The best thing about traveling by camper car is the complete freedom, flexibility and independence.
Like that view? Park and stay. Feel like moving on? Okay, let’s go.
How to do that in Japan, is it allowed, does it work, is it safe?
In this article you will find out:
how you can camp about anywhere you want
how to know where you cannot park for the night
about facilities like toilets and water, or the lack thereof
about campings and other rest places with more facilities
Free camping; is it allowed?
Yes. In Japan in general you can park your (camping) car anywhere unless it is mentioned that you cannot. And you are allowed to sleep in it. Sometimes with a maximum of 24 hours. Simple enough.
So you could even sleep in your camper in the centre of Tokyo, on a proper parking spot. Your car needs to fit the spot though, another reason why campers here are almost always under 5 meters in length. Which saves you parking fees too.
In actual though, does it work like that?
From experience I prefer to advise keeping two logical basics in mind. Be discreet and keep it clean.
Nobody, nowhere, likes a bunch of nomads showing up in front of their house around midday and setting up camp, including barbecue and bonfire, singing away into the night. Honestly, most of us do like the idea, but not in our street. Japanese are the same.
Find a suitable spot late afternoon, keep most gear inside and make sure not cause anyone to feel disturbed. People may look at you, we are curious beings after all, honor them with a smile and a happy ‘konnichiwa’ and you’ll be fine.
Keep it tidy
You will be surprised how tidy Japan is, how clean, and how fantastic that is. Most countries are not clean like that. I don’t think it has anything to do with punishments, it is simply a matter of education and culture. One thing to get used to though is the complete lack of garbage bins, anywhere. Bring home and dispose. And that rubbish needs to be separated by material at all times. Read about how you can do that easier here.
In short, the easiest way is again convenience stores. They have bins, small with small lids on them, so keep you quantities bite-sized too.
Where to park and sleep
There are roughly four options and on a typical trip you are likely to combine some.
free as a bird, no facilities
a parking spot with some or no facilities
an official highway overnight spot with facilities
on a campsite
It depends on your personal feelings. Feelings of safety mostly. Some of us are more comfortable to just park and sleep than others. For most people it takes them a couple of days to get used to it, especially in a new country. Read here about safety.
How do I do that?
On our trips it is usually a mix, although a campsite we have not yet used. My strong preference has a spot with at least a toilet. We do not usually search precise spot in advance, we always find one by the time we need one. Sometimes that takes longer than other times. Of course with more experience, we now know great spots in many locations. Which is precisely what we want to share, to save you the search. Join as a Member to have access to all information we gather, it is there for you.
How to select the right spot?
Keep it simple, look for what you need. I love a hot spring bath at the end of the day. Well at least every other day. So on the map or GPS that narrows it done fast. Most onsen have a parking that you can stay on. Or nearby. Suggested article; all about how to..wash, clean and enjoy yourself on the road; hot springs!
Another good choice can be a convenience store parking. You may need to buy something anyway, or use the ATM. They always have a free parking, at least in the countryside. You can use the toilet and might feel safer when there are people around.
A sightseeing spot is another one. There are parkings, these have usually toilets and are generally even free. Added benefit is that you can enjoy the sight early or late, when there are nearly no others around. The same goes for scenic villages and hot spring villages. The whole village is a tourist spot and it can be busy with (local) tourists. They will all leave around 4pm, giving you the place to yourself at precisely the time when the light is at its most atmospheric. Enjoy taking great photos 😉
In the forest or mountains, there are always viewpoints and starts of hiking trails which have a parking with usually a toilet. Sunsets, peaceful nights and a million of stars are yours.
All above are in the parking-with-some-facilities category. Zero facilities is usually what happens when it gets late and we cannot find any. Or when a spot is so beautiful, we just need to stay there. Campsites I have no experience with. From what I here and expect, you pay and get facilities in return. And a place to leave garbage. And sometimes wifi.
Michi no Eki and highway parkings
To complete the picture, two other options are worth noting. First the ‘government overnight-stations or Michi-no-eki (道の駅).’ You can find these along roads and highways and they are designed to use for taking a break from driving, including overnight. You will find 24/7 toilets and often one or two shops mostly geared to locals bringing souvenirs home from that region. And second, parkings along highways/ toll roads. Also here you can overnight unless otherwise indicated. Facilities are as above, usually including and ATM and a restaurant which can be fastfood of a Japanese variety (think ramen noodles) or even an international chain. You might come across a Starbucks or two as well. To me, both options lack of charm but they sure are convenient when doing long distance.
What if there is no hot spring around?
Most of us will enjoy parking near a hot spring best. Of course there is not a hot spring in every corner of Japan. And you might not even want to soak in one every day, simply to save some ¥en. Most places where I like to stop for the night have public bathrooms. Clean toilets and clean tap water to wash and even drink. Sometimes also warm water, great on those chilly winter mornings.
Bringing water to wash and drink
Filling up your tanks on the road. Also for this public toilets facilities are suitable. Washing obviously, drinking water mostly. What to do with the ‘mostly?’ Just stick to the rule that remote taps might be connected to another source and might not be potable. Be safe, fill up at a less remote spot. Actually they always have a sign warning you, mostly in English too.
To bring (drinking) water with you you’ll have a jerrycan. Getting the water into it can be a bit tricky at a public washing basin, so make sure that you have a short (and clean) rubber hose tube in your camper for this. If not, buy 1.5 meter in a DIY-shop which most bigger malls have. Any used water you may have obviously goes into the toilet, not into the washing basin.There is more information in how to.. use Japanese toilets.