Would you like to visit Japan and focus on places and ways of life far away from the popular tourist destinations? The places where trains and buses don’t go? Rent a car and hit the road. Japan has a perfect road travel infrastructure, which provides you with all kinds of conveniences. Meet the michi no ekis, Japan’s road stations.
Over the past 30 years or so, an increasing number of Japanese have discovered the charms of road travel. In the 1990s, the government responded to this growing need and set up a system of stopovers. Today, throughout the country, from Okinawa all the way north to Hokkaido, there are more than 1,000 road stations along any type of road, around cities as well as deep in the countryside. In fact, michi no ekis are so popular these days that many of them are no longer just for road travelers. In some places they have become an alternative for supermarkets because the produce and other foods sold there come from local sources, are super fresh and sometimes cheaper.
The system of stopovers isn’t new to Japan. For centuries Japanese regions were connected by means of trunk roads called Shichido Ekiro. They included road stations where travelers could rest, fill up on supplies and receive messages. During the early 20th century, railroads and marine transport took over. Roads became less important and it was not until late in the same century that Japanese started taking to the road on a large scale.
While the michi no ekis have a number of commonalities, I am aware of the pitfall of generalizing. Over the past eight months, my partner and I have visited dozens of them on Kyushu, Honshu, Shikoku and Hokkaido, and this is a reflection of our experiences at these michi no ekis, where we often spent the night, sleeping in our car.
First let’s look at what all road stations have on offer, 24/7, and free of charge:
Photo by Karin-Marijke Vis
1. Parking lot
The parking lots are large and accessible 24 hours a day. They are not campsites, and have no security system as such, but travelers can stop here for a nap or spend the night. Most will sleep in their vehicles; every once in a while somebody pitches a tent. Note that these parking lots lack shade and in summer people leave their cars running for the aircon (and in winter for the heater), which may disturb your sleep. But other than that we have never encountered any disturbances. We feel Japan is a super safe country and spending the night at a michi no ekis has felt good each time.
All michi no ekis have public toilets. They always work, are clean and offer toilet paper and running water to wash your hands. Not all of them have soap. Depending on the michi no eki they have squat toilets and/or sit toilets (many with heated toilet seats and a bidet).
This is what most, but not all, michi no ekis offer:
Photo by Karin-Marijke Vis
1. Tourist Information
Michi no ekis may have a counter with extensive information, mostly in Japanese and sometimes in English, and an employee to help you. If there isn’t a counter, the road station will have a display with brochures. The information is always free of charge.
Tip: check out posters on the walls announcing activities. Even when in Japanese, the images may tell you enough, which is how we have stumbled upon festivals and some beautiful natural landscapes in the surrounding area.
I love this part of the system as the michi-no-eki tourist-information counters are so much easier to find and reach than having to go downtown and finding a tourist information office there, e.g. in railway or bus stations, where parking is often a problem.
2. Shops with Produce and Other Foods
Even when not spending the night, we often stop at the road stations to stock up on supplies. An important feature of the michi no eki system is their involving local communities, and I love the farmers markets. Some are small, some are big, but in most cases their produce is cheaper than in supermarkets. The produce is super fresh and by buying there you support local farmers.
Early morning you see trucks delivering the fresh produce and couple of michi no ekis take the involvement a step further: The produce section has small explanatory panels with the farmer’s photo and a short story about where and what he farms, which gives a stronger sense of connection between the growers and buyers of food.
Apart from the fresh fruits and vegetables, the shop may have (sometimes extensive) sections with fermented and dried seaweed, homemade miso, tofu, fresh and dried fish and locally produced green teas.
Each prefecture and subregion loves to display its regional specialties, and michi no eki shops (or restaurants, see below) may be the place to find them. Especially the processed food section, e.g. rice crackers, cookies and the like, have small boxes with samples to try.
3. Shops with Handicrafts
If you like to buy souvenirs, this may be a good stop for you. You may find textiles, woodwork and any other kind of (local) handicrafts.
4. Restaurant/Snack Counter
Like at the shop’s food section, the restaurant or snack counter may give you the opportunity to try some local treats or dishes. Some regions are known for their soba noodles, others for their mountain vegetables or udon noodles.
Note that the above-mentioned 4 facilities are open during the day only, opening hours generally between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.
Lastly but not unimportantly, this is what you should not expect/won’t find at michi no ekis:
Photo by Karin-Marijke Vis
1. Laundry Facilities
As said before, michi no ekis are not set up as campsites. There have no sinks to wash your dishes nor are there any laundry facilities (tip: you can find laundromats in cities).
If you are in for coffee and a sandwich, michi no ekis are not the places to go; the road stations are all about Japanese foods and beverages. (tip: drink your fill of coffee at one of the zillion convenience stores, which, by the way, is also the place to dispose of your garbage).
During the first months of our travel we never found Wi-Fi at michi no ekis, however, at the last couple of places, in Shikoku, we have. It is unclear to me whether this is a local feature offered by the local government, or whether the michi no eki system in its entirety is adding this feature.
4. English-Speaking Employees
Most employees don’t speak English but goodwill and the use of a Google translate app will get you a long way.
With the exception of a handful, the road stations are not an attractive place for kids and thus for traveling families in need of a place for their (young) kids to get out and run amok.
Photo by Karin-Marijke Vis
Special Features of Michi No Ekis
The road stations have proved to be helpful places of refuge during natural disasters, such as the Fukushima earthquake (here called the Great East Japan Earthquake) in 2011 and the Chuetsu Earthquake in 2004. They were safe places for people to gather, get relief aid, and information on the status of the disaster.
There are michi no ekis with specific features. For example, the one where I am writing this is the Washi-no-sato michi no eki (Nakacho, Shikoku) where a ropeway takes visitors up to Mt. Tairyu. The majority are pilgrims on the Shikoku Henro Trail, a pilgrimage to Shikoku’s 88 sacred places, to visit the 21st (Tairyuji Temple) that stands on the top of this mountain.
One I believe you should add to your itinerary when you are driving to the north of Honshu in summer is the Inakadate michi no eki in Aomori, which offers views of spectacular rice paddy art.
The Munakata Road Station near Fukuoka city is known for its fish market and the Kaze-no-Oka michi no eki in Tono for its pickles. Others may offer workshops and other hands-on experiences, e.g. on preparing local specialties or offer outdoor adventures.
Karin-Marijke Vis has been overlanding in Asia and South America since 2003 and is currently in Northeast Asia. Her stories have been published in 4WD and travel magazines. Follow her Notes on Slow Travel.