Doing Japan in a van: highs, lows, dos, don'ts

Oh, the pros and woes of responding to your queries. Great advice, personal experience — even the odd wakeup call. Here are some responses to our Nov. 16 column on “How to do Japan — in a VW camper van”:

One of the best trips ever

Douglas Brooks and his wife, of Vermont, leased a Mazda diesel van in Tokyo in February 2003 and took off on what became a 10,000 km road trip.

Douglas says that the dealer who leased the van to them was convinced that its Tokyo plates would have local police all over the country stopping them for checks. He even gave the couple his cell phone number and insisted they call him if they were questioned. But this happened just once the entire trip.

“We had parked in a convenience store lot and in the middle of the night two policemen knocked on our door. I gave a rapid-fire explanation about being in Japan for a year studying traditional boat building, something I realized later must have sounded ridiculous to them, but I did have a newspaper article handy about my work, and they read it, thanked us and went away. So the advice about having papers at hand at night is a great idea, and that letter in Japanese explaining the purpose of one’s trip is also good advice.”

Douglas found the 2003 Road Atlas Japan, published by Shobunsha, to be a godsend, with detailed maps in romaji and kanji.

Because of the exorbitant cost of toll roads, they stayed almost exclusively on secondary roads. On the eastern side of the country some of these roads can make for very slow going, he says, but “the back of Japan is superb driving: well maintained roads, very little traffic, beautiful ocean views and delightful small towns.”

On larger roadways they stayed in rest stops (michi no eki) that often proved to be unlocked overnight, so they could go in (lights would often go on automatically) and use the restrooms. “There was never a problem and, as you mentioned, there would usually be a trucker in the lot with us,” Douglas writes.

On very rural roads the couple parked off the roadways, much like camping. They also stayed in youth hostels, business hotels, sento (bathhouses) and even large resort hotels to use public baths.

“I am a great fan of rural Japan, finding the people much less uptight” and more “welcoming, curious and generous,” Douglas says. “The police are equally as laid-back.”

Since neither Douglas nor his wife like squat toilets, they would take turns checking out the facilities. His wife even began keeping a photographic journal of the weird and the wacky, toilet-wise.

Douglas recalls one curious commode in particular at a rest stop in Akita: “I was mesmerized by the back wall, which was entirely glass, but partitioned and looking out onto a very shallow bamboo garden backed by a high concrete wall. When I got close to one of the stalls, a sheet of water automatically began pouring down the inside face of the glass. Seems the beam automatically senses when you are finished and flushes down the face of the glass. Amazing.”

The couple has a thousand other memories from their road trip, describing it as one of the best travel experiences ever. Their advice: “Get on the back roads, be sure to stop often and do your best to meet people. And don’t fret about rules and regulations.”

More on michi no eki

Jim also sings the praises of michi no eki, which are designed specifically as rest areas on regular nontoll roads for automobile travelers, complete with bathroom facilities and more. Staying overnight is not a problem.

Just about every bookstore sells michi no eki guidebooks, he says. Basic info in English can be found at .


S.K. points readers in the direction of Being A Broad magazine (published in Tokyo), which “two or three months ago printed an excellent article about renting camper vans in the Tokyo area and traveling around Chiba (on wheels), from the writer’s own experience.” Website:

However, we were unable to track this article down online. If anyone has a link to it, please let us know.

Furthermore, Stacy recommends WWOOF Japan (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) for an experience that may turn out to be even more fulfilling than camping. Their website (in English and Japanese) is at

Parking place problem

R.P. notes that the most vexing problem with buying a car is the “having a legal parking place requirement” that you must satisfy if you want to register a vehicle. Also, he advises that Japan is not the land of the free, so expressway tolls add to the overall cost of travel.

“Maybe you could make a deal for some company to supply the vehicle and insurance in exchange for a documented (written and pictorial) record of the travel,” he suggests.

Get out of town!

Rainer Kaminski, who manages Jerry’s Campsite on the island of Yakushima in Kagoshima Prefecture, thinks we are “more competent to advise on conduct in the monster built-up areas of Japan than on how to enjoy the great outdoors.”

“A trip in a camper van is about lifestyle and not just about living on the cheap,” he says. “You don’t want to pull up for the night at a highway parking area or beside a convenience store, you want to be in the open country where there is space, and a lot of tax yen have gone into shaping thousands of kilometers of river embankments into sports fields and other social activity areas.

“Ever tried to put a tent next to your car there for a night? Since as you say it is not a crime to sleep in your car, there’s no infringement. The joggers in the morning will warmly greet you. Nor will anyone issue a parking ticket at one of those huge parking lots attached to michi no eki.”

Rainer also highly recommends exploring the coastline. The more off the beaten track, the better the chances of finding a great picnic site.

“I operate a campsite myself with a fee of ¥800 per night in the south of Kyushu. Besides the running water, toilet and shower facilities, there are the social contacts: talking with other campers who have a lot of local info and knowledge of nearby points of interests.”

As for bathing, he concludes, the most important word for travelers to know is of course onsen (hot spring), not ofuro (bath) or sento. To find a free hot-water hole in the open, just ask your friendly campsite manager!

Don’t forget Hokkaido

Finally, a note from consultant, naturalist, lecturer, author and Japan Times contributor Mark Brazil, who says he travels like this all the time in Hokkaido.

“No problems: Lots of campgrounds, forest roads and quiet, out of the way places,” he writes.

Thanks to all who got in touch on this subject.

Angela Jeffs is a freelance writer and writing guide ( Ken Joseph directs the Japan Helpline at and (0570) 000-911. Send queries, problems and posers to

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