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.)