TRAVEL 10: Reasons to roadtrip Japan (admit it, you thought you needed a Rail Pass)
Updated: Apr 27, 2019
Don’t get me wrong; I’m all about public transport. Except when you head over to Japan – that’s when renting a car will bring you an entirely new Japan you never even thought existed. And believe me when I tell you, it’s just as easy as getting that JR Rail Pass – even easier (and you can still have a ride on a bullet train!). Here’s some reasons why.
1. Regional Japan is so much more than just cities.
Case in point: Mie Prefecture. I like to call this place the seafood capital of Japan – which is a hell of a claim, but I’m comfortable with it. There’s more than 1000km of spectacular coastline and dot-to-dot islands to see, most of which is way away from the train lines, and besides, the endless tunnels and crimson-daubed road bridges spanning its stunning gorges and between-island waterways make this a roadtripping fairytale. And don’t get me started on all the tiny little izakayas you can stop at for a quick abalone steak because why the hell not. And how about Aichi Prefecture (above)? God, those shorelines.
2. You can keep left.
The roads in Japan feel remarkably similar to those in Australia, driving on the left and keeping left except overtaking. At most intersections in anything bigger than a town (where it doesn’t really matter anyway), the lanes are clearly marked as to whether you’re going straight or turning – simple. You see, that famous Japanese politeness even extends to the roads department, wanting you to feel as happy and calm as possible. Isn’t that nice?
3. You can still get your bullet train ride – then level up to a ferry, too
Every visitor wants to experience the super-fast Japanese skinkansen train. It’s cool. Hey, I’ve been to Japan five times and I’d still be totally heartbroken if I didn’t take at least one next time I’m over there. But what you can do is have the best of both worlds: take the shinkansen from your entry city (Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya) to a regional centre, then jump off and grab a hire car. Then that’s your ticket to doing extra cool stuff like taking the car ferry over spectacular Suruga Bay between Toi and Shimizu. You’ll sit there on the back deck eating freshly grilled octopus kebabs and gazing upon Mt Fuji, feeling like the most excellent gaijin in Japan.
4. You can sing it from the mountaintops…
In a country as mountainous as Japan, there are probably more mountaintop observatories, observation decks and lookouts than you’ve had hot dinners. Topographically speaking, these are not easily reached by train. However, they all uniformly appear to have a) ginormous carparks; b) cafes featuring tasty, tasty food; c) endless ranks of those vending machines we Australians seem so obsessed with (I can only speak for myself); d) truly amazing views it’s genuinely worth ascending for; and if you’re very lucky, e) hot foot baths to soak your little tootsies as you soak up the view. No, really. They have open-air, mountaintop foot baths filled with steaming hot water for maximum relaxation. God I love Japan.
5. … or the Skyline
What is a Skyline? I’m so glad you asked – I had no idea until I found myself on one this last trip. And it is wonderful. It is a(n often private) road that travels along a mountainous ridgeline, with vertiginous views often in both directions. The Ise-Shima Skyline, for example, ticks all the boxes: incredible views, it’s a toll road so it’s virtually empty, it has some stunning sightseeing stops along the way such as an all-but-deserted ancient temple, and a mountaintop observatory with, you guessed it, hot foot baths. If you DO want to do some non-Tokyo drifting, try the twists and turns of the Hakone Hill Climb in Kanagawa, or Mount Haruna in Gunma Prefecture, or just go round and round and round on the Kawazu-Nanadaru Loop Bridge that yes, is a bridge that loops around and around, to avoid the ridiculously steep grade of the attached mountain. You are going to have FUN.
6. You’ll be king of the (empty) road
Everyone in Japan, pretty much, commutes by train – or by bike, or by foot. Traffic is not unheard of if there’s a snag or an accident, but otherwise you’ll be blown away by how damn empty the roads are. I don’t know why I thought it’d all look like a scene out of Tokyo Drift, but it’s verrry far away from that. (Having said that, I’ve never driven in Tokyo. If you do, though, be sure to tell us what it’s like using those cool carparks that put your car on a lift and whisk it away down into the subterrain!)
7. Roadhouse thrills
Perfectly clean. Oodles of fun, sometimes unidentifiable snacks to buy, souvenir shopping, more of those rows upon rows upon rows of vending machines and even all the free green tea you can drink, thanks to the government who would politely like you to stay awake behind the wheel. There is nothing not to love about Japanese roadhouses.
8. Actually seeing the sights
It’s an old point, but it’s a good one. No one ever saw nice things next to the train line. Especially when the trains in question slam past at up to 300km/hour – people are staying right away from that. The exception is Mount Fuji, which you can excitedly glimpse from the shinkansen on a clear day, but that doesn’t count – you can see Mount Fuji from just about everywhere, hundreds of kilometres around. That old volcano is BIG. But other than that, you’ll see back of house after house, garden greenhouse after greenhouse, and that’s just about it.
9. Pick your own fresh snackies
Did I mention greenhouses? Well by road is the only way you’re going to reach Japan’s answer to the farm gate trail, too. For example, Gamagori Orange Park in Gamagori, where you can pick your own unbelievably fat, juicy strawberries in the greenhouses in winter and the oranges and even melons out on the hillside in the warmer months. But here’s the thing. It’s ALL YOU CAN EAT. Pay a flat rate and settle in for the tummy ache of your life; they’ll even give you a nice little plastic tray of condensed milk to dip in while you’re gorging yourself on strawberries straight off the vine. I don’t even want to know how all-you-can-eat melons works out, but it’s AWESOME.
10. Box car fun
Cars in Japan are generally pretty low powered little boxes that are more practical than stylish. The ‘kei’ category of car is the smallest, cutest and dowdiest of all, yet is still legal to drive on the highways (and cheap to fuel). My little ‘box’ car had wind-down windows (so much for Japanese high-tech) but who cares? It had a SNACK SHELF in the front. That’s a culture I want to be a part of.