Two guys and a van: Japan’s cheapest road trip

Two guys and a van: Japan’s cheapest road trip

How we scrimped, scrounged and slummed our way across Japan, and still had a hell of a time
On our GPS-led road out of Tokyo, necessities (including receipts) to the fore.
On our GPS-led road out of Tokyo, necessities (including receipts) to the fore.

Half a year had slipped away since I'd last seen my Aussie pal Peach. We were long overdue for some good times.

After a vagrant couple of months bumming around northern India, I wound up at Peach's apartment in Fukushima, stone-broke and in need of companionship. It was the beginning of winter 2010, a few short months before the quake.

We crowded ourselves around a kerosene stove for warmth. With beers in hand and cigarettes dangling from our lips, we hatched a plan.

The thing is, both Peach and I had an embarrassingly small amount of money. Our disposable income, pooled, was only ¥38,000 (US$500) -- a sum that could be easily blown away in a single evening on nice dinner and lodging for two.

But that night we decided as long as we could avoid making costly mistakes, a road trip across Japan was possible. Our destination -- the Koya mountain range, in Wakayama Prefecture, some 800 kilometers away.

Fools’ errand

Some may have called us fools for wanting to travel with such low funds in Japan, one of the most expensive places on earth. But we did it anyway.

To prepare, a visit to our friend Baba at the local Indian curry house, Purnima, was in order. We offered our services cleaning in exchange for some curry to take and eat on the road.

By noon the next day our lovely town Iwaki was long gone and we were zooming through Tokyo at top speed -- we watched it pulse through the rearview, the neon city.

Peach drove. He called his old van Beatrix. I navigated. My aide was a Japan-made GPS device called Michiko (which is an amusing Japanese wordplay, when you consider the first kanji might be the same for “road”).

Michiko's electronic voice was sweet and believable, as if she had been our companion for many years. But like many of the women I've encountered in my life, Michiko was easy to misread.

To the hills

On the back of a receipt we scribbled an itemized log of highway tolls. The third entry said: “¥700 -- BURN,” to reflect an errant toll we paid after taking a wrong exit somewhere in the web of highways keeping the capital city together.

Taken from a Shizuoka rest stop, Mount Fuji looms over the road. Taken from a Shizuoka rest stop, Mount Fuji looms over the road.

We couldn't afford to waste any more yen. There was still a long way to go.

We were somewhere around Shizuoka when we pulled over for a breather. The hard part, driving Beatrix through Tokyo, was over. From the side of the road we sat and watched snowcapped Fuji-san, stoic and beautiful in the daylight.

The overland journey is quintessential. What better way is there to see the world? We raced through tunnels carved beneath rolling mountains.

The whole idea behind our trip was longevity -- we wanted to make it last as long as we could. Stopping for the day at a Shizuoka hotel and enjoying a nice dinner would have been satisfying, but would have easily depleted our coffers and we'd be on our way home soon after.

To eliminate paying for accommodation, we cleaned out the back of Beatrix prior to departure. With the rear seats taken down and everything cleared out, the van had about two meters of level linear space in the rear. Peach, being clever, threw in a bunch of soft things to sleep on.

We drove on and into the night, telling stories and holding epic discussions on life, love and learning. Our postulations and suppositions reached a grand height. And it seemed right then so very fitting that we sped right past an amusement park, its towering roller coaster glowing in the night.

We wondered dreamily about the possibility of riding the great coaster. But we feared prohibitive cost, and for now, it was time to make camp for the night. We pulled off the highway and headed toward the nearest town.

Even though Peach and I had more than six years of living in Japan between us, we had no idea how to properly say the name of the town along the water where we randomly chose to spend the night. Not until the funny Japanese man who owned a Thai restaurant told us -- “Yokkaichi.”

Bugging out

The restaurant was open late in a dodgy part of town where women loitered the cold streets in large groups. Peach and I shared a plate of greasy noodles. Then, the owner said that for dessert we could eat as many grasshoppers out of his tin as we liked.

Once hunger was nourished for ¥2,000, we took Beatrix to a conbini. Any convenience store away from Japan's major urban centers will have a decent-sized parking lot. Two strong half-liter premixed drinks sell for about ¥400.

We purchased a brace of cans to legitimize our presence there. The van would remained parked in the lot as we slept through the night.

In the morning, I grabbed an old paper cup and liberated some hot water from inside the conbini to make tea. We traveled with a small assortment of tea bags, which discounted us from needing to buy a morning beverage.

The graveyard atop Mount Koya, haunting and beautiful in the breaking dawn. The graveyard atop Mount Koya, haunting and beautiful in the breaking dawn.

