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Ditch the Train! See Japan in a Camper Van

This is what happens when you rent a camper in Japan and unexpectedly drive up a mountain.

By 7 min read

“Stop! Just stop the car,” I said. As the hum of the van’s engine died down, we sat in frantic silence, catching our breath, along the side of a narrow mountain road coated with thick fog and slick rain.

Had my anxiety just gotten the best of me? I mean, I had done the whole unplanned, let’s-just-go-on-an adventure trip before in Japan — like bungee jumping off the side of a bridge and swimming in one of Yakushima’s waterfalls. This time, however, I was picturing us sliding off this cliff to our imminent demise.

But let’s go back a couple weeks to when it all started.

Mt.Fuji and a tea plantation at dawn from near Shizoka City.

I saw this post on Instagram for a camper van in Japan. I had taken planes, cable cars ropeways, cars, ferries and, of course, trains in Japan before, but never a van with a bed in the back complete with camping supplies.

Still, I was intrigued, especially because I had been following this trend through an old college friend, who had quit her job to travel the U.S. in a van for a year. But was #vanlife — a tag used more than 2 million times — really for me? Moreover, in a country saturated with reliable and well-worn transport (more than 3 million people use Shinjuku station per day!), did I really need to add another form of it to my list?

Discovering Japan’s roadtrip culture

Japan is the best at making everything — a thing. I found out that roadtripping in Japan is both adventurous and accessible through lasting infrastructure.

Luckily, across Japan there are roadside stops packed with stalls and shops selling ramen, sandwiches, beverages, ice cream and other tasty treats, as well as omiyage (souvenir) stores, clean bathrooms and, yes, even Starbucks. Each has its own name, making it even more legit. Like what I had experienced in the States, these rest stop interchanges allow you to easily drive on and off the expressway — but what I found equally impressive were the michinoeki (roadside stations).  

It’s really the intangibles you’re getting with a camper van rental that make it worth the ride.

It’s hard to find the correct English nuance for this word. These are government-designated roadside rest areas with facilities that include free 24-hour parking and restrooms. There are more than 1,000 here that are overseen by the Research Institute for Road and Street. Some are fully equipped with tourist info or nearby onsen (hot spring bath) facilities, and some are just a vending machine and a bathroom, but that’s better than nothing. The michinoeki are easy enough to find with an English website that has a guide and map of locations. These facilities are essential to saving cash and finding comfort on the road.

The trip

For our mid-October road trip, we only had a weekend to rent the camper van. We ultimately settled on hiring it from Road Trip Japan. It’s an English-friendly company based in Tokyo that caters mostly to foreigners. The white 2006 Nissan Vanette we rented could fit and sleep two to three people.

On a rainy Saturday morning, we headed toward the Mt. Fuji area. The drive itself was fun and the highways are cushy. Through tunnels and across bridges, we made it to our first stop: the caves of the Yamanashi Prefecture-side of Mt. Fuji.

The stop included a brief but interesting tour of Omuro Cave and hiking a bit through Aokigahara, infamously known as the “suicide forest,” where dense trees grow on hardened lava from one of Fuji’s ancient explosions. On our way out, we stopped at a gift shop that offered Yamanashi wine (grabbed a bottle) and corn-flavored soft-serve ice cream. I didn’t partake in that, but someone raved about it.

Onward to Shiraito Falls — a gorgeous but definitely touristy spot in Shizuoka Prefecture. A visit here gets you some showstopping views, plus a look at local shops and goods on the short walk to the falls.

It was nearly evening, and I was about to break what I now know as an age-old rule of the road.

After that, it was nearly evening, and I was about to break what I now know as an age-old rule of the road. The 4 p.m. rule, which I would later learn from my boss — who did a coast-to-coast and back roadtrip across Canada in a 1972 Dodge Sportsman van — has you set up camp or choose your overnight spot at (or near) your destination around 4 p.m. Before dark sets in. In our naivety, we failed to do that.

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A enchanting eatery we had to stop at!
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Instead, because GaijinPot Travel had featured both a cliff-side train station and a wondrous-looking onsen village and nature retreat called Sumatakyo, how could I not want to venture deeper into Shizuoka? But we never actually made it to the intended destination. Instead, we went back down the mountain’s less-treacherous side (oops!) and ended up in a tiny place called Kawane Onsen.

Complete with an onsen-side michinoeki, plenty of those bright green tea terraces and a nearby Alice In Wonderland-looking restaurant, the area was a godsend.

We ate a much-needed meal at the facility, had our otsukaresama biiru (beers after a long day), took a bath and retired to our rig in the parking lot. We noticed a few other weary travelers also sleeping in their cars or RVs, and when we woke up on Sunday morning with our minds and souls refreshed, we were ready to get back on the (mostly) flat road.

Pros vs. cons

The downside of the camper van for short-term use is that I didn’t find it to be significantly cheaper than renting a car and reserving a reasonably priced hotel or Airbnb. That’s thanks to the gas prices and highway toll fees — after just a few hours’ drive we had already spent upwards of ¥2,000-¥3,000 for the highways (and we were to be driving around eight hours in total).

Tip: If you want to check toll fees before your trip, try using this Japanese website that calculates them for you.

Yet, it is really the intangibles that you get with a camper van rental that make it worth the ride. The adventure of not knowing where you’re going to sleep tonight but that you’ll at least have a bed, the freedom of unexpected twists, turns and stops — all add up to a more enjoyable and personalized trip. And it really can save a lot of time — a round trip to Sumatakyo by train from Tokyo is more than 8 1/2 hours, including about two hours on a bullet train!

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Tea in Kawane outside the Mini Stop.

Our drive through Shizuoka was absolutely brilliant, studded with expressways towering over the mountain villages below and verdant tea terraces stepping up the desolate scenery topped off by mist. The trip ended up as an unexpected, indestructibly fond memory.

For adventurers who want to reach the remoter parts of Japan a little more conveniently, renting a camper van is 100 percent recommended. Just map out your route a bit more strategically than I did — or don’t. With a camper van, that’s really your call.

Road Trip Japan

Have you been on a roadtrip adventure in Japan? We’d love to hear how your experience was in the comments below!

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