We said goodbye to Japan with pain in our hearts. Nine months were not enough to see and experience it all. The country is too large, too diverse, too interesting, too beautiful, too fascinating.
What is so fantastic about overlanding in Japan?
Well, let me tell you…
1. Why Overlanding in Japan is Fun
1. Driving in Japan
Sure, Japan has double lane Express Ways. These toll roads are super convenient if you want to quickly move from A to B and have money to spend. They are not interesting to drive and many cross or pass urbanized areas.
However, a large part of the country consists of mind-blowing landscapes. Narrow, winding roads huge mountain slopes for hours on end, making it a paradise for motorcycles and cabrios. Our Land Cruiser doesn’t give that same sensation but the drives are stunning nonetheless. The roads all have convex mirrors in curves so there’s no need to constantly honk your horn.
The Japanese drive slowly, carefully and are kind. As Ulf pointed out, who drove his Mercedes truck here, many went out of their way to back up when the road was too narrow for two cars to pass each other.
The mountains dominate the island but don’t miss out on the coast, e.g. the southern sides of Kyushu and Shikoku, the northern coast of Honshu, or all around Hokkaido. Roads wind along the shore, offering views of – depending on where you are when – cliffs topped by lush vegetation, secluded bays, or slices pieces of ice drifting along its shore.
2. People in Japan
The people are kind, want to help, laugh, share, and are hospitable. In some regions we had more contact with them than others, but sometimes it’s hard to tell whether that has to do with them or with us (e.g. our mood to be more or less open to others). We often had visitors while parked, using a convenience store’s WiFi.
They love taking selfies and chatting. Many bought us coffee and snacks or handed a bag with vegetables and fruits. Others invited us to their homes for a meal or to spend a night.
Read More: Thank You, Japan!
3. Sightseeing in Japan
Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, UNESCO sites, Samurai towns, Castles and Royal tombs can keep you busy every day if you like. Or see how they harvest seaweed, plant rice, and produce miso. Or learn to make your own soba noodles.
The tourist industry is well developed. On the downside this does lead to Disneyland experiences, as we call it (and we mean that in the negative sense). Masses of people (Japanese as well as international travelers) shuffle around places such as Kyoto and Nikko. If that’s what you like, join the crowds.
If not, no worries because many of these above-mentioned sites are also away from the tourist trail! We largely stayed away from the crowded zones and thoroughly enjoyed all the (historic) culture Japan has to offer.
2. Why Overlanding in Japan is Easy
1. No Worries
Japan is easy. Japan is developed. Japan is organized. Especially when coming from a region/continent where you were on a more on-the-road survival-level of overlanding, Japan gives you time to rest, to breathe, to fully enjoy without having to fret about the state of the road, the possible corruption of a police officer, or whether it is safe to camp somewhere. Japan is super safe.
This, obviously, depends on where you are and where you want to go. The Far East is far from many places. However, when you are in Vladivostok, or on your way to the Northeast Asian side of the world, it makes sense to include Japan in your journey.
Read More: Japan Overland Travel Guide
There are ferry connections between Japan, South Korea, and Russia. No container hassle, just driving on and off a ferry and off you go.
When arriving by ferry you do NOT need a Carnet de Passage. The tale in the overlanding world says you do when arriving by container but we have not checked this. Anyway, there is an easy way around it:
- When coming from Vladivostok you’ll ferry via South Korea.
- When coming from elsewhere in the world, ship your vehicle to South Korea (NO Carnet needed) and then ferry to Japan (which is what we did; read about it here).
From South Korea (Busan) to Japan (Fukuoka) we shipped with Camelia Lines (but there are many ferries, either leaving from Donghae or Busan and arriving at various destinations on the Japanese side).
When ferrying from Japan or South Korea to Russia, DBS Ferry is the one you need.
Free camping is allowed. While true wild camping isn’t much of an option (simply not much wilderness left in this country), you will find many parking lots (with public toilets) all along the coast with views of the ocean as well as in the inland, mountainous areas.
We sometimes camped in parking lots of convenience stores if their parking lot was big and we asked permission first.
Having said that, expect to be sent away (often after midnight) when parked in parking lots of e.g. supermarkets, malls and Pachinko parlors.
Read More: Accommodation & Camping in Japan
4. Tourist Infrastructure
Sure, you can do it all on your own, without guidebooks, GPS, and maps. Whatever you feel comfortable with. But if you like, you can get information (mostly in Japanese, but some in English in the more commonly visited areas) and lots of detailed city/region maps. You will find Tourist Information Centers at bus stations, railway stations and at Michi no Ekis.
- We use Reise Know-how maps that give us an overview of the country, on which we highlight possible places of interest. We then narrow down with detailed maps obtained locally.
- We use Inside Guides and preferably a Dutch guidebook as well. These will give a general idea of the country’s history, culture, foods, and destinations. We then locally find additional info and make our choices based on all that (or just go with the flow).
5. Practical Stuff
On every corner is a public toilet, along the coast we have come across beaches with public showers. In (bigger) cities are coin laundries.
WiFi? Major cities have Starbucks, but we mostly used the WiFi at 7-Elevens and Lawson, just two of the dozen or so convenience-store brands throughout the country. Here is more on the practicalities of Japan’s convenience stores.
ATMs? We could withdraw money from ATMs at the 7 Elevens (which all had one, and they all worked and include the option of doing the transaction in English).
Read More: Books on Japan
3. Why Overlanding in Japan is Affordable
By no means is Japan a cheap country and it is very easy to blow a hole in your budget, particularly on food. But as free camping is easy, so is cooking your own meals. We bought most of our produce at Michi no Ekis and bought the rest in supermarkets. When on the road we stopped at convenience stores for a quick bite but only occasionally went out to eat.
Of course, if you have more money to spend, great! Enjoy the restaurants! For us this was not an option.
You don’t depend on paid accommodation but can camp pretty much anywhere, as mentioned above.
You don’t depend on toll roads.
It’s easy to spend a fortune on tickets too for all kinds of tourists sights, particularly in a touristic place such as Kyoto. But, as mentioned above, there are enough places and experiences of interest that don’t require entrance fees.
On that note, costs overlanders can’t avoid:
- You do need to buy car insurance. We paid 17,686 yen for a year.
- On arrival you pay a Surety commission of 20,000 yen.
Read More: Japan Budget Report
What Was our Only Challenge
Fair enough, no country is paradise and neither is Japan. But frankly, I can come up with only one difficulty: language. Very few Japanese speak English. We managed a few Japanese words and did study but were not particularly successful. Having said that, we should have tried harder. It would have led to many more meaningful discussions and other interactions.
Google Translate on your Smartphone is your best friend.
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