Our nine-month journey through Japan was one major feast and full of surprises – because of what we saw and whom we met. While you can’t claim that overlanding in Japan is adventurous in any way, it’s unique culture, kind people, easy camping and lovely meandering minor roads in the mountains do make it a fantastic overland destination.
Here’s some practical ins & outs we like to share with your about overlanding in Japan.
Enjoy! Questions? Information to add? Feel free to do so in the comment section below.
Index for our Japan Overland Travel Guide
Our Overland Information Pages for Japan exists of two parts, the Japan Budget Report and this is the Overland Japan Travel Guide. Here we’ll discuss the following topics:
- Why Visit Japan, or Not
- Best Times of the Year to Visit Japan
- Traveled Route
- Traffic Rules & Traffic Police
- Road Maps & Tourist Information
- Guidebooks & Non-fiction books on Japan
- Food & Water
- Convenience Stores & WiFi
- Other sources of information
Check it out: the Landcruising Adventure Sock Collection
1. Why Visit Japan – or Not
- Friendly, hospitable people. Many Japanese have approached us for a chat and even bought us coffee or a snack. Few speak English and we don’t speak Japanese but with good will, you get anywhere.
- Culture. Lots of temples, historic sites, festivals, local & traditional customs, etc.
- As in South Korea: You will find public toilets on every corner of the street and in every subway station. Clean. With toilet paper. With running water. Often with soap. Bliss!
- Best country for baths, the so-called onsens; natural hot springs.
However, if you are looking for the following, sorry, in Japan you won’t find it or very little of it:
- Wildlife (although Hokkaido is an exception).
- Unpaved roads, let alone serious off-roading opportunities.
- Mind-blowing rough camps that give you a feeling of being lost in a vast wilderness.
2. Best Times of the Year to Visit Japan
- Spring for cherry blossom season
- If you like winter with serious snow, come to Japan between Dec-Feb (esp. north Honshu and Hokkaido. There are numerous snow festivals in both regions, like the Sapporo Snow Festival.
- From what we understand, but haven’t experienced ourselves, Japan’s Alp region is stunning in autumn.
Read More: The Celebration of Cherry Blossoms
3. Traveled Route in Japan
- Total days traveled in Japan: 271
- When: Nov.’16 – Apr.’17 & June – Aug. ’17
Don’t let language be a barrier to visit Japan. Apart from the fact that Japanese are much willing to help you and that hands & feet language gets you very far, there are electronic devices and apps to help with the language.
Coen had the Google Translate app on his iPhone and he downloaded the Japanese offline package. He will hold the phone in front of a Japanese text and it will translate on the spot. Contrary to the Korean one, that wasn’t particularly accurate, it works reasonably well for Japanese.
You can also use the app for speaking and having it translated on the spot (as in the photo. Whereas the translations didn’t work particularly well with Korean, they are generally understandable with the Japanese language.
In this blog post are other suggestions for language apps (plus lots of other relevant apps).
- 5a. Ferry From South Korea to Japan.
- 5b. Ferry Between Honshu & Hokkaido.
- 5c. Ferry Between Shikoku & Kyushu.
Note that some countries did not sign the Geneva Convention (they signed the Vienna Convention). This means that vehicles with license plates from countries such as Switzerland, Germany, Monaco, Slovenia, are officially not allowed to drive here. However, Henning and Runan found a way with their German car to get in (2019).
They have detailed that procedure in this blog post.
5a. Shipping from South Korea to Japan
To sail from Busan (South Korea) to Fukuoka (Kyushu Island, Japan), we booked a ferry with Camellia Line Co. Ltd, which departed from Busan’s International Passenger Terminal. An English-speaking and very helpful employee who can help you get your ferry crossing organized is:
Mrs. J.Y. Lee
leejy [at] koreaferry [dot] kr
Get in touch at least 7 days in advance. Note that the ferry may get booked up quickly when Koreans and Japanese travel, especially during holidays and weekends.
You need to pay at least 3 days in advance. You can pay cash or with a credit card.
We checked in at 3.30pm, boarded around 7 pm, left around 9.30pm, and arrived the following morning around 6.30am.
Steps we took:
- Coen checked both of us in.
- He drove the Land Cruiser through customs and did the paperwork.
- We boarded together.
- Once on board, Coen was instructed where to go so he could drive the Land Cruiser on the ferry.
- We lounged for the evening and we spent the night in a shared room (for about 10 people), sleeping the Korean & Japanese way on the floor on a thin mattress and with a blanket (all provided). There are even (free) hot baths on board, and there is a restaurant as well.
- At 6.30am an employee fetched Coen so he could drive the Land Cruiser ashore. He returned on board and we both disembarked with all passengers around 8 am.
