2014 Japan Roadtrip (full set on flickr)
In March 2014 I got a driver's license. What better way to break it in than to go on an epic 10 day roadtrip in Japan with 2 other J-pop idol fans (Pollinic and Naruse)? Nevermind that it's driving on the wrong side of the road, how hard can it be?
Tentatively we had events in Tokyo and Osaka we wanted to go to. We've all been back and forth between Tokyo and Osaka a million times via Shinkansen, but have never taken the slow road and checked out what's in between. So that was the plan. Nobody got tickets to the Osaka event, so the original excuse disappeared, but the plan remained.
This was probably the most detailed pre-planned trip I've ever taken. We took a few glances at hotels two months in advance and realized that the cheap rooms were already disappearing, so we would have to book hotels early, which meant knowing in advance where we were going to be each evening. Not my favorite way to travel, but whaddyagonnado?
We collaborated from our 3 different corners of the world and put together a massive Google Doc with ideas, and whittled them down to figure out a route. We'd end up going Tokyo- Shizuoka- Nagoya- Osaka- Shikoku- Okayama- Kanazawa- Matsumoto- Tokyo. A trip that would turn out to have 2600 km on the road in all!
Pollinic doesn't have a driving license, but the plan was for Naruse to also get an international license. He didn't have much confidence in his driving but I figured it would be good with a backup in any case. Of course he didn't get one so I was the sole driver for all 10 days.
I even bought a guide book, which I don't think I've ever done before...
Picked up our rental car and only fixed point for the next 10 days outside Shinagawa station, and got on the road right away, headed for our first goal - some caves outside of Mt Fuji.
Spotted Mt Fuji! You don't realize how huge it is until you can see it from miles and miles and miles away.
These caves were formed naturally as lava tunnels by Mt Fuji when it was more active. Then when they were discovered by olden time people they used them for things like cold storage and hatching weird bugs.
Here you can see the ripples from the lava flow
At the wind cave we couldn't avoid repeatedly making rude jokes about entering the cold wet hole (kanji for cave is the same for "hole") of an NMB48 member with a certain kanji in her name...
Narusawa Wind Cave by kalleboo, on Flickr
Loved the cute signs
Already now we started customizing our car - with a plushie Mt Fuji and a good-weather charm (teru teru bozu)
On our way to the caves, we spotted a sign for a lookout point which we now made our way to. To get up the mountain we had to drive on a poorly-maintained dirt road. My first time getting some dirt under the wheels! It was really fun.
But when we arrived we got worried. Was this place abandoned?
No problem, it was just really run-down. Run by a friendly elderly couple who also had a restaurant and souvenir shop in there.
The view was amazing. Too bad the weather wasn't better.
You could also see the "Aokigahara" forest famous for being a popular suicide spot.
This was the day after a mad man had snuck a saw into an AKB48 handshake event in Iwate and hurt two AKB48 members and one of the staff. It was headlines in all the newspapers this day.
Another thing we just spotted on a road sign and made a small detour for - The Otodome falls. A small park with a bunch of waterfalls.
We had also wanted to go to famous photo spot where you can take a photo of Mt Fuji with rice fields and the shinkansen bullet train in front, but the weather was turning bad and it would have made us arrive at our hotel really late, so we just headed to the hotel for the night, in Shizuoka city. We had a well-deserved dinner of fried stuff and I got a nice refreshing beer.
Our hotel was quite run-down, but you could tell that one day it was a really classy place. Points for being the first hotel in Japan with a Yukata that doesn't end at my knees.
Finished the day with some drinks and AKB48 TV shows
After the worst hotel breakfast I've ever had (literally just coffee, rolls with butter or jam, and hardboiled eggs. Nothing else at all.) we headed off to the first destination of the day. We struggled to find something to see in the area, but decided on seeing a World Record holding bridge - The World's Longest Wooden Pedestrian Bridge, Hourai Bridge.
At the other end of the bridge was a small shrine.
Long life symbolized by a turtle
And a bell to ring 3 times for a good love life. If you ring it more than 3 times, it won't have any effect.
