A heated holiday
We decided to rent a campervan in Japan. But that was easier said than done. First of all, most people who rent a campervan book these things many months in advance. Every rental company we contacted had the same reply to our query. Sorry, all booked. Then we struck lucky. We found a small business that owned just two vehicles and they were both available. Now we just had to deal with the second issue – an IDP or international driver’s permit which you need in Japan to be able to rent a vehicle. IDPs are issued on the spot in your home country at your local roadside assistance centres. But the problem of course was that we weren’t in our home country and we weren’t planning on going there before heading to Japan. We discovered you can order them online and ship them to an address different to the one on your license. But where could we ship it to? Luckily we could rely on Kei. He lives in Tokyo and he received them for us.
We arrived in Tokyo rather tired as neither of us managed to sleep much on the overnight flight, and then tried to book a cheap hotel for the night. But Japan doesn’t do cheap and cheerful hotels. So we embraced a funky pod-hotel and instantly stepped back in time to our dormitory days as backpackers. We slept for a few hours before we caught up with Kei who had our two IDPs.
The next morning we walked to the pick-up location of the campervan and met Joanne. She was super helpful and gave us everything we might need. From bedding, towels and crockery to dishwashing liquid, chairs and even firewood.
We loaded the van, we named her xxx, and not much later we were off. We drove out of Tokyo and quickly realised you don’t get anywhere fast in Japan when you drive. Roads have a speed limit of 40 and even the faster toll roads are restricted to 60 or 70. Most people take the train if they want to get somewhere fast, but because we were heading into the Alps, we couldn’t really use the bullet trains.
But the Japanese don’t seem too bothered with these speed restrictions, nor with traffic lights. Many people drive through a red light, and even more cruise 10-20km faster than the speed limit allows. The driving was gentle and civilised, but Google regularly added a challenge by sending us through narrow streets designed for pedestrians, not campervans. We loved their musical roads and hope they’ll install them in Australia and other places too. When you drive them, the relief on the road creates vibrations at different ‘tones’, creating a song as you drive over them. Wicked.
Having a campervan meant we didn’t have to spend any time booking accommodation. In Japan you can free camp in every public carpark with a toilet. And they are everywhere. It means you can visit a tourist site or town and explore, knowing there is always an option to stay nearby. And if you can’t find a nice spot, you can always opt for a carpark next to a seven-eleven or another konbini (the Japanese name for convenience stores). They are all open 24hrs a day and also offer free bathrooms. It is a brilliant system and the fact that every toilet has a heated seat makes it a luxury too. Nearly every day we would find a stream, a lake or an onsen to ‘shower’. It was a brilliant way to explore the country.
We also loved our heater in the campervan and ran it often, the flannel pyjama Jude bought in the local pharmacy was not enough to keep her warm at night in the mountains. We will definitely be looking into adding one to Lara as it is just very cozy when it is cold outside!
The only downside to the campervan was the lack of bins in Japan. Whilst their principles are fantastic – take your rubbish home to recycle and dispose of – the practicalities for foreigners in campervans are a little tricky. It does work though, there is hardly any litter to be seen in the country. And once we got the hang of it and discovered a few recycling options in supermarkets we managed. It was staggering to see how much plastic they use to wrap everything though. Including small items (think cookies for example) individually wrapped. Hopefully that trend doesn’t come to the rest of the world.
We visited temples and palaces in places like Kyoto and Nikko, popped in to see the Toyota museum, learnt all about fishing with cormorants and fed the deer in Nara. But most of our time we spent exploring the Alps and some of its stunning hikes. Unfortunately we were a little late in the season and quite a few of the hikes we wanted to do were already closed (like Mt Fuji and Mt Ontakesan) due to early snowfall on the peaks. But there were plenty of other hikes still open.
Some of our highlights were seeing the snow monkeys on several of the mountains we went to, spotting a pair of rock ptarmigan , known locally as raicho, on Mt Kisokoma, reaching the top of Mt Karamatsu through the snow, the view from the top of Mt Yunomaru and bumping into a Japanese badger on our hike at Kamikochi.
Jude spotted several more interesting birds, including the shy but stunning mandarin duck, the green pheasant (national bird of Japan), and a brown dipper. And Jon was very pleased with getting in to do a whiskey tasting at the Suntory Hakushu distillery, despite not having a booking….
As a vegetarian it was at times pretty hard to find something to eat. Picking up sushi lunches from a konbini usually took quite a while as we used google’s picture translate to check ingredients. The majority of options had some form of meat in it. Often combined with traditional vegetarian choices like tofu, tempeh or fish. Meals would often have two types of protein, beef with pork or chicken with fish. But we managed, although sometimes Jude’s food was uninspiring.
But luckily we shared quite a few meals with Kei, you might remember him from our trip in Tibet. He introduced us to the best Japanese food. We loved all dishes we ate on the first night we caught up in Tokyo, probably because we let him do al the ordering. It was delicious and a great introduction to Japanese cuisine. Other favourites were the hoto noodles we ate seated on the floor, okonomiyaki we cooked ourselves on a hot plate in the middle of our table, as well as monjayaki which was also made by us on a hot plate in the middle of the table after Kei showed us how, describing it as trying to cook vomit…. Though it may not look very appealing when you pour it onto the hot plate, we can assure you it is delicious and we can highly recommend it. Another typical Japanese culinary highlight were the vending machines selling ice-creams! They were definitely a favourite and we marveled at the ingeniousness of it all whilst demolishing yet another chocolate almond ice-cream.
During our hikes in Japan we were mostly surrounded by old people. We all know the population of Japan is the oldest in the world, but actually seeing it is quite a different thing. They have all the gear and often wear helmets on a stroll around a river. Many of them wear bear bells too, and with the number of people on some of these hikes it becomes hard to hear nature….
We loved Japan and all its differences to the rest of the world and have put Hokkaido on our wishlist. We didn’t go there this time, but it sounds like that is the place to be for us (more nature and wildlife). Do you want to join us there?