- As we left the ferry, Coen received a paper with a Dutch Google translation, explaining that they expected him at the Camillia Line desk at the first floor, at 8.30am, to organize the Customs paperwork.
- Coen organized the paperwork.
- We drove out of the port around 10.30am with all papers in order.
Conclusion: All very easygoing and professional. A recommended line to organize your ferry crossing with.
Fees paid to Camillia Line in South Korea:
- For the car (+ driver) you have to book a roundtrip (which is valid for 3 months). The fee depends on the length of the vehicle. We paid 460,000 Won for the Land Cruiser [<5m] and the driver + an additional 90.000 Won for the passenger (one-way).
- 7300 Won tax pp.
Fees paid to Camillia Line in Japan:
- No additional fees for the ferry crossing itself, but Camillia Line takes care of the customs clearance, hence charges fees for this.
- 20,000 yen (JPY) Surety commission, a one-time, guarantee kind of fee that you have to pay on arrival in Japan.
- 6,000 yen for customs clearance. (if you want you could do this yourself, but for U$60 we didn’t feel like messing with the Japanese language barrier).
Before starting the customs clearance, you need to have a car insurance as well as an international drivers license. Camillia Line normally arranges this for you, but they could organize only a 3-month insurance for us + were not very helpful.
More on car insurance in our Japan Travel Budget Report.
5b. Shipping between Honshu & Hokkaido
The ferry plies twice a day, times may vary per season, as does the price. We paid 15000 yen (about US $130) for a one-way ticket, for 2 persons and 1 Land Cruiser in February (and the same fee for the return ticket in March).
This is in winter; in summer the crossing is more expensive and yes, the fee is ridiculously high for a 1,5-hour ride. The tunnel you see marked on your map is for trains only.
We paid with our visa card.
5c. Shipping between Shikoku & Kyushu
There are a number of places on both Shikoku and Kyushu where you will find a ferry to go sail to the other island. We ferried from Sukumo to Saiki. We drove to the port, learned there was a ferry going that same afternoon, paid, and crossed to Kyushu. Easy as that. I think the crossing took about three hours and cost 13,910 yen.
Read More: Shipping your Overland Vehicle
6. Roads in Japan
Most, if not all, roads are asphalted although not necessarily extremely smoothly – that is for our stiffly suspensioned Land Cruiser. I can’t take notes while driving on Japan’s asphalted roads (that’s how I compare and judge the state of roads in different countries).
Many are patched up or consist of pieces of concrete. I will add that the toll roads (Expressways) may be of top quality, but they are beyond our budget so I can’t tell.
In terms of highways you have 2 options:
- The toll roads, the so-called National Expressways. They are expensive but do speed up your journey considerably. The speed limit is 100 km/h and apparently even a minimum speed of 50km/h according to Wikipedia. On signboards, these Expressways are indicated in green.
- The non-toll roads are national highways. Normally, but not always, the indication on signboards is in blue and the maximum speed limit is 50 km/h. Do not be in a hurry on these roads. Japanese drive exceptionally slow. This doesn’t mean accidents don’t happen – in fact, our two fender benders during 14 years on the road happened in Japan
Occasionally it is confusing: you follow blue-colored signs in bigger cities but are led on a toll road. Be on the lookout for a road bypassing it, there must be a parallel road next to or under it.
Read More: Kyushu Island – Our First Fender Bender
7. Traffic Rules & Traffic Police in Japan
In Japan you drive on the left side of the road and there is an overload of signs in this country.
Japanese drivers are overly careful drivers and extremely respectful of the law, in most respects, that is, particularly when it comes to drinking and driving. (Babies, toddlers, kids in front seats without seat belts appear no problem and we’ve seen more drivers texting or calling on their phone in Japan than in whole of South America).
Railroad crossings are electronically guarded by lights and almost always with barriers, yet you will find every driver stop and glance left and right before crossing it. This is a law.
We are flabbergasted by the inefficient traffic light system. Japan being high-tech and all. We haven’t come across any electronic sensing system in the asphalt. So the traffic lights are looped in a fixed system (which includes the pedestrian crossings!). Nor are any green light waves. Bring a lot of patience to this country, which you’ll need when crossing cities (not using the Expressways I mean)!
In winter we were impressed with which speed they cleared the roads.
There are very few police checks and cameras are conspicuously absent. But don’t be fooled – or so we were regularly told. Once caught, whether speeding or drinking with just a drop of alcohol and you’ll be severely punished.
According to this document (with lots of other useful information on traffic rules) fines for drunk driving are 500,000-1,000,000 yen or 3-5 years in jail.
