What really “Michi no Eki” is about?

Unmasking Japan’s Michi-no-Eki

I’d heard about these roadside rest stops in Japan, known as michi-no eki, for a few months prior to our trip to Japan — how they dotted the highways, offered offered safe, overnight havens for tired drivers, as well as how they showcased the local area by promoting nearby sights, local produce and crafts — but I could never wrap my head around the various descriptions I was exposed to. I couldn’t grasp the idea of a country getting behind a something so useful and utilitarian. And I could never imagine what they really looked like, even after I came across and studied various web sites (each michi-no-eki has its own). The facades I saw online looked cartoony and unreal, too light an iteration for such a grand concept.

Then, when I stumbled on a Facebook group whose admin had created an interactive Google map of every michi-no-eki in Japan and I was able to see the scope of this countrywide effort, I was doubly blown away. There are A LOT of these rest stops in Japan (well over a thousand at last count, a steady increase since their inception in the early 90s).

So, after spending the night in about ten of them, stopping at a dozen or so of them for food or bathroom breaks, and driving by yet another dozen at least, here’s the deal with michi-no-eki.

They are very real, are not at all cartoony or light, and across their various attributes (which always includes parking, restrooms, information booths, restaurants, vending machines, and, often, WiFi) offer tons of support to short and long-distance drivers, including us vanlife types.

Attributes which are mandated by the Japan government are as follows:
Always-open bathrooms. Which run the gamut from the basic and hum-drum to the ultra-luxe variety. Be forewarned that most of the bathrooms we came across were built with open exposures to the elements. IOW, hefty concrete structures without doors and windows. And rarely was there hot water. So, you’ll always have clean and well-supplied bathrooms at a michi-no-eki, but you might not want to loiter. On the other hand, I’ve seen some absolutely over the top bathrooms at the more recently built michi-no-ekis (see the videos below). At these locations you’ll find heated structures, hot-water, and invariably a number of handicap-compliant bathrooms that rival any hospital bathroom or one you’d find in a five-star hotel. Not kidding, here. You really have to see these modern bathrooms to believe it.

Plenty of parking where no one bats an eye if you spend the night. Sometimes there is open space to walk in or picnic tables to set up at, but never did I see a michi-no-eki that encouraged camping or outdoor cooking.

And public telephones, which is kind of a non-issue today given we all have cell phones and onboard GPS navi systems in our cars.

But it’s the stuff beyond the mandated facilities that will blow your mind.
Some michi-no-eki are 24-hour operations with vast grocery stores that rival any you’d find in a big city. There’s usually at least one restaurant housed in the main michi-no-eki building, sometimes more than one, and always vending machines selling hot and cold drinks. Because each michi-no-eki showcases local products, you are likely to see flowers, produce, baked goods, coffee, and locally made crafts on sale.

The fun thing about the network of michi-no-ekis is that you never really know what you’re going to find: we were shut out in Hongu, waking up to that town’s michi-no-eki on the one day during the week it was closed; To the west of Hiroshima on National Highway 2, exhausted from driving, we arrived at Soreneshunan Rest Area and were dumbfounded by its monumental architecture (more sophisticated than many airports), the fact it was open 24-hours, the carpet of flowers and potted plants for sale in front, the five-star toilets and then the social scene that ensued the following morning (I swear, the local kids brought their dates here to cruise the stalls selling coffee, bakery items as well as hang out at the creekside-placed picnic tables!); and in Takehara, the michi-no-eki was unstaffed but still open 24 hours (offering decent WiFi, outlets to recharge our cell phones, comfy sofas, super clean toilets, and lots of heat, which helped on the cold, cold night we were there).

Rarely located on the bucolic backroads of Japan — more likely near to a tollroad or larger highway — they exist as a welcome place to sleep for the night, buy local produce, pick up a map or two, and refresh for more miles. The michi-no-eki system is a total boon to vanlifers (to say nothing of the reciprocal benefit they provide to local farmers and the local workforce).

Five stars and high fives to Japan’s michi-no-eki network!

(Hey, pardon the obsession with bathrooms, but you’ll see in the videos below but these public bathrooms are pretty darn stunning.)

Japanese Super Bathroom….

The Japanese do bathrooms differently — clean, well-stocked with toilet paper, motion-activated lighting, modern fixtures, and often super-sized. They dot the roads and highways, making road-tripping in Japan a pleasure.

This bathroom, on the highway near Hiroshima, was a total charmer — probably the most over-the-top pit stop so far (and we’re talking dozens and dozens of bathroom breaks over the past months).

Bonus post!! —> Curt just added a companion video on our Instagram page. A “how-to” that deciphers the often-baffling control panel on a Japanese toilet. It’s a must-see!

