Picture yourself comfortably cruising through rolling fields of green tea bushes, discovering exotic, weather-worn wooden temples, walking amid Japanese World Heritage sites, and falling asleep at night after a long soak in a natural hot spring. I’ve done it, so can you.
A roving retirement experience allows for longer stays and a more immersive interaction with the culture and geography of this most rewarding of countries. That differs from what the majority of the nearly 29 million tourists to Japan in 2017 did.
The usual tourist bucket list includes walking in lines through Kyoto temples, visiting a cat or maid café, or photographing Mt. Fuji while riding the Shinkansen (Japan’s highspeed train) between Tokyo and Osaka. I’m not knocking those people or experiences. But many of us also like to venture off the tourist trail and have engaging encounters with locals. The question is, how can you best explore as much of Japan as possible, without having to stay long-term in lodgings in one location?
I advise free spirits to travel in a camping vehicle. “In a motorhome or campervan, you can go where you want. We often found places that we didn’t find in the guidebooks as a result,” says Sheila Coleman. Traveling this way, Sheila and her husband Gary found themselves guests of honor at a village mushroom festival and also got to experience a religious celebration, when they discovered that a road they wanted to travel on was closed.
Despite the widespread belief that Japan is expensive, traveling through the country this way is surprisingly affordable. Hotels aren’t needed. A basic motorhome that sleeps two adults costs around $52 a night. The most expensive I’ve come across was $265 for a luxurious motorhome that slept six and was equipped with cooking facilities. Rates vary by season. Don’t forget that the price covers your accommodation, catering, and travel needs.
Longer rentals receive discounts. This makes it a valid option for the Asian stage of a longer roving retirement, or as a slow-travel option. Many companies offer discounts from mid-May to early August, when the Japanese don’t tend to vacation. Renting a camper or motorhome is simple. RV rental outlets staffed with English-speakers are located near international airports in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Sapporo, Okinawa, and other locations. Some companies offer pick-up services. Bring an international driver’s license and a credit card. You’ll soon be on the road, enjoying countless scenic and cultural pleasures. Although the Japanese drive on the left side of the road, you’ll soon adapt to that and to other local ways.
You don’t need to speak Japanese. Motorhomes include modern navigation systems that accommodate English-speakers. Some agencies provide iPads. Smartphone apps can translate requests and comments. Others provide maps, information, and recommendations for hot springs, restaurants, camping spots, and roadside rest facilities called michi-no-eki. Comfortable, cheap, and even free parking spaces for motorhomes are everywhere.
Parking overnight in Japanese rest areas, or michi-no-eki, is free. There are over 1,000 throughout the country. According to Kelton Boyer, “They offer clean restrooms and hassle-free, safe places to park for as long as you wish. Some have restaurants with great local delicacies, morning markets with locally grown fruits, vegetables, and locally caught fish, and prepared food, as well. People are friendly, and you will run into others who are traveling by camper to chat with and share stories.”