Not everybody gets to take a road trip in Japan. You can get anywhere by train and for longer trips, most folks fly. I was an avid road-tripper back in the US, so during my time in Japan, I’ve taken every opportunity to go on the road that I could, and it’s quite a different experience.
Photo by Ari Helminen
Heading out on the highway
There are few freeways in Japan and this is one reason people don’t hit the road so often. Japan’s highways are toll roads and costs are two to three times higher than those of other countries. A long drive to your destination can cost just as much as the shinkansen (新幹線 – bullet train), bus, or cheap flight.
The amount you pay is determined by the distance traveled. For example, from Tokyo to Osaka it’s somewhere around 10,000 yen. That’s just the road, not gas. Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) cards make it cheaper. These are cards that you insert into a reader on the car’s dashboard and you can zip right through the toll gates. Since 2009, they’ve offered a number of discounts for ETC travelers, including a weekend deal where you can go anywhere for 1,000 yen.
Since 2011, it’s gotten even cheaper. In order to encourage more road travel, they’ve set a weekday cap depending on car type. This goes for any vehicle, ETC card or not.
On Japanese highways you can go 80 or 100 km/h. Signs are in English and Japanese so you don’t have to read kanji. Most of the highways around urban areas have acoustic walls on either side so you can’t see much scenery, but get out into the country and you’ll see rice fields and mountains.
Rest stop paradise
In the US, highway rest stops are usually sorry affairs. A typical rest stop consists of a grungy bathroom, caged vending machines, and a tourist board advertising the area’s sights, sometimes with robot voice accompaniment. They’re boring, bleak, and downright scary at certain times of night. Not so in Japan. Rest stops are little roadside paradises. They make America’s Flying J truck stop look like a port-o-potty.
Some highway rest stops are full-scale entertainment complexes. Nearly all have restaurants, services for travelers like showers and TV lounges, free green tea, huge convenience stores selling local goods, stands selling snacks and treats, and entire shanty towns of vending machines. Some even have live events.
Photo by Hirorinmasa
Stores at rest stops sell local souvenirs for nearby sightseeing areas (you can get Kyoto souvenirs at rest stops halfway between Tokyo and Kyoto), and some have exclusive goods you can only get at their shop.
People don’t just stop at rest stops, run inside, and take care of business. They hang out at these roadside tourist centers. Stopping at rest stops is part of the trip and people kill hours at them. Some are as famous as outlet stores. And they’re spotlessly clean.
Fill ‘er up
In the US, stopping at a gas station brings you into open conflict with a disgruntled old gas station lady who demands from behind a glass cage that you pay first and grunts disapprovingly if you need to come back for change.
Most gas stations in Japan are full service. They’re like the pit stop in a NASCAR race. You pull in and three or four uniformed crew members pop out of nowhere. They race up to your car, pop the hood, scrub windows, and fill your tank. In a couple of minutes, your car looks nicer than it’s looked since the day you bought it.
Photo by Nicky Pallas
But unfortunately, Japanese gas stations aren’t usually open 24 hours, even on the highways. You need to fill up the tank before it’s sitting on empty or you may end up spending the night sleeping on the back seat of your car.
Finally, one more surprise about Japanese highways is that drivers are generally polite and reasonable. They’re not trying to murder each other with their cars.