Sleeping in your car
On any given night, at a rough guestimate, there are scores of elderly people sleeping in their cars the length and breadth of Japan. This is not poverty or eccentricity but, rather, practicality. Plus, yes all right, a bit of eccentricity. A number of people, not all elderly but the retired have the time to travel, choose to sleep in their cars rather than spend money on hotels. This saving makes it possible for people to travel all over the country, for days, weeks or months if they so choose.
For many it is sightseeing, visiting the many beautiful shrines and temples, castles, mountains, hot springs and scenic spots. Some follow the cherry blossom front as it moves up the Japanese archipelago each spring. Then there are the photographers, hobby fishermen, historians and those migrating north to escape the worst of the summer heat. Also truck drivers and sales people saving on expenses.
All this is made possible by the Michi no Eki or Roadside Station network. These are akin to highway, motorway, expressway service stations but are located on regular roads.
The National Michi no Eki Organization
The Roadside Station network was established about 30 years ago to provide a place for drivers to stop and rest on prefectural roads but they have grown in both popularity and number and outgrown this modest function.
As of June 2021, there were 1193 Roadside stations scattered around the 47 prefectures of Japan where they are now an important element in the local economy. According to the National Michi no Eki organization, the role in the local community is to develop regional cooperation between cultural centres, tourist attractions and recreational centres . They are a tool for revitalizing the local economy or at least slowing or halting the decline. It is clear, some regional governments have invested significant funds to develop Michi no Eki.
A typical Roadside Station comprises a shop selling local, fresh vegetables and, if coastal, fish. Local sake, shochu or maybe wine will be on sale as well as honey, jams, soy sauce and regional delicacies. I have been to Roadside Stations that have taken on the role of supermarket for the community; providing shopping trolleys to load with a full range of groceries.
More importantly for the traveller, a Roadside Station will also provide a clean, usually modern, toilet – always with handicapped facilities. The Michi no Eki association presents awards for the best toilets so the standard is usually very high. Almost all, in the northern prefectures, have heated seats and the wash function is common. Many display a fresh, flower arrangement though, sadly, many lack soap.
There will be some kind of information centre. If the Roadside Station is large, the information centre will have staff willing to answer questions about the local area (though probably not in English), provide maps and information leaflets concerning the sights to be seen or local festivals and events. A small Roadside Station will perhaps just have a rack displaying tourist brochures.
It is not unusual for a Roadside Station to have some kind of display concerning local customs or history. Many have a restaurant, some in the volcanic areas have hot spring baths and almost all, if not all, sell ice cream. This will probably have a local twist, so in a citrus growing region – mikan ice cream, a tea growing area – green tea ice cream and down in Kagoshima, you will find purple, sweet potato ices.
The Roadside Stations with hot spring baths are very popular with truck drivers (and of course Shachuhaku travellers). Road stations frequently have large, truck parking areas but some are more focused on tourists and provide no space for trucks. A large, successful Roadside Station will be not only an outlet for local produce but a substantial employer in a rural community.
If your vehicle enables you to sleep comfortably, and it doesn’t have to be an expensive camper-van, you can tour the whole country from the tip of Kyushu to the most northerly point of Hokkaido. There is usually a Roadside Station every 100 kilometres or so.
Roadside Stations do not allow cooking and washing dishes in the hand basins is frowned upon. Most people respect these regulations realizing that if they don’t overnight parking may be banned.
The variety of cooked food available in most supermarkets means the ban on cooking is not an insurmountable problem. Also the number of onsen throughout Japan enables the traveller to keep clean.
Early one morning, at a Roadside Station at Kitakata (Fukushima prefecture) in the mountains not far from Tokyo, I counted over 50 shachuhaku vehicles. These ranged from camper-vans to minis. People frequently sleep overnight in regular saloons or even compact cars on short, weekend trips. This was a mid-autumn weekend, so people were out to view the autumn leaves.
Even on a wet night in December, however, a couple of over-nighters are not hard to find in any Roadside Station in the more southern reaches of Kyushu or Shikoku. I have no direct evidence, but, appearances suggest that, for a few, at least, shachuhaku has become a lifestyle choice. These guys live entirely in the car and rarely seem to leave the Roadside Station at all.
Viability and variety
The size and success of Roadside Stations varies considerably though the overall number is steadily growing. In May 2016 there were 1093, so an increase of 52 in 2 years. Which is perhaps a reflection of the serious decline in the rural economy and the measures regional governments are taking to address it.
This increase would suggest that a Roadside Station does help a local economy and the shachuhaku phenomenon will continue for some time.
A number of larger examples, boast a variety of different shops and restaurants and have become tourist attractions in their own right. Some playgrounds for children or a miniature golf course. At the other end of the scale, are small drab affairs with little to recommend them except you can park overnight for free but, then again, you might check you Navi and press on to the next one.
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.