I spotted something out of the corner of my eye - an abandoned van! We had planned on doing some urban exploration on this trip, but not this soon! It looked somewhat new, I wonder why it was dumped here.
For those who don't know, urban exploration, or urbex for short, is the act of exploring and photographing abandoned buildings. In Japanese it's called Haikyo, and since I'm a massive weeaboo that's the word I'll use from now on. It's also something where it often REALLY helps to have a car, so it's something we couldn't have done otherwise, so it was a perfect activity for the roadtrip.
All fired up from the abandoned van, we checked for other abandoned stuff on the road, using a site called haikyo.crap.jp. Yeah, Crap. Whatever.
The first place we found was called the London Hotel, and was an abandoned Love Hotel (=hourly hotel for couples to have sex in).
Since I'd never do anything as questionably legal as trespassing, I waited outside and these photos were tooootallly not taken by me. Whomever did take them did wish for the first time he had a real camera instead of just an iPhone though.
The hotel grounds were surrounded by somewhat dense foliage, which was was right in front of a massive old people's home or something. We parked our car among like 100 white company logo cars... we must have stuck out like a sore thumb. As we were going back to the car to leave, a woman in professional clothes with a clipboard approached up and started talking. We pretended not to see or hear her (really hard when they're almost next to you), got in the car and drove the f away.
We stopped at a 7-11 on the road to pre-order tickets to the AKB48 senbatsu sousenkyo (election) museum. Each ticket comes with a free member poster, so a certain person in our group bought quite a few tickets. We'd later learn that you didn't need more than one ticket - you can just buy extra posters on the spot. At a third of the price of a ticket... D'oh!
Desperate to find something to see on the way, I took to Wikivoyage and found an old (restored) checkpoint gate from the 1600's. It was built by Tokugawa Ieyasu to control the flow of people and goods.
This room was used to check if women were actually women or men dressed up...
This area is famous for it's tasty eel (unagi), so we tried keeping an eye out for a restaurant to try it at, but they all looked closed. I guess it's not the high tourist season. This was literally the last one before the highway, so we stopped and went in. then we saw the price list and turned on our heels. No eel for us.
We ended up eating at a highway Service Area instead. I'll write a bit more about the highway system and the service/parking areas later on.
Today was also the start day of a Ichiban Kuji raffle sale held at FamilyMart convenience stores around the country. They had a shelf of 100 SKE48 goods. You paid 600 yen to pick a ticket which had the number for one of the goods on the box, and you got that item off the shelf. Once all the tickets are gone, all the goods are gone and the event is over.
Now this convenience store was only accessible on the toll highway out in nowhere, so they still had ALL the goods. We all got a ticket and then Pollinic and I tried applying peer pressure to Naruse to buy more. I think he got a second one. I won a bearbrick figurine for some member I didn't care about, and I later gifted it to Zabitan.
We'd later stop at every FamilyMart we passed in Nagoya and check what stuff they had left and try to pressure Naruse into buying more shit. Once we left Aichi-ken, it seemed like no FamilyMarts had it anymore, so maybe it was mainly done in Aichi-ken?
That night we spent in Nagoya, so of course dinner was to be eaten at the SKE48 Café. We got in literally a minute before last order. Girigiri!
We got the table with Matsui Jurina's signature!
Day Three started with breakfast at the Denny's across the street from our hotel
Our car was then further customized with some goods bought the previous evening at the AKB48 shop... It was starting to gain some character! These were the two members hurt in the attack a few days earlier, we were showing our solidarity with their trials.
The first goal for the day was the famous Suzuka Grand Prix racing circuit. Around the actual race course there is a racing-themed amusement park. We were almost the only people there that day
They had two different go-kart tracks. One for kids in high school or lower which didn't require a driving license, one for adults which did. Pollinic doesn't have a license so we graciously dubbed him the official racing photographer.
It was super fun and now I want to do it again. My results weren't super-impressive, but I was still like 10 seconds faster/lap than naruse and lapped him once
It's always fun to see what kind of stuff japanese tourist destinations make up for souvenirs. Suzuka sold "Asphalt rusk". Did not look appetizing...
