“Van life.” The term is all the rage these days, with social media platforms pumping out posts of people who have opted to sell all their belongings to live life on the road and explore the world. I have always been intrigued by this idea but never felt confident to take the full plunge into the van life. So when the opportunity to test the waters presented itself, I jumped at the chance to dip my toes into exploring the Kansai region using a motorhome.
I used a motorhome from Around Japan RV Rental in Osaka. The process of picking up the vehicle was convenient, both in flow and location. I opted to pick it up at the Umeda location, one of the main districts of Osaka with easy transport access to Kansai and Itami airports and nearby cities within the region.
Once the motorhome arrived at the meeting point, I was greeted by a representative eager to show me the ropes and provide me with a safety briefing. Next, he took me inside to show me how to use the facilities, such as the air conditioning and setting up the beds. Clearly, the rep is passionate about these vehicles—he even showed me his preferred bed (directly in front of the air conditioner to handle the hot and humid Japanese summer, of course).
After going through all of his questions and comments, he waved goodbye. I drove away, excited to explore the Kansai region from the comfort of a well-appointed RV!
Day 1: Nara
The historic city of Nara is famed for its stunning temples, such as Todai-ji, with its massive statue of Buddha and, of course, the roaming deer. However, Nara Prefecture is much more than just the city: it has abundant nature and stunning temples tucked away from the tourist hot spots. This is where a motorhome truly comes in handy.
My first stop was Horyu-ji, a Buddhist temple dating back to the year 607 and housing the oldest living wooden structure in the world; indeed a sight to see. Be sure to walk down the main avenue adorned with pine trees right in front of the temple entrance. Some simple Japanese restaurants and souvenir shops are in the area and worth a visit, too.
To top it all off, the return drive offered a breathtaking view of Todai-ji from behind—an unusual view of this popular temple complex.
I continued to an area called Tenri, just a 30-minute drive from Horyu-ji. This area is famed for the headquarters for Tenrikyo, considered one of Japan’s major “new religions.” Though described as a church, the main worship building is archetypically similar to Buddhist temples, and its sheer size is impressive. The church is free to enter and visitors can explore at their leisure.
Deer are a symbol of Nara, so a trip to the area would not be complete without at least giving them some attention. Rather than visiting the well-trodden Nara Park, I decided to drive to the top of Mount Wakakusa. Here, I was greeted with stunning views of Nara City below while enjoying the company of these sacred animals. To top it all off, the return drive offered a breathtaking view of Todai-ji from behind—an unusual view of this popular temple complex.
Overnight: Lake Biwa
I decided to stay overnight by the largest lake in Japan, spanning an impressive 670 square kilometers—Lake Biwa. The lake has stunning views and provides a perfect in-between location to sleep overnight if you are visiting Nara or Kyoto.
On the way to the camping grounds, I drove through the Avenue of Metasequoia, a road approximately 2.5-kilometers long and adorned with roughly 500 redwood trees. Though the summer provides an impressive view akin to going through a tunnel of trees, this road is highly recommended in the autumn when the leaves turn bright red.
From here, I detoured to a local supermarket to purchase food and drink for a barbeque out in the pleasant, cool summer evening. As dinner ended, the evening was engulfed by absolute darkness, except for nearby vending machines shining through like the stars above. As the campsite is far from large cities, the area is untouched by light pollution, providing great views of the night sky.
I set up my bed just over the driver’s seat and comfortably slept through the night.
Day 2: Kyoto
Kyoto is just a mere one-hour drive from the campsite, so I naturally progressed there. This historical capital is full of meandering alleyways and narrow streets—so planning ahead is vital for a successful road trip through the city.
My first stop was Heian-Jingu, famous for the huge torii (Shinto archway) gate in the heart of the city. Driving through the gate can make you feel as small as an ant and you may feel the urge to pull over for a photo. The garden within the shrine is a highlight, featuring stepping stones and a picturesque covered bridge across its pond.
Keeping with the Shinto theme, I decided to pay a visit to the much lesser-known Toyokuni Shrine, commemorating Toyotomi Hideyoshi, considered one of Japan’s great unifiers. The shrine feels oddly quiet considering its dedication to one of the most influential people in Japanese history. This is also a great location to hop over to the Kyoto National Museum and Sanjusangendo, a temple housing 1,001 wooden statues of Kannon, a Buddhist deity.
Before returning the motorhome back to Osaka, I took one final visit to Tofuku-ji, a grand Buddhist temple that is typically void of crowds. The temple is famed for its garden filled with maple leaves that come to life in the autumn and the Sanmon Gate, considered the largest Zen temple gate in Japan. After a stroll around the temple, it was a comfortable drive on the expressway back to Osaka.
A motorhome provides the ultimate flexibility in planning your itinerary and getting you off the beaten path. You can certainly see plenty of amazing sights by using public transport, but you will miss out on what Japan offers away from the train stations and bus stops.
…a motorhome not only allows you to stay wherever you want but it can also save you money as you don’t need to book hotels on top.
Renting a car offers similar opportunities to travel in Japan, but a motorhome not only allows you to stay wherever you want but it can also save you money as you don’t need to book hotels on top. Some campsites may charge a fee for you to park your vehicle, but this is typically considerably cheaper. For those seeking to explore Japan in-depth or who want to sample the Japanese van life, why not consider renting a motorhome on your next visit?
How to rent a motorhome
If you are visiting the Kansai region (Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Wakayama, Kobe) and looking to take advantage of exploring Japan to its fullest, look no further than renting a motorhome from Around Japan RV Rental.
Based in southern Osaka Prefecture, they provide motorhomes that can fit up to a family of six. Facilities include fully flat beds, a microwave, an air conditioner and a fridge, providing home comforts in a compact but spacious vehicle.
They offer convenient pickup and drop-off services from Shin-Osaka station if you are arriving in Osaka City via the shinkansen (bullet train). Around Japan RV Rental can also do the same from Osaka and Umeda station with another pickup location in Rinku Town, all of which have train and bus links to Kansai International Airport and Itami Airport. This autumn, a new office in Tokyo will open allowing the people in the Kanto region to use their service.
Things you will need
- Your driver’s license combined with an international driver’s permit (or a standard Japanese license)
- A credit card used to make the booking
- The rental car fee includes insurance for bodily injury, property damage, and vehicle damage. Since there is a deductible on the car insurance, purchasing a Collision Damage Waiver at the office is recommended.
To find out more, visit the Around Japan RV Rental site.