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How to do Japan — in a VW camper van

by Angela Jeffs and Ken Joseph Jr.

Reader M.T. has lived in Japan for over 20 years and his brother is planning a visit, with a twist: The brother, his wife and two children are hoping to travel around the country living out of their Volkswagen camper van.

“My brother, who is interested in pottery, has never visited Japan and does not speak Japanese. He wants to travel the country to visit various ceramic sites and to bring his VW camping vehicle from the United States and stay each night in parking lots and other places. I am worried. What do you think?”

First, bringing a car into Japan is a very complicated, expensive and time-consuming process. The vehicle has to pass an inspection known as shaken, which for a regular Japanese car can cost up to ¥100,000 plus repair charges.

For an imported car the costs could be dramatically higher, as various repairs may have to be done and parts replaced.

If M.T.’s brother really has his heart set on this trip, the best plan would be to buy a vehicle in Japan. Used cars here are relatively inexpensive, especially when the deadline for the vehicle’s next shaken is coming up. Information on buying a used car in Japan can be found at www.globalcompassion.com/buying-car.htm.

Simply put, it is not practical to import a car into the country for a short period of time.

The next issue is M.T.’s brother’s plan to literally live out of the car.

We checked with the National Police Agency, and it is not a crime to sleep in your car per se. But there are still two basic areas of concern.

The first: stopping on public roads. While getting some shut-eye here would not be technically breaking the law, there’s a good chance that someone will phone the police, and that officers will call by for some shokumu shitsumon — meaning they will ask you some questions.

Again, you can’t be arrested for the act of sleeping in your car, but you could be violating road laws depending on where you are stopped.

The other alternative is to settle down for the night in a private parking lot — outside a convenience store, for example. Generally, here you should be OK, but again, somebody — perhaps the store manager — will probably call the police, and you will be questioned.

You will not be arrested, but you should be prepared for this, with all your papers — including driver’s license, proof that you own the car, passports for everybody, etc. — ready for inspection.

A safer option is sleeping in service areas on the national highways. After all, this is common practice for truck drivers who need to break long hauls with a nap. However, keep an eye out for posted notices detailing the maximum number of hours you can stay in these areas. Otherwise, you should be fine.

Also, there is a network of camping sites throughout Japan that allow “camping” in a car, but these sites are still few and far between.

They generally have showers, a place to plug in appliances, and often a lot more, depending on the area.

Lists of campgrounds by region can be found at gojapan.about.com/cs/sports/a/camping.htm.

Finally, a mention of the obvious: bathing. There are ofuro and sento (public baths) pretty much throughout Japan, so you might suggest to your brother that he learn all about them — most importantly how to use them.

However, these days sento cost over ¥400 per person, so with a family of four he might find that keeping clean is a major cost. Please let your brother know the reality of the situation and the risks. His visa will be good for three months, so as long as he buys a car when he gets to Japan, is careful where he stays and prepares himself for the possibility of shokumu shitsumon questioning on a regular basis, he should be OK.

It might be a good idea for him to carry a written statement in Japanese saying that he loves Japan and is studying pottery while he travels around the country. He could show this to the police, the concerned and the curious whenever he is stopped, woken or accosted during his journey.

Have any of our readers traveled in Japan and slept in their vehicle? If so, let us know how it went so we can pass on any useful advice and information.

Angela Jeffs is a freelance writer and writing guide (www.thewriterwithin.net/). Ken Joseph directs the Japan Helpline at www.jhelp.com and (0570) 000-911. Send queries, problems and posers to lifelines@japantimes.co.jp