They also had a little racing museum and you could see among other things the racecar for Japan's current F1 hope - Kamui Kobayashi
On the way to the next destination we stopped for a small snack and at the Ministop they had a deal where you get a free HKT48 hand fan if you bought 2 pieces of candy. Instant sale, and our car leveled up in awesomeness one more step.
It was at this point in the trip I started to doubt the guidance skills of Google Maps... It kept giving confusing guidance like "right turn ahead" instead of "keep straight, dont take the exist", at one point it tried to send us onto a road that didn't exist, and once it even told us to drive straight over the (blocked off) median of a busy highway!
I decided to try Apple Maps for a bit. Just looking at the maps it wasn't looking good though... And of course it wasn't. We tried Apple Maps to navigate to our hotel that night, and of course it took us to the opposite side of town! Their POI database is useless.
After bitching on Facebook, someone suggested NAVITIME, which we then used for the rest of the trip. It's an excellent navigation app that only works in Japan. The lane guidance is amazing, it shows an accurate representation of even oddly-shaped crossings, as well as showing an exact replication of road signs you encounter but with the road you want to go on highlighted. When you get on a highway, it switches to a mode that shows the next upcoming rest stops and interchanges. Gas stations are shown with their price in yen/liter right on the map.
The only problem with it is that the display updates with quite a large lag, and it takes a while before it decides to recalculate the route, so if you take a wrong turn it's useless for the next minute or so.
Our last stop for the day was the Ise Grand Shrine, where took a stroll through the grounds and stopped and prayed for our waifus.
They sold amulets for traffic safety as well. We declined to buy one, and yet ended up having no problems on the trip. Take *THAT*, gods!
There were also fish and a cock.
Ise is also famous for the lobster in the area called Ise Ebi. We wanted to try it of course, but by the time we got out of the shrine, all the restaurants and stalls were closed. I ran into the only souvenir store still open and found these Shimp chips. They tasted... normal.
On the way to our hotel for the night, I asked if we should stop at the next Service Area, and everyone just replied indecisively.. "Anoooo...". OK sorry for the bad japanese fun. It was funny at the time.
Anyway this is a good excuse to write a bit about the highway system in Japan.
All highways in Japan are toll roads. For the trip we rented a so-called "ETC card" which lets you drive through the automatic toll gates instead of paying cash. It also gives you a discount on weekends and nights.
The speed limit is ridiculously low, usually 80 km/h. I saw *once* a 100 km/h limit. Since everyone realizes this limit is ridiculous, they speed at about 100-120 km/h, same as is common back in Sweden. Speed cameras exist, but we didn't encounter many of them until the final drive into Tokyo on the last day, where there was a stretch with a camera every 3 km. Luckily the NAVITIME app warns you discreetly by saying "please watch your speed ahead".
Japan has a LOT of tunnels. At one point we drove through a 10 km long tunnel. You'll see signs like "from here on there are 22 tunnels in a row". The tunnels usually have cell repeaters, and funny enough in some parts of Japan my travel mates only had reception INSIDE tunnels since the frequencies used in the rural areas isn't available on their phones, but the tunnel repeaters use the common 2100 frequency. Each tunnel is also named, leading to plenty of crude jokes in the car among the lines of "oh, we're entering ono erena's tunnel now..." "wow we exited quick".
The highways are maintained by a private corporation called NEXCO. They also provide all the restaurants, stores and gas stations accessible without leaving the toll area. These are organized into rest stops, which are split into "Service Areas" and "Parking Areas", the former being larger. Some are famous for having certain foods.
That night was spent in a hotel in Nara, where we shared a Japanese-style tatami/futon room.
Nara is known for the deer which roam the town. Entering the city center there are dire road signs warning for deer crossing the road, and sure enough, I had to slam the breaks to not run into a poor deer. He quickly ran out of the way, and I continued driving through town at a slow crawl.
Spotted a vending machine with three slots where you could donate to a wildlife fund.
Pond cake for breakfast
Then we checked out Nara park where all the deer congregate
This one was proud of his poo
Further into the park were the deer who were more shy of people
This was my first time parking in one of these parking spots that "captures" your cars with a bit of metal that flips up. These don't exist in Sweden AFAIK. I drove over that control box to the right like 4 times trying to get in and out of the space, orz.