Be Spiritual at Ise shrine 伊勢神宮

The town of Ise, in Mie Prefecture to the east of Osaka, is home to what may be the most revered Shinto shrine in Japan. Ise Jingu.

Ise Jingu’s prominence is wrapped up in the fact that the main sanctuary, called Kotaijingu, is where Amaterasu Omikami, the ancestral kami of Japan’s imperial family, is enshrined.

Meg and I (and our pal Javier from Spain) recently spent a day in Ise — first, roaming the grounds of Ise’s inner shrine, Naiku, including an adjacent grove of epic-sized trees, and then at Naiku’s sister site, six kilometers away, the outer shrine of Geku.

Naiku especially is mind-boggling in size and scope. Surrounded by forest and river, and containing the mysterious and monumental main sanctuary (mysterious because only the Emperor and his family, and just a handful of priests, are allowed inside, no photos allowed, limited viewing perch), Naiku is well-loved by visitors who flock there by the millions (eight million visitor/pilgrims in the past year).

The trees at Naiku, many old and misshapen, are especially beautiful, which might be one of the reasons it became a Shinto temple in the first place. Shintoism has long revered trees, especially the older, larger and more deformed or interestingly shaped ones, as it’s in those trees the Shinto spirits, or Kami, are more likely to be found. Interesting, eh?

We followed our day in Ise with a couple more to the south, sleuthing out more of the Kumano Kodo to hike.

Settling on portions of the near the town of Odai, we hiked parts of the Nisaka-toge and Tsuzurato-toge (Nisaka Pass and Tzuzurato Pass). The hiking was a mixed bag in that there are so many portions of the Kodo that have been paved over and subsumed by the modern world. You definitely need to do your research to find the Kodo trailheads and then to locate long stretches of trail uninterrupted by roads, train tracks, roads or tunnels.

(The best of the online maps of the Kodo nearest to Odai can be found here: http://www.kodo.pref.mie.lg.jp/…/ass…/download/guide_map.pdf)
All in all, a good mix of the modern (good food, a charming, locals’ sento in Ise), the spiritual (Ise’s inner and outer shrines, Naiku and Geku), and the natural (hiking parts of the Kumano Kodo).

The latest video is right here.

Let’s go to Naoshima!

Naoshima Island has been in our sights for years. A tiny spot on the map, just a few kilometers off the coast, it has an outsized reputation among fans of modern art. When we realized we’d be driving by the port town of Uno, gateway to Naoshima, we thought, what the heck, let’s see this place for ourselves!

Getting there is easy enough — two ferry companies make the trip from Uno almost hourly. The big decision we had to make was whether to take the van or go on foot. After speaking with a couple who’d just returned from the island, we decided that in the interest of “keeping it frugal,” we’d take the van so we could save on the cost of a room as well as cook our meals (we’d just done some grocery shopping so we had tons of food to cook up).

The rainy weather wasn’t going to make it any easier to get around on foot or bike, either, so we made the decision to go with the van.

With the next ferry leaving in just a few minutes, we bought tickets and got ourselves ready to go. Not thirty minutes later we were on Naoshima, driving on the island’s main road, asking directions for the information center and doing our usual scanning of the roadway for likely spots to sleep.

The island itself and drop dead beautiful. As we explored, we sometimes hugged the coast and beaches. Other times the road took us up and over the green hills that make up the interior.

There is art and museums everywhere. As night fell, we were able to visit one of the island’s main museums, the Benesse House Museum. We were unprepared for the art — by Sam Francis, Robert Rauschenberg, David Hockney and Claude Monet, to name a few big names hanging on the walls.

Artists represented outside include Yayoi Kusama, whose “pumpkin” sculptures are probably the best known Naoshima art pieces, and also Karl Appel’s many playful cats.

The island’s main town, Honmura, is the setting for what the Benesse Foundation (which owns most of the island and all the art) calls the Art House Project, eight traditional houses turned art projects we can walk through and experience on the various artists’ terms.

Naoshima is definitely worth the trip, but there is a lingering feeling that the whole experience is just too contrived. Maybe Meg and I are living too hand to mouth as we “vanlife” around Japan — the last thing I expected to see between our instant ramen breakfasts and our two banana/two apple lunches was a museum wall heavy with Claude Monet’s Water Lilies.

Naoshima take-away? Visit if you are in the neighborhood but don’t build a trip around it.

Cheers for now!

Visa RUN to Taiwan

We added a new word to our vocabulary recently. And that is, Visa Run. Which can be explained with the help of a brief backgrounder.
If you are an expat on an extended adventure overseas — wherever you are — you’re going to come up against a hard and fast end-date for your stay, based on the visa you received on entry.

For US citizens visiting Japan, that’s 90 days. So for those of us tramping around Nippon with the intent of staying longer, what’s to be done when you bump up against that three-month window?

