Yanaizu).
The event starts out with a study tour. Sosha drives the group around Shizugawa and the surrounding areas and lectures the on different subjects relating to tsunami recovery and answering questions in both English and Japanese. The study tour is easily one of the most fascinating parts of what Earth Camp is offering. It gives the Japanese attendees a chance to practice their English listening skills and hear some stories about Japanese spirit and perseverance.
Another part of the event is doing simple things like pitching a tent (and learning the slang that goes with it) and cooking dinner in the campsite. Everyone works together in teamwork and leadership building activities to get the camp set up for the night. Probably one of the most entertaining parts of any cross cultural experience is the language exchange where a native speaker tries to explain the “why” of a particular saying or idiom, often with hilarious results. Tents are not always the order of business but I think they are the most fun. There are tours that do not involve sleeping outside, especially if the weather is inclement.
The fishery experience was very interesting as well. However, I think pictures say more than I could ever about how the experience works. Just look at everyone’s smiles.
What a cool experience to learn about where your food comes from, learn how to prepare it, try some fresh out of the water and finally cooked later at a massive feast. This fishing tour was focused on scallops (hotate) but different seasons will focus on what is in season. December is oyster season. Yes. Please.
At the end of each day the Earth Camp team takes time to do a reflection on the day in English and Japanese. This exchange of ideas is a fantastic way to not only gain perspective but synthesize your own experience in a way that makes it easier to communicate. Most of all this is when the attendees get a chance to really exercise their English skills. Everyone wants to share and there is no fear of saying the wrong thing. Everyone is there to help and encourage. Everyone is there as a reason to use English.
After spending a total of 7 days with the Earth Camp team I can say that Sosha and Shinobu and Earth Camp are on the right track. The Japanese are incredibly far behind on English competence and part of this comes down to a homogenous society that doesn’t offer many opportunities to use English in a rewarding and uplifting way. Out in nature, learning about how people have pulled themselves up and come together after a horrible disaster and supporting the community, the English flows out. Everyone was genuinely happy to talk in English and experiment with sentences and new words.
I’ll leave you with this testimony:
“Seeing and experiencing something different, including thinking and speaking in another language, to notice and appreciate nature and consider sustainable lifestyles, to feel solidarity with people in devastated areas and continue the recovery project, to make human connections and friendships, get a fresh perspective on life and life paths – was all very good.”
If you’d like to know more about Earth Camp:
Check out their fundraising project for 2014 – Ends 12/19/2013
Anyone interested in joining Earth Camp’s staff is always welcome. (There is a screening process for volunteer positions).
Please contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 080-8035-8877