Nara is also the place of the abandoned Nara Dreamland theme park.
I'm still amused by this sign outside there: "Learn to prevent fires! - It's time to have that watch fixed." Watches cause fires?
The abandoned Nara Dreamland park is quite famous as a haikyo, so supposedly it has higher security than most places that are forgotten. They also had scary signs about a 1 million yen fine and prison. Hence we all were apprehensive about entering, and instead just peeled back the rotten boards of the barricade and took photos from there.
I took a wrong turn getting on the highway and we passed this bowling alley. Couldn't determine if it was abandoned or not... No haikyo here. This also triggered an ongoing game as we moved out into the less populated areas - "Haikyo or active?". Some places were so run down we were sure they were abandoned, but they were actually still active.
In Kobe we took a Cable Car towards the peak of Maya mountain.
The cable car has one track, except in the exact middle where the two cars meet
So, what's up there worth seeing? Why, a big hairy bug!
OK maybe that's not the reason we went. Instead, it's this thing, in the forest below...
It's the abandoned Maya Hotel. And we wanted to check it out. The normal access to it was behind a waist-high gate with a no trespassing sign that was right in the cable car station. Reading online how other people had accessed it, they had hiked on dense trails from the bottom of the hill, or by dropping down from above. We were lucky, and the cable car people were doing maintenance, so they weren't paying any attention to us. We were still about to pussy out, when Pollinic just grabbed the fence and made the jump, and with that done we all had the courage to just do it.
Of course *I* would never do anything that and these photos were taken by someone else.
Then was the problem of... getting back into to the cable car station. Without being seen. By jumping back over the fence. Peeking around the corner, there was staff inside the station, and we had to wait. One cable car arrived, boarded and left. We really had to get on the next one as there were only two more departures before it shut down for the day. We peeked again, and... hmm... no staff. Really? No staff? We made the jump. Looked innocent and walked briskly to another area of the station (where you get to the other cable car that goes further up the mountain). As we were walking the staff appeared from their office. Looks like we were safe.
Took the cable car down, and after a day of firsts treated ourselves to all-you-can-eat yakiniku in Kobe. We were all bushed and the meal was eaten in silence.
Buuut... we still had 2-3 hours of driving to today's hotel. In the dark as it was now late. On a full stomach. Fun fun. Drinking Coke zero, blasting J-pop at loud volumes and driving fast on the virtually empty roads we made good time, even though at times I was alone in the car (the others fading in and out of sleep).
Our hotel this night was on Shikoku, in Tokushima. Near the hotel was a rice vending machine. We are now officially in the boonies.
For those who don't know, Shikoku is a large island and one of the main separate islands of Japan. It's quite rural, and the public transportation isn't as well-developed, so it's a perfect thing for road trip where we want to do things that are difficult or tedious with public transport.
Started off with a lazy Gusto breakfast. Mmmm butter and sugar and all you can drink ice coffee...
We started driving among the winding mountain roads. Suddenly the GPS said "景色が良いルートに入ります". "You are now entering a scenic route". Hmm, really? And then this opened up ahead of us.
These windy mountain roads were exciting to drive on. Many corners were too tight for two cars to pass on, so you had mirrors to check for oncoming traffic. Some corners even had a "honk" button which means you need to lay on your horn around the corner to warn other cars. At times we had to back up to a meeting point. It was absolutely breathtaking though.
One of the highlights in the Shikoku guidebook I showed in the into was "the peeing boy", so of course we took the hour-long detour to see it. Did not disappoint.
In these winding mountain roads we passed by an abandoned gas station and as a lover of rusty stuff I couldn't avoid shooting some pictures.
When we first spotted this bus, it looked like it was backing out into the valley and was going to fall. Turns out it's specially built for the tiny winding roads here, and the back wheels are unusually far forward so that it can negotiate the sharp turns, and when it does, it looks like it's falling off the cliff.
The other highlight in the guidebook was the Iya valley vine bridge.
