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Refuel and refresh at Japan’s gourmet motoring rest stops

by Steve Trautlein

Whoever said it’s better to travel than to arrive must have been traveling in Japan. Just ask the folks who hit the road earlier this month for the o-Bon summer holidays. Sure, the nightly newscasts were filled with horror stories of bumper-to-bumper traffic, but motorists and their families knew that relief lay as close as the next rest area, where they could refuel, refresh — and finally let the kids out of the car.

Over the past few years, expressway pit stops have become destinations in their own right, as operators have transformed the plazas — known as SA (service areas) or PA (parking areas) — into mall-like venues. At the same time, the nationwide infatuation with local cooking known as B-kyū gourmet (B-grade cuisine) has led motorists to stop by for a taste of authentic regional dishes. Here are some notable rest areas within easy reach of Tokyo where travelers can fill up both their gas tanks and their stomachs.

Ranzan PA, Kanetsu Expressway, Saitama Prefecture

“Black” is the culinary keyword (and marketing gimmick) at this parking area on the Tokyo-bound side of the Kanetsu Expressway, which links the heavyweight commercial centers of Tokyo and Niigata. Truckers plying the route can stop here for black coffee and the PA’s signature black donuts, or they can combine their caffeine and sugar joneses via the espresso-spiked soft-serve ice cream. Also notable is the spicy-sweet black curry, which gets its color from the addition of bamboo charcoal to the recipe. Ranzan PA even sells its own lineup of black goods, including yakisoba sauce, squid-ink/miso sauce and karintō deep-fried wheat snacks.

Azusagawa SA, Nagano Expressway, Nagano Prefecture

Spectacular views have always been a major draw at this service area in Japan’s Northern Alps, which features a chalet-style main building set against a backdrop of snow-capped peaks. But ever since the Azusagawa area shot to fame in 2011 as the setting for the immensely popular NHK miniseries “Ohisama,” travelers have made a point of booking a table at Azumino. Like the soba eatery featured in the TV show, the restaurant is a locavore’s delight, serving regional vegetables (including native wasabi), dairy products, meats and even Nagano-farmed salmon. These items and more are available as part of teishoku set menus for under ¥1,500.

Ashigara SA, Tomei Expressway, Shizuoka Prefecture

A sprawling rest stop that covers as much ground as four Tokyo Domes, Ashigara SA reopened to great acclaim following a 2011 face lift. Its main appeal lies in its proximity to Mount Fuji; indeed, holidaymakers can take advantage of many of the same amenities they’ll find in nearby resort areas, including an outdoor hot-spring bath. Among the food highlights are Ashigara no Mori Restaurant, which serves thick slices of pork grilled over straw in the traditional rustic style, and Chuka Banri, a Chinese eatery whose mābo dōfu comes with rice in the shape of Fuji-san and topped with a fiery Sichuan chili sauce. We just hope that doesn’t portend an imminent eruption of the long-dormant volcano.

Miyoshi PA, Kanetsu Expressway, Saitama Prefecture

If you want a good tip on rest areas, you might as well go to the man who wrote the book on the subject. Ariyuki Hirosue is the author of two manga about food-obsessed travelers and their trips through the world of Japanese SAs and PAs. Miyoshi PA, which lies about 20 km from the popular tourist town of Kawagoe, earns a nod from Hirosue thanks to its slick 2009 makeover. He recommends the chicken skewers threaded with leeks at yakitori joint Toriasa and the wurst at the casual, Germany-inspired eatery Von Heim Kitchen. Hirosue also gives a shout out to dishes that predate the renovation, including the 16-item lunch box at Dora Bento.

Ebina SA, Tomei Expressway, Kanagawa Prefecture

Located just 30 km from Tokyo and even closer to Yokohama, Ebina SA has always been a popular stopping point for motorists. A recent redesign has only increased its charms. Travelers can now browse high-end threads at the United Arrows clothing shop or pick up gourmet groceries at hoity-toity supermarket chain Seijo Ishii. Keeping the food program real are local brands such as Kiyoken — maker of shūmai dumplings from Yokohama’s Chinatown — and Ebina Chaya, which specializes in takoyaki-style snacks filled with shrimp instead of octopus. Also popular are the beef skewers at the Umaimono Yokocho (Good Grub Street) market.

Suruga Bay Numazu SA, Shin-Tomei Expressway, Shizuoka Prefecture

Modeled on a sleepy Mediterranean village, this rest stop near the Izu shore features faux-classic architecture and a sweeping view of Suruga Bay. The coastal location is good news for seafood enthusiasts, who can enjoy boatloads of fresh fish at venues such as Samasa Suisan. Each day, the cooks here put on a tuna-carving performance, then serve up the rewards in donburi rice bowls so hearty that the fish overflows the sides. Other highlights include Restaurant Sorano Terrace, which offers yōshoku items such as rice-stuffed omelets and Hamburg steak in an airy setting overlooking the water, and Loco Cafe, which specializes in the mochi (sticky rice)-waffle hybrid known as the Moffle.

This is the last in the Everyman Eats series. Steve Trautlein is a freelance journalist eating his way throughout Japan.