Thus far the police have stopped us three times: once on Kyushu island, once on Honshu and once on Hokkaido. The reason was our foreign license plate and the officers wondered whether that was allowed (obviously it is). They were thorough in checking paperwork but kind and just taking their job (extremely) serious.
8. Roadmaps & Tourist Information for Japan
8a. Electronic Roadmaps
MapsMe automatically steers you to toll roads. For that reason, Coen preferred using an Android tablet loaded with OsmAnd, however, it was terribly slow to update and a pain to use the user interface.
So most of the time MapsMe was on the iPhone and we choose routes manually for a shorter distance, which worked perfectly. The last update includes hiking and biking, which is handy as it incorporates elevation charts.
Coen wrote about navigation systems here.
8b. Paper Roadmaps & Tourist Information Maps
To have an overview of the country we still love using our Reise Know How roadmaps (easy to buy on Amazon, find it here). For detailed maps we source local maps.
Japan has tourist information centers all over the place, especially in (bigger) train and bus stations and at michi no ekis (road stations, read about them here). The majority of the info is in Japanese but maps helped nonetheless.
9. Guidebooks & Non-Fiction Books on Japan
9a. Guidebooks on Japan
We are ambassadors of Insight Guides. Insight Guides focus on sightseeing (rather than endless lists with practical info on places to sleep & eat) and come with lots of beautiful pictures, which helps me get a feel for a place. In the back is a short overview with practical information of websites, addresses, and phone numbers. We used the Japan Insight Guide (find it here) and the Tokio guidebook with clearly outlined walking tours – find it here.
However, guidebooks contain general information and well-known places. So, to get away from that and find lesser-known sites, we depend on:
- What people tell us.
- Information we find in museums.
- Tourist information offices of which, as I said before, there are plenty in this country.
9b. Non-Fiction Books on Japan
I read (and am still reading) a number of books on Japan, non-fiction and novels. Most gave a good insight into Japan (particularly its modern history).
- Alex Kerr – Lost Japan
- Alex Kerr – Dogs and Demons
- James Clavell – Shogun
- Lesley Downer – The Brothers; The Tsutsumi Family
- Lesley Downer – Geisha; The Secret of a Vanishing World
- Lesley Downer – The Last Concubine
- Lesley Downer – Madame Sadayakko; The Geisha who Seduced the West
- Lesley Downer – On the Narrow Road to the Deep North
- Haruki Murakami – Sputnik Sweetheart
- Kazuo Ishiguro – An Artist of the Floating World
- Botchan – Master Darling
Read More: Books about Japan
10. Food & Water
We have a water tank with a filter system in the car so we don’t have to worry about filtered water. What we understand from Japanese is that almost all water is safe to drink. When not, at a few Michi no Ekis or at hot springs if I remember correctly, it is clearly signed.
There is enough to write several books about food in Japan, so I won’t do that here. But a good tip for on the road: onigiris and bentos. The first are rice balls (shaped round or triangular) filled with meat, seaweed, mushrooms or vegetables.
Bentos are set-meals packed in boxes for on the go. You can find these on-the-road foods at any convenience store (7-Eleven, Lawson, Family Mart, among others), in train stations and supermarkets.
11. Convenience Stores – Your Wi-Fi Friend (among other things)
These convenience stores offer more than food and you will find them on every corner of the street. They will become your best friends. Why?
- Lawson & 7-Eleven have good coffee, made from freshly ground beans, for the equivalent of a dollar (100 yen).
- ATMs at the 7-Eleven work with foreign debit cards and all 7-Elevens have ATMs.
- It’s almost impossible to find public trash cans in this country. Everything is elaborately packaged in this country and packaging of produce generally serves very well as garbage bags, which I dispose of in the small garbage cans at convenience stores.
- Lawson & 7-Eleven both have Wi-Fi, but you have to sign up every hour and there is generally a maximum of 3 hours (7-Eleven) and 5 (Lawson), although it does seem to differ per place/day. For your phone, download the app Japan Wi-Fi where you register once and after you’ve logged in you’re set to go.
12. Other Sources of Information
- The forum on Horizons Unlimited has been a longstanding source of information especially for motorcycle tourers but has a growing wealth for four-wheeled travelers as well.
- WikiOverland, help expand the special Wiki Overland pages.
- Ioverlander is the place where overlanders share GPS waypoints on many things, among which camping spots.
- Overlanding Facebook groups among which Overland to Asia.
- Japan Facebook groups among which Free Camping & Hot Springs Japan, Bicycle Touring & Hiking.
Check it out: the Landcruising Adventure Lightweight-Hoodie Collection
Thank you to those who bought us a couple of liters of diesel to support our journey and/or website.
Would you like to do the same?
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