Makes for good pictures, but of course look closely and it should be called the steel wire bridge..
As the Japanese people were wobbling from step to step, my massive scandinavian feet had no problem walking normally
Lunch nearby of handmade udon noodles at the restaurant of a cold bitchy lady. Couldn't beat the view though.
We made it into our final destination for the day, Kouchi city, quite early for once. On the way I spotted this sign and had to investigate.
Yes, it's the MOS Burger + Mister Donut collaboration where they make weird mashup food with hamburger parts and donut parts. I liked my desert one (the first one).
Arriving early meant we could actually explore the city for once. As we were walking from hotel to the shotengai (shopping street), for a while we were walking alongside some people who looked, talked and acted like your stereotypical TV drama small-time yakuza. They started talking about us and how tall we were and joking about how one of their members was so short. We didn't let on that we understood (I hadn't had enough to drink to do stupid things yet), but it was pretty funny.
Kouchi has a bridge with some backstory that's famous or something
We went up to Kouchi Castle, but they had already closed so we could just meander around the park.
Pollinic thought he could spot Nogizaka's uniform among this lineup
AUGH WHAT IS THAT GET IT AWAY FROM ME
JACK BAUER bar
So we had that typical problem when a group is trying to find somewhere to eat and nobody has anything in mind and you can't decide on where to stop and just eat something. So Pollinic said "OK next place we pass with food, we're eating there."
The next place ended up being here
And this is the only menu they have
Well we mustered up all the reading skills we could among us three and ordered the things that were the easiest to read, including fried whale
and the local specialty, Katsuo (Skipjack tuna)
In the end it turned out really well!
Back at the hotel I realized I was running out of clean clothes, and so was Naruse, so I trundled up the roof of the hotel to do some laundry.
Their PoS dryer had just made the clothes slightly wetter and not at all dryer after 2 hours, so I gave up and hung the clothes to dry hoping they'd be good by daybreak
We had found another haikyo to visit, an abandoned school, somewhere in deep Shikoku. Reaching the end of the road, there appeared to be construction going on nearby and a lot of activity, so we gave up on that idea. But on the map there was some line... is that a cable car?
Yes, we had arrived at the base for climbing Mt Ishizuchi, which is famous for one of Japan's 7 Holy Mountains, and the site of the hardest-to-access temple (#88) on the Shikoku Temple Pilgrimage. To get to the temple you need to climb at least 3 hours up, part of the way on chains that are bolted into the mountain.
We weren't quite prepared to spend 6 hours hiking, but we could at least take the cable car up to the lower peak for some nice views.
At the parking lost there was a small shine for good hiking luck, complete with a scale model of the mountain. Note the little chains that represent that part of the climb.
No English to be found in this whole area #stuffwhitepeoplelike
Entrance to the ropeway. Hmm.. this doesn't look too amazingly well maintained...
Hey look, Geta (traditional wooden shoes) that would fit me :V
H...hello? Where is everyone? Is this place really open? We could hear the distant hum of an electric engine so the ropeway must be running.
There it is. We found the station, bought out tickets and waited. We'd be the only people on our car.
Here's a map of the whole way to the temple on the peak
Up up and away! You can also see a smaller mining(?) cable system that ran parallel with the passenger one. It looked fully rusted and neglected.
We then continued on to the peak using a chairlift, which is mainly for use in the winter when there's a skiing area here
I spotted an abandoned ladies' room haikyo but nobody wanted to go in
View of some amazingly green mountains and valleys
The old-timer running the top of the chair lift must have gotten hot as on the way down we passed this electric fan going up...
Stopped at a Yoshinoya on the way to our hotel for the day. We saw a weird guy who came in, took a bunch of photos of things like tables, chairs, etc. When he was down he bowed to an empty table and chair and left... We later saw him in the kitchen as well. Yoshinoya Otaku? Or staff from headquarters checking up on this franchise? Who knows... Didn't see a nametag or anything.
The night was spent in Okayama. I took a walk and spotted some fun business names.
This one HAD to be on purpose, right? That key looks so phallic.
Ful ful beauty (ful in swedish = ugly)
The Park'n Park, when you don't really need to ride.
