Travel | ON THE ROAD

Japan's gourmands should hit the highway

Long-haul rest stops with a reputation for roadkill have been transformed into powerhouses of local produce — and wasabi soda

by Bob Sliwa

Special To The Japan Times

At the beginning of the postwar period of economic growth in Japan, highways were more for transporting parts and goods to jump-start the economy than for going on a Sunday drive. Even into the 1980s, pit stops in highway rest areas were still the stuff of nightmares. Surrounded by trucks belching acrid clouds of diesel smoke, motorists would find available food limited to soggy noodles and nefarious hot dogs, and worn-out, dirty squat toilets made for unpleasant experiences.

However, these same service areas are now meccas for tourists — reinvented as destinations in their own right. How they were transformed into their current Disneylandlike state has a lot to do with reform of the byzantine rules that govern them — a subject that could fill a long tome. Simply stated, they are now run by agencies working to elevate these former truck stops to profitability with the help of local governments and third-party developers. Particularly in the last 10 years, they have morphed into a network of sophisticated — if not overly glitzy — entertainment centers that rake in truckloads of money every year.

First and foremost, they have become epicurean centers — an extension of the unprecedented gourmet boom that Japan is still in the midst of. A core pillar of their business had always been mediocre fast food. One type was derived from street stalls, offering a large variety of cash-on-demand goodies-to-go — the most common being noodles. Another type has been the family-style sit-down restaurant offering uninspired fare. Both of these have changed radically. High-profile chefs have been brought in, and original menus featuring dishes you can only eat on the highway have gained kudos.

There are many TV specials and magazines ranking the best road food. One highway-management firm even set up a cooking contest to pick the best recipes featuring local ingredients. They brought in famed Iron Chefs Kenichi Chin and Hiroyuki Sakai as the judges. Top prize was awarded to chef Yasuo Iwazaki, who runs the restaurant at the Yoro Service Area in Gifu Prefecture, for his impressive Shindai no mi (flavors from the age of the gods), which features a rice dish (kamameishi) with Okumino free-range chicken and six other small dishes of regional fare. This and other top offerings are now on the menus of the various rest-area shops that participated in the competition, And the shops have been swamped with customers seeking out these new creations.

Highway-stall food now approaches the best that Japan has to offer. Even with junk food, some areas have breathed new life into frowned-upon dishes such as the ubiquitous American Dog. Usually it is a bland, mass-produced sausage wrapped in dough, but on a recent trip I found that the Fujikawa Service Area on the Tomei Highway has kicked up a couple of notches by offering a quality sausage in a fluffy, light pastry made on the premises.

Yahoo!Japan also has a special section for the service-area gourmet. On its Web site, there is a map of all the stops in the country and what they offer. Users can add critiques and advice, such as which items often sell out, and advice to phone ahead of your arrival to request they set aside certain things so you won’t miss them.

Most stops have also branched out into producing and selling goods unique to that service area.

Also on the Tomei Highway, the Hamanako Service Area developed eel-flavored pretzels with confectioner Pretz — a huge hit. Shizuoka Prefecture is famous for wasabi, so a wasabi soda is offered at rest stops in the prefecture, with mixed results. Haccho miso is a condiment native to Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture, and roadside service areas in the vicinity are the only places you can purchase eggs pickled in this delicacy.

Another recent innovation at service areas is the staging of weekend farmers’ markets, which offer produce at a fraction of big-city prices. Local farmers set up stands around the parking lots and tourists continue on their journeys with bags of fresh vegetables, fruit or flowers.

Aside from food — other services range from the useful to the unusual. For the weary traveler, a dip in an onsen (hot spring), a massage and a room to nap in are just the start. Forgot to charge your cell phone? Feeling lucky enough to buy a lottery ticket? Want a haircut or need to renew your lapsed insurance? No problem; selected sites offer a hand catching up. And to make it feel as though you never left your neighborhood, full-blown convenience stores are also popping up in rest stops.

The harbinger of highway rest to come is in Kariya, Aichi Prefecture, on the new Wangan Highway crossing southern Nagoya. Shedding the pedestrian moniker of “rest stop,” Kariya Highway Oasis is a new type of mega facility targeted at not only motorists passing through but also nearby residents — who get access without paying highway tolls and have their own free parking. The facilities are overwhelming if you stopped in just to answer a call of nature. A full-size Ferris wheel looms over the parking lot, the scale of the bathhouse rivals that in a resort town, and there is a separate building dedicated to selling ebi-senbei — shrimp rice crackers.

Next time you are stuck in that inevitable holiday traffic jam and the information board above the highway tells you the gridlock extends for 47 km ahead, giving up and pulling into a service area may be a very appealing alternative.