After looking at a few options the Japanese government presents — including a request to extend the 90-day visa or trying to qualify for a longer stay by claiming to be a researcher or instructor or journalist, for example — we decided to forgo the red tape and opt for, yes, here’s that word again, a visa run. Which is, simply put, an international trip outside the base country which, on return, resets the “visa clock.” For us that would mean another 90 days of unfettered and totally legal travel in Japan.

Our plan was simple. Find the cheapest international destination, go for a week of fun, and on return collect another coveted 90-day landing permit.
We started by trolling the Peach and AirAsia web sites (both are well-known discount airlines) looking for the cheapest fares and most convenient routes from Osaka. In late-February when we were planning our visa run, winter was still a force to contend with, so we were adamant about finding warmer weather (which meant Korea, the closest and cheapest visa-run option was out of the question).

Initially Bali looked good, as did Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, Cambodia, as well as Penang, Malaysia. Fares to those destinations were in the $400-$500 r/t range, per person. Pricey, but not bad considering for years I’d wanted to see each of those cities.

On the down side, however, were the facts that the weather in Bali was nothing but rain, and the flights to Cambodia and Malaysia all required painfully long layovers. One possibility that kept popping up was Taiwan, especially flights to Kaohsiung, a city we had never even heard of until the chance meeting of a follow traveler a few weeks earlier. Turned out to be a giant no-brainer: there are beaches in Taiwan, transportation and food prices are notoriously cheap, the flights were non-stop and just a few hours in length, and the fares were rock-bottom. Round-trip tickets on Peach cost less than $500 (for us both!).

We booked our flights to coincide with the 87th day of our 90-day Japan visa.
We visited somewhat grubby Kaohsiung, grabbing food at the Liuhe Night Market and spending an entire day hiking in Shoushan National Nature Park. We then jumped onto one of the Kenting Express buses for the not quite three-hour bus ride south to Hengchun/Kenting. We hiked in Sheding National Park, swam in the crystal-clear waters of the Pacific Ocean and cruised town on our $5 a day, 125cc scooter.
We wrapped up our one-week stay in the country’s super-charming first capital, and now historically rich and incredibly friendly, Tainan City.

Here’s a bit of a travelogue that documents the trip — to a country I’d go back to anytime given its excellent and cheap street food (tofu pudding anyone?), low prices (lodging, bus and train, as well as said scooter rental), a boisterous night-market scene, and the open-hearted and chatty nature of the Taiwanese people. It all left an indelible impression on us.

Now, with our new visa good for another three months, we are back in Japan through late-May at least. At which time we’ll have to revisit this subject all over again. For now, we’re going to unplug our brains on the subject and go back to vanlifing!

Cheers for now! Curt and Meg

Awaji Island and Tokushima trip

We drove down the coast of Awaji Island to check out the whirlpools at Naruto Kaikyo, under the Onaruto Bridge. It happened to be the opening date for the Uzushio (whirlpool) cruise season — March 1st. We were welcomed by an Awa dance team.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t figure out the trailhead for Mt. Tsurugi in Tokushima. One of main roads to the trailhead was closed due to snow and construction. The townies near Mt. Tsurugi were no help.

The next day the rain came down hard so we gave up and headed home. We stumbled upon a roadside cafe surrounded by straw dolls a custom that started the town of Nagoro in Tokushima. One of women in town started to put handmade, real-sized human dolls where people (including kids) used to hang out… to replace the empty space after most of the locals left for the big city. We didn’t make it to Nagoro, but got some idea of what it must be like after hanging out in the cafe, full of humanized straw dolls…spooky!

Hiking in a (really) pink world

The mountain-top village of Yoshino in Nara Prefecture lives for the blooming cherry tree. Off season, the town is deserted — Meg and I have been here when the shops were all closed and we had the main street to ourselves. But not today. Now, in early April, the place is abuzz with tourists soaking up the views and enjoying the annual rite of admiring and walking under the snowy blossoms of these undeniably beautiful trees.

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We broke the spell of Osaka last week with an impulsive, one-day trip to Yoshino and not too surprisingly were blown away by the colors. The wind was making a snowy storm of floating petals which added to the otherworldly, sometimes surreal feel of Yoshino.

True to form in Japan, there’s an underbelly to the beauty. The planting of some 30,000 trees in the hills around Yoshino comes at a price in that native species had to be cleared (and sometimes clear-cut) to make way for today’s vast fields of cherry trees. And the clear-cutting and felling of native trees is still going on today.

Don’t bother messing with today’s devotees of the cherry tree, however. They are single-minded in their search for the perfect view and the perfect spot under the trees where they can relax, eat their bento, and have a sip or two of sake.

The history of the cherry tree may be bittersweet, but today, with the town dressed in light pink and purple, it is easy to merely enjoy the spectacle.