N.B Travel to Japan is not advised under current government guidance due to COVID-19.
Travelling around Japan is high on the list of must-dos for all travellers. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in it for the cities, the food, the culture, the nature, or absolutely anything else for that matter. Japan has every single base covered. Even the weird stuff you didn’t even know you wanted to see.
It’s no wonder then that over 30 million tourists visit Nippon each year. In general, most of these tourists will center around tourism hubs like Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, etc. But there is so much more to see elsewhere, away from the crowds.
That’s where the campervan comes in.
I’d never even considered travelling in a campervan until I met a group of snowboarders in Hokkaido that were taking a 3 week trip around the northernmost island in search of the best snow. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before; maybe I was blindsided by culture shock, or naively thought that the bullet train was the only way. But it turns out that Japan is actually really well set up for vanlife adventures.
Michi-no-eki: roadside pull in. Essentially, these pull-ins serve as freedom camping spots just like in Australia. Most of them have bathrooms and running water. Some of them even have access to wifi in the building next door! By sleeping in your rolling home at these free camp spots, you’ll save a load of money on accommodation costs, and wake up in some epic places. You’ll also end up sleeping outside 7-Eleven at times but that’s OK, you’re closer to the snacks.
Unlike in Aus or NZ, there’s no Campermate or Wikicamps to quickly show you where the nearest rest area is. In true Japanese fashion, finding out this simple info is convoluted and complex – part of the adventure, right? You can find a list of michinoekis in each prefecture and used together with Google Maps and other searches, you’ll be able to make it work.
On our first night out of Kyoto city, we parked up late at a beach parking that was listed as a michineki with no idea what surrounded us. When we woke at 5.30am to the sun beaming through the window, the carpark was teaming with activity. It turns out the beach we had parked at is a popular surf break attracting surfers from as far as Osaka. The chance interactions we shared with these local surfers is something we would never have experienced if we hadn’t been in the van.
Just like van travel anywhere in the world, travelling by campervan in Japan gives you complete freedom to go wherever you want and stop whenever you want. It’s not going to be as quick as the Shinkansen, but when you see a rad cafe or perfect photo opp, you can quickly pull over. And when you inevitably get lost, you’ll find yourself in scenarios that will stay with you a lot longer than a straightforward train journey. I saw some of the most authentic scenes when we were lost in rural Kyoto! From tiny fishing villages on the coast to rural farmland, you can see it all if you diverge from the tourist path.
The key benefit to having a campervan over a rental car is the ability to sleep and cook wherever you end up. Having the option to stay at a viewpoint and cook from the comfort of the van is a major bonus and you’ll find yourself spending much more time enjoying little moments.
If you’re travelling as a group you’ll save a lot of money by hiring a campervan in Japan. It might seem expensive but when you factor in the cost of accommodation, travel, and convenience, a campervan becomes a sensible option.
You can save money on the road by avoiding the toll roads which can become expensive. It will make your journey times longer but if you’re not short on time, going the long way is always more enjoyable.
So, if you’re still undecided on how to move around Japan, consider hiring a campervan and seeing more of this incredible country than you ever thought possible!
It’s worth noting that we only spent 8 days in the Kyoto area due to the outbreak of COVID-19 and our untimely return to the UK. But even though our short trip was marred by anxiety and worry, we had an amazing time.
Thank you to I-linx for supplying the campervan!