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See Japan by car? Well, it does sort of make sense

by Amy Chavez

As I started to plan our trip to Mount Fuji from Okayama, I was met with obstacles at every turn. The local trains would take too long, the shinkansen would be too expensive and not direct enough, and to take the express bus, we’d have to go to Osaka first, wait a few hours for the next overnight and then sleep on the bus overnight. Or my husband and I could rent a car and drive the 10 hours to Mount Fuji.

The latter idea was not mine, I have to admit. About a month earlier, a young Japanese couple arrived at my door: “My name is Hiro. My name is Mai,” they said. They had started a new car rental business called Hero Travel Support and they were courting foreigners with the slogan “See Japan by Car!” Their hand-made brochure said, “Now you can save money by sleeping in your car!” Hmm, that’s what hobos do. And who really wants to sleep in a car anyway? Nonetheless, I tried to be polite and invited them inside to talk about it.

As we sat in my living room discussing travel in Japan over a cup of instant coffee, I realized there was a major misunderstanding. They meant “See Japan by Camping Car!” Now it was beginning to make sense. Sort of.

While I was still not so intrigued with the idea of going around Japan by camping car (actually a converted Honda minivan), as I started planning our trip to Mount Fuji a month later, adding up train fares and bus options on my calculator, the camping car made a lot more sense. It would certainly be cheaper.

There has been a trend over the years in Japan to sleep in your car at free parking areas as a way to save money. One guy even wrote a guidebook to all the free car parking lots where any cheapskate in Japan is allowed to park overnight for free.

Indeed, we should do this — we would join the tightwad brigade! And what better time than now, with Hiro and Mai to lead us into the exclusive club, with not only the camping car, but a guide to all the highway rest areas across Japan, personal recommendations on parking lots (nothing like advice from experienced loiterers), a GPS, 100 volt power to keep our cellphones charged, and meticulously annotated tourist maps with all the sightseeing spots, including outlet malls (yes, outlet malls are considered tourist spots in Japan).

The rental fee (¥6,700 per day) also included sleeping bags, foldable canvas chairs, a portable gas stove and eating utensils for two. Oh, and the ubiquitous-in-Japan box of tissues, this one glued to the side table over the wheel well inside. The tissue box sported a fluffy white mohair cover that made it look alarmingly like my cat was sleeping there.

The first day in our rented camping car, we pulled into a michi no eki rest area around 11 p.m. and were surprised to see that the parking lot was huge, designed for busloads of tourists and big behemoth trucks. Whereas in the U.S., the busses and trucks are in different parking lots from cars, in Japan, you’re all in there together.

The rest area had a hot spring spa and plenty of restaurants and souvenir shops, but nothing was open. The restaurants closed at 7 p.m. and the hot spring closed at 10 p.m. Luckily, we had packed a cooler. Nonetheless, this was tightwad living at its finest. That night, as we stretched out in the back of the minivan to the sighs of idling diesel trucks, I stroked the tissue box and said, “Good kitty.”

After a few hours of continuously interrupted sleep, we continued driving and arrived at Mount Fuji and the Five Lakes area the next morning. We toured around Lake Shoji, but rather than taking any of the recommendations on the maps for rest areas, we found smaller, wooded parking areas along the lake where we could sleep and feel a bit more with nature rather than concrete and diesel-spewing trucks. When we woke up in the morning, we came out of the car looking compact and the exact length of the minivan, but we had slept a little better. We received an email from Mai on our cellphone: “How’s it going? We hope you have a nice day!” How sweet. You wouldn’t get an email like that from Hertz now, would you?

By the third night, we learned to park the van on terrain in such a way that it sloped appropriately, with our feet lower than our heads. When I stroked the tissue box and said, “Good kitty,” I could swear it purred back. Each morning we’d set up our little camping stove and have coffee while Fuji-san loomed in the background. We were definitely off the beaten track now. We were no longer tightwads, but nature lovers.

The next day, we received another email from Mai: “We heard there was an earthquake up north. We hope you are OK.” Now, you wouldn’t get an email like that from Dollar Rent-a-Car, would you? We assured her we were fine and sent a photo of us enjoying coffee with Fuji-san.

By the fourth night, our bodies told us we were probably too old to be sleeping in the back of minivans, but we still had a great time. We had the freedom to see Mount Fuji and the Five Lakes area at our own pace and on our own terms. We could sleep with our cat at night and both my husband and I had cultivated a special coffee relationship with Mount Fuji. And the total cost of the trip including gasoline, highway fees and car rental was just ¥74,000. A nature-lover’s dream.

When we returned the car the last day, Hiro and Mai were happy to see us. They thanked us and even gave us a gift: a cup with Mount Fuji on it. Now, would Avis do that?

Indeed, everyone should “See Japan by Camping Car!”