Most people visiting Japan for the first time travel by train. Makes sense – the Shinkansen (Bullet train) offers a fast, reliable and relatively cost effective way of covering vast distances quickly and visiting all the major sights of Japan.
Touring Japan in a Campervan is a very different experience – you might not be able to cover quite as much ground, you certainly don’t move as quickly, but you get to see more of the rural side of Japan, the ‘real’ Japan if you like. The flexibility to just go with the flow and simply stay where you want and for as long as you like is fantastic. And if travelling with a baby, not only do you save yourself having to drag their stuff on and off the train all the time, it’s also invaluable to be able to just stock up on nappies, food and whatever else and not have to worry about it for a while.
Hiring a campervan in Japan
We’d read a lot of good stuff about JapanCampers online, so decided to give them a go. JapanCampers are a rental agency set up by a couple of Polish guys with the specific aim to make travelling by campervan accessible and easy for non-Japanese travellers. Their vehicles range from mini-camper to luxury motorhome.
We chose a mid-size campervan with a high top roof, a Mazda Bongo. We grew quite fond of our Bongo. Easy to drive and park, the back seats folded down to create a large bed. We decided to all sleep in the main bed and use the roof for storage. The van came with a couple of folding chairs, a mini camping table, as well as a little picnic gas stove, water container, fridge box, crockery and bedding. We also got a baby seat. JapanCampers provide a tablet with some really useful pre-installed apps in English. The Michi-no-eki search app is fantastic for finding free overnight stops, the spa search app is helpful for finding public baths in the area and of course Google maps for route planning and direction.
It’s very easy to get in touch with the guys in case of any issues and they’ve been very responsive.
Like everywhere in Japan they deal mainly in cash, which is a little unusual for us but didn’t cause any problems, and we received all our deposits back as swiftly as promised. I would strongly recommend JapanCampers. Certainly to anyone who fancies a slightly different experience of Japan. Everything – from enquiry, over booking, to pick up and return – was managed very well and I’d happily book with them again.
And even if, like us, you’ve never set foot on a campsite before, Japan is the perfect destination for beginner campers.
Driving in Japan
Driving is easy, albeit it very slow. Low speed limits and small cars mean traffic flows steadily and safely, especially on the expressways. Most road signs in Japan are in English, but sat nav is essential. Even with a good guidance system, prepare to get lost every now and then. The multi-layered junctions in and around cities are just a little too much for a satellite to follow. Google Maps often misdirected us because it thought we were on the road below / above, but after a while you build up a bit of confidence and know when the direction just doesn’t seem quite right.
Driver’s license regulations vary by country – UK drivers need an International Driving Permit, whereas people with a German license like me need an official translation of their driver’s license (which JapanCampers can arrange for you).
Petrol and Tolls
There are plenty of petrol stations around, although the majority are self service. Even though petrol, diesel, etc are colour coded, dealing with these singing and shouting petrol pumps on your own can be a bit of a challenge. It’s far less trouble to look for a manned station where people fill up your car for you and you just hand them the cash.
Petrol is relatively cheap in Japan, but toll roads are not. And there are lots of them! Expect to pay c. £20-30 per 100km – it quickly adds up to a considerable amount if you travel for a couple of weeks. Even on the so called ‘Expressways’, it takes considerable time to get from A to B, as the speed limit barely exceeds 60km/h. It’s hard to believe, but a relatively short journey of 100km can easily take you 2.5 hours, possibly even longer on non-toll roads or in the mountains. Something to be considered when planning your route.
Spending the night in your campervan
Sleeping in your vehicle is very common in Japan and you will see plenty of Japanese snoozing in their cars or minivans over night. And the great thing is, as long as you are parked legally, you can spend the night wherever you like.
Public parking areas can be found virtually everywhere, many of them in the most scenic spots. Lake Shoji-ko overlooking Mount Fuiji is one of my favourites. For those of us who like me need the comfort of a toilet nearby, Japan offers a fantastic network of rest stations where you can park overnight for free – a bit like a clean version of our service stations – which can be found all around the country.
These so called Michi-no-ekis can be found on any kind of road and also in towns and cities. They vary in size and facilities, but all of them provide clean toilets and most have shops and restaurants (although they tend to close early). There are said to be some with showers but we didn’t come across any. This website provides a search function in English as well as an overview of facilities.
Japan is a very safe country with very little crime and we have never felt under threat in any way. Most rest stations we stayed at were quite lively with a nice communal feel, and we felt very comfortable unpacking our chairs and enjoying a couple of beers in the evening. The only time we found ourselves a little deserted was up in the mountains near Takayama. But it wasn’t the lack of people, rather the sign by the toilet ‘Beware the bears’ that made us a little nervous.
Eating and staying clean when on the road in Japan
Finding food when on the road is easy. Apart from the obvious restaurants and fast food chains, all supermarkets, even little ones, provide some kind of decent take-away food. If you buy a ready-meal they even heat it up for you. Most michi-no-ekis have at least one restaurant, although we found they often closed at 5pm which was too early for us. So instead we usually grabbed something from the supermarket (other restaurants were rarely an option for us with a baby). All rest stations have vending machines, serving hot and cold drinks, but we didn’t see any selling snacks.
Japan’s bathing culture is a real bonus for campers, as you are never far away from an ‘onsen’. Oh, we loved onsen. Unsure at first about the mind boggling etiquette we soon got the hang of it and thoroughly enjoyed our baths. A good scrub and a long soak in the hot water and you feel like new again.
Finally, a note on driving in Tokyo
In Tokyo – yes we were stupid enough to drive our campervan into the capital on our first day – we ended up parking near a water sports facility which provided public showers for a small fee. I wouldn’t recommend driving into Tokyo, but if you do, Odaiba beach is a fantastic place to spend the night. There are cheap-ish 24 hour car parks behind the shopping centre, but if you don’t mind spending some money there’s a public car park right by the beach, with access to public toilets and showers at the watersports club. We ended up there out of desperation but it turned out an awesome place to park, with an easy train connection into the city. Having said that, it cost c. £30 for 24 hours, so not ideal, but all our stops after that were free.