Budget Road Travel in Japan
This is a personal account of budget travel from Kyushu to Hokkaido and back. It aims to introduce, and offer impressions of, tourist sights encountered, both famous and obscure.
There is also some practical advice for anyone thinking of taking to the roads of Japan and joining the Shachuhaku (sleeping in one’s car) community.
The public transport system in Japan is excellent but can only take you to the more frequented places. Bus tours will take you to remote and famous places but with a lot of other people.
The Road Station or Michi-no-Eki system in Japan provides, I suspect, a unique opportunity for a kind of travel that allows you to decide your own itinerary and timetable, within a budget, by making it possible to avoid hotel costs.
Even budget hotel costs are going to mount up during an extended trip. Where else is this possible?
In the UK, for example, you can only park in a Service Area for 2 hours before being charged. Over night? – forget it.
Once you have decided to drive around Japan, you have some further decisions to make.
First, what sort of vehicle? Camper vans were out, for us anyway, too expensive. I thought an old commercial vehicle would do but D., and with hindsight she was probably right, pressed for something more comfortable. What is important, of course, is that it is roomy enough to sleep in comfortably and comfortable enough to drive long distances.
In the end, we settled on a Honda Step Wagon, a model that allows the seats to be folded into a “full flat” position. Not all models have this feature. It is not all that easy to find mini vans, Japanese term for “people carrier”, that allow the seats to be folded flat or virtually flat. Some mini vans have rear seats that fold to the side which is not at all helpful and it appears to be against the law to just remove the seats altogether.
We discovered later that people use all manner of vehicles for traveling and sleeping in. Small engine(660cc) vans, saloon cars, minis and once a BMW. If you are traveling for any length of time, however, a vehicle you can live in makes sense.
Seats that are said to fold to a full flat position are not exactly flat but extremely bumpy so some kind of mattress is necessary to smooth out the ridges.
Self-inflating air mats are good for this. But a few cushions displayed strategically are also a sensible extra. We settled on purpose made mats by a company called OnlyStyle. (thickness 10cm!). Yes, they were a bit pricey, bulky and heavy and it is a task to deflate and roll them up every morning, but we never regretted it.
Necessary of course, but the problem here is the temperature variation from high 20’s to below 0 degrees C. We took a couple of old, thin sleeping bags that are fine for Kyushu, but we had to supplement them with other bedding. So, we also took a couple of thin fleece blankets. In fact, in the early autumn, these blankets were sufficient, and we did not use the sleeping bags as they were too hot.
For a good night’s sleep one other item of equipment is essential, the window silvered quilted coverings. These keep out the light, which can be dazzling in service areas, cut down the noise to some extent, insulate against heat or cold and minimize, if not prevent, condensation.
Commercial products are readily available especially for popular vehicles, but these can be expensive. D. being a practical sort of person, made ours from silvered camping mats, 100 yen shop black felt, double sided tape and black cloth backed tape the sort you use for taping up cardboard boxes. They must fit snugly into the window recess of the car so careful measuring is required and then cut slightly larger than the actual window size, so they can be squeezed into position.
This means, of course, that inside the van is pretty dark so a lamp is essential and one that has a hook so it can hang from your mirror or wherever. The lamp will not be sufficient to read by so a headlight is also necessary.
A folding table
Another item that proved to be a great success was our folding (Camper’s Collection) camping table. It was simple, light, strong, cheap and could be used outside or inside the car and when not in use fitted neatly under the folded seats.
Less successful was our choice of camp chairs, both of which broke early in the trip. They both failed in the same way indicating a design weakness so be careful choosing camp chairs.
Mosquito nets, to cover windows, are also a must if you are traveling in warm weather. The ones we bought were simple and effective. But we only needed them a couple of times in the early stages. I have memories of trying to sleep in a VW van in the Po valley in Italy and being forced to get up and drive madly through the night, with all the windows open, to rid the car of the invasion of mosquitoes. So, don’t be without nets.
(In hindsight, adding this 3 travel years later, we have only used the nets those couple of times.)
For cooking, at campsites, we took two gas burners of the kind commonly used for cooking nabe (like stew) at home. We only really used one of these so perhaps two is not necessary. This type of gas burner is designed to be used indoors. I think, they lack power if there is a bit of a breeze. They are easy to use but perhaps gas burners designed for camping would have been a better choice.
We didn’t take any kind of wind break to protect our burners. The ones we checked in camping shops en-route were expensive. I suspect something can be improvised before you leave home to avoid such expense.
# On later trips we carried home made wind breaks but rarely stayed at campsites so hardly used them.
We also took a pressure cooker, thinking it would be economical and practical. Outside the temperature is variable and this made the timing of pressure cooking unpredictable so, in retrospect, an ordinary saucepan is probably better.
Insulated cups to keep your coffee warm or your beer cold go without saying and plastic plates and bowls.
If you are staying in a road station or service area it is not possible to wash dishes and cooking tools. Well possible, but severely frowned upon and you don’t want to cause waves. If you carry cling film to cover your plates so you can just throw it away and washing up is avoided. A lesson learned, by others, at the time of the Hanshin Earthquake.
Kitchen towel paper is also very useful in uncountable, unexpected ways.
Another thing that proved invaluable was a tablet device. This we used as a navigation system; not altogether 100% reliable but that is the nature of navigation systems perhaps. Without it, though, some of the places we stayed would have been very difficult to find when arriving after dark. Also, of course, for mail, keeping up to date – not least with the weather forecast, taking photographs and watching movies on stormy afternoons. A tablet, along with any other devices, can be easily charged as you travel by using an inverter which is not expensive. But, I suspect you know far more about that than I do.
The author is a long term resident of Japan who has and continues to travel the country extensively. Avoiding highways where possible, the author has driven from Kagoshima in Kyushu to Wakanai in Hokkaido covering 20,000 plus kilometres and counting.