Exploring Japan by car can be uniquely rewarding. Beyond the ability to soak in the picturesque vistas on your own time, there are other experiences to be had. So whether you’re a passenger or a driver, if you’re traveling by car, be prepared for some random encounters — some exclusively Japanese — to liven up and surprise you and your travel companions on the trip.
1. Melody roads
Goofy for some — incredibly thoughtful to others — are Japan’s “melody roads,” where you can quite literally drive your car over a patch of road to create music.
Reminiscent of old vinyl records, grooves are cut into highways and byways at specific intervals to create sound vibrations when they are driven over. Between 250 to 500 meters in length, the series of furrows in these roads are constructed with carefully calculated depth and spacing so that they generate a rhythm and hum that is uncannily distinct and recognizable.
Known as “Asphaltophone” in Denmark and “Singing Highways” in the Netherlands, these are not something unique to Japan, but it’s here that you can find them in abundance. There are over 30 musical roads scattered across Japan, from Hokkaido to Okinawa. The tunes pressed into the asphalt range from cultural folk songs specific to the region such as “Futami Jowa” in Okinawa to popular tunes from Spirited Away in Gunma, Evangelion in Hakone and My Neighbor Totoro in Hiroshima.
Found mostly in the countryside to promote tourism and regional revitalization, authorities feel they also serve the purpose of speed control and definitely prevent dozing off at the wheel.
… enjoy the bumps, grooves and rhythms of your ride in this unique way.
If you happen to stumble upon one of these unprepared, it can be an eerie experience — almost as if the car has suddenly been possessed by anime theme song-loving spirits. But if you’re prepared (especially if you’re familiar with the tune the car wheels are humming out) it can be a fun experience.
For optimum listening experience, roll up your car windows, keep your speed at an even 40 kilometers per hour and enjoy the bumps, grooves and rhythms of your ride in this unique way.
Here are some popular melody road destinations you may want to try out:
- “Country Roads,” Route 252, Onuma-gun, Fukushima.
- “Tulip no Hana,” Route 353, Maebashi-shi, Gunma.
- “Natsu no Omaide,” Route 352, Uonuma-shi, Niigata.
- “Fuji no Yama,” Fuji Subaru Road, Minamitsuru-gun, Yamanashi.
- “Scarborough Fair,” Chino City, Nagano.
You can find more melody road locations in Japan on this Wikipedia page.
2. Unmanned kiosks
Look out for mujinhanbaijo, or unmanned kiosks, as you drive through the countryside and through small towns. Epitomizing trust and honesty in the transaction between customer and vendor, these countryside stands with no attendants are a charming remnant of village life of the past.
Farmers set up very homemade-looking stalls — sometimes hastily constructed shacks — stocked with baskets of fresh produce with the price of the vegetables and fruit on sale handwritten on cardboard signs. Replacing the cashier, there will usually be an old biscuit or tea tin placed nearby for shoppers to put their money in.
… these countryside stands with no attendants are a charming remnant of village life of the past.
What’s most refreshing about the whole setup is the underlying principle behind them: trust. Even though it’s a small transaction, the complete faith of an honest sale taking place without any monitoring is a pleasant contrast to the closed-circuit camera age that we live in today.
It’s a wonderful way to sample fresh local produce and to experience the world when it was a simpler place to live in.
3. Highway rest stops
A mere “loo break” in any other country, highway service area stops in Japan have been elevated to a whole other level and might just be reason enough to jump into your car and head for the nearest highway.
In Japan, michi no eki are government-designated rest areas found along the country’s highways — and are a road trippers delight. No longer just a restroom with a parking lot, some of these elaborate oases of rest and recuperation are worthy tourist attractions in themselves, featuring specialty stores, quality bakeries, hot spring spas and promenades overlooking spectacular scenery — all sure to relieve and restore the spirits of any weary driver.
There are a total of 1,145 michi no eki spread across Japan’s network of roads and expressways, categorized into service areas (large, well-equipped stations located every 50 kilometers) and parking areas (smaller in size and found every 15 kilometers). The Otsuka Service Area in Shiga Prefecture was the first one established in 1963, overlooking the beautiful Lake Biwa.
The clean and efficient basic utilities such as restrooms, laundry facilities, shower areas, ATMs and information services found in most service areas truly take the pain and inconvenience out of being on the road. It’s coming across such areas with a theme in the middle of a highway, however (such as the Edo-themed Onihei Edodokoro in Hanyu, Saitama or The World of Little Prince-themed Yorii Parking Area in Nobori) that truly are cause for surprise and delight.
Highway service area stops in Japan have been elevated to a whole other level…
If you’re looking to park and refuel surrounded by spectacular scenery, you can’t do better than the Fujikawa Service Area on the Tomei expressway. Here, you’ll find a Starbucks franchise with arguably the most natural view in Japan. Grab a chair on the observation deck, sip on a hot mug of tea or coffee and recaffeinate — enough for a quick recharge and plenty of inspiration to possibly even pen a quick haiku before hitting the road.
Another michi no eki with an impressive backdrop is the Awaji Service Area on the Kobe-Awaji-Naruto expressway. This service stop has a barbecue and picnic area, dog park, 135-meter high Ferris wheel and a boardwalk overlooking the Akashi Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world. Time your stop here to catch the sunset and see the bridge light up with the Kobe city skyline in the background.
A note about renting cars for those looking to embark on a road trip: It’s becoming increasingly easier for non-Japanese speakers to hire a vehicle in Japan. Most car rental companies here have an English online reservation system with some offering cars fitted with English GPS options and even English-language roadside phone support. Car rental prices for a 24-hour period range between ¥5,000 for a compact vehicle to ¥15,000 for a full-size sedan and ¥20,000 for a 10-seat van.
The minimum requirement for renting a car is either a Japanese driver’s license or an international driving permit. Only residents of Taiwan, France, Germany, Belgium, Monaco, Estonia, Slovenia and Switzerland are exempt from this rule, requiring only a translation of their license easily obtained from Japan Automobile Federation. An international driving permit can only be obtained in your country of origin and is only valid for a maximum period of one year in Japan.
Other considerations to keep in mind are parking and highway tolls. While these are non-factors in small towns and the countryside, it’s good to be aware that parking in big cities can be notoriously steep. Highway tolls, too, can add up.
So, on your next weekend getaway, consider foregoing the airports and the train stations. Instead, why not head out by car to explore Japan’s highways and countryside roads. If you plan ahead and plot your route, your journey will be just as enjoyable as your destination.
Have you encountered any road trip surprises, ways to rest or tips and tricks while on overland journeys in Japan? Let us know in the comments!