After each making good use of the toilet and bathroom sink inside the 7-Eleven, we were on the road again. We would make it to Koya by nightfall.

We stuck to mostly local roads, avoiding highway tolls whenever possible. At one point a snaking traffic jam slowed us to a crawl and Peach took evasive action, careening the van in reverse down the road and then swinging off the nearest exit.

Our ascent of Koya-san would be by back roads that twisted up the mountain. Minimal space was cleared from the mountainside and the forests of trees when this access road was made.

Snow fell and the air was cold and misty. Peach dropped Beatrix into four-wheel drive and we climbed slowly up the mountain and into the beating heart of Japanese Shingon Buddhism.

Hurts when you’re dead

The haunting and beautiful graveyard atop Koya-san is considered a very auspicious place to be put to rest. Peach said that having your ashes entombed there is more expensive than anywhere else in Japan.

An overnight snow on Koya gave all the Buddhas little hats of winter. An overnight snow on Koya gave all the Buddhas little winter hats.

Snow crunched beneath our feet as we walked through the graveyard. Beautiful Buddhas carved in stone wore little hats of snow. Everything was quiet and at peace.

Most people who make the trip to this place usually stay for the night inside one of the 120 temples situated on the Koya range.

A stay will include warm bedding and access to bathing facilities, meals, and probably some sort of great Buddhistic lesson.

The daily cost for one person is consistently more than ¥10,000 at any of the temples. That sum was not within our means.

Again, we retired to the van. This night was colder than the last. We huddled close together with a bottle of sake to warm us as we shivered through the night.

Before dawn we were awake and needed to move around to stay warm and alive. Peach had the idea of entering one of the temples for the morning ceremonies.

A fire ceremony is often performed by the temple's monks. Spectators are sometimes welcome. The first temple we came to allowed us inside. We sat silently inside before a great fire, warming our bodies and minds.

After the ceremony we joined the monks for tea. They gave us snacks and entertained a small discussion on the nature of everything.

Ghost town

With our goal of making it to Koya-san complete, it was time to move on. We had two more days on the road. Peach recalled a public bathhouse at the bottom of the mountain that seemed low-rent enough to suit us.

We needed to bathe, and we could definitely afford to do so. At the ofuro we scrubbed and soaked in hot water, our cold bones relishing the thaw.

Quick power nap after the bath and we were back on the road and making good time. We considered briefly detouring to Osaka, but Tokyo beckoned us. We had two days to make it back before the start of the new year.

We never saw that amusement park again. Michiko put us on a different course for the return. We stopped for the night not far from Nagano, in a strange place called Chiryu.

The Chiryu train station is one of the busiest of its kind I've ever seen. There are only two platforms and trains come and go constantly. The volume is outstanding considering the town is an otherwise unremarkable place.

Outside the small perimeter of activity around the station, Chiryu is a ghost town. But the station front was alive in the night. The shuffle of trains mixed with the sounds of izakaya doors sliding open and closed. There were great bursts of laughter and energy.

We parked Beatrix at a FamilyMart conbini and went in to buy drinks, our humble way of “paying” to keep the van parked there all night. 

We counted our cash. Gasoline and highway tolls had eaten a chunk out of the kitty, but we decided a sit-down for proper food and drinks would be OK.

Local heroes

Being two rather tall white men in the middle of rural Japan was nothing new to me and Peach. A couple of places turned us away when we walked inside, perhaps thinking we were trouble. Unfazed, we searched until we found a place that would have us.

Peach said meeting a couple of girls might be nice. I did not disagree. But as it happened, we met a couple of guys instead.

Seated next to us, two young Japanese guys were drinking beers and rolling their own cigarettes. Seeing a guy smoke rollies in Japan is uncommon. I offer my observation to the smoker.

That was how I start talking to him. But all I can recall about how it ended was that it was nearly dawn when Peach and I left the izakaya and stumbled to the van to sleep. Those guys treated us to more beers than we could count.

Back to the beginning

The dawn of a new year, the Year of the Rabbit, was upon us. When we woke up late the next morning, we knew it was imperative to make it back to Tokyo that very day. The countdown had begun.

Beatrix's tired four-cylinder engine carried us all the way back to Tokyo at a steady pace. On the home stretch we stopped for fuel and met a women's windsurfing team from Kanagawa. They said traffic was not so bad and we could make it to the neon city by nightfall.

I got on the phone and arranged a rendezvous with a friend in west Tokyo. He said we were in luck, he knew of a huge new year's party and place we could park the van for free.

A fine way to start the year.