Day Seven was all spent in Osaka, meeting up with a local AKB fan.
My receiving my morning shot from Mayuyu
Schoolgirls taking their pix with the NMB48 theater
Obligatory shrine visits
A certain member of our group ended up buying quite a few items...
Then time for a snack at the AKB Café. We wanted to eat but they didn't have the regular menu, so we just had Sailor Zombie/Milk Planet smoothies. It was yummy, and actually looked kinda like bloody zombie guts.
Mayuyu's signature 、(￣▽￣)V いえｰい!
Passed this place, Go Go Densha, which is apparently an establishment where you can pay to stand in a mockup train car and grope girls. I guess if it keeps them from doing it on real trains...
We didn't make it back to the hotel in time for that evening's Quiz 30 featuring AKB48 so we had to take a seat on the sidewalk and watch it on 1seg on my phone
We had a super fancy hotel this night so we were treated to some hot springs. Felt gooood.
Takoyaki in the hotel breakfast buffet. Sasuga Osaka...
The visit to the AKB Shop the day before had resulted in a change in decoration on the car... Iriyama was gone.
Spotted this pair of Itasha in highway Parking Area
Worst. Convenience Store. Ever. Terrible terrible selection. They had like 4 different drinks. Fuck "ISM, the highway style of ministop".
The big ticket item of the day was Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO World Heritage site village with homes build in the old style of thatched roofs.
It was nice strolling around the place but also hot as balls and I ate like 3 ice creams.
Some of the houses had museums in them, demonstrating tools and methods of the olden days
The traffic lights in Japan are usually horizontal, but in areas with heavy snowfall they mount them vertically. This was the first time I've seen vertical traffic lights in Japan.
Kan du vissla Johanna?
At the Service areas/Parking areas you can sometimes find limited release local Kit Kat flavors, such as this Red Bean Paste Sandwich flavor
We spent the night in Kanazawa
Started the day by visiting the Kanazawa Castle and park.
Parked the car right next to my namesake café
The castle was basically just your regular Japanese Castle, seen one seen em all
But they did have some interesting exhibits on how the traditional construction methods worked.
The park was pretty nice. This fountain is powered by natural height differential and doesn't run on any kind of power.
We then drove straight to our hotel for the final night, on which we splurged 13,000 yen each - it was a fancy onsen hotel in Matsumoto.
Now that we were in rural Gifu/Nagano mountain roads (no highways here), there were no services, and we went 2 hours without even seeing a convenience store. So when this 7-11 showed up just before Matsumoto we were relieved and quickly ate all of the snacks.
I... don't know.
View from our hotel
View IN our hotel
On a quick beer/snacks run into a supermarket we passed this computer store which had an old Mac Performa 520 outside. *nostalgia*
The Hotel was all-inclusive with a 50-course Japanese-style dinner. Had trouble with the menu so I had to send this photo to Maki and have her type it down for me so I knew in which order to eat half the stuff!
Lots of moving parts
Like a vegetable steamer powered by a chemical heater
And a grill plate for yakiniku
After dinner we retired into the onsen part, soaked for an hour or so, and I had a foot massage
As we were pulling our asses out of bed at a way too early hour to make the hotel breakfast, suddenly the room went dark and the aircon shut off. Power outage.
The whole hotel was without power, and without working elevators we had to take the steel emergency stairs outdoors to get to breakfast, which we ate in semi-darkness.
Luckily the power came on just in time for them to charge my credit card on checkout.
Before leaving Matsumoto we checked out the castle there. Whee castles.
I was more amused by the engrish on the parking ticket
On the way out of Matsumoto we passed the road to Paruru's salty ass
On our last Service Area stop, they had a highway spa. Tempting... but sounds dangerous to get that relaxed.
After that we drove straight back to Tokyo, returned the car, and parted ways, with a promise to meet up outside the AKB Sousenkyo Museum later in the evening.
The trip was finally over. Felt... really weird. As I got into the elevator in my hotel I quickly panicked "Wait did I lock the car doors??" Oh, right, the car is no longer with me :(
The next day I realized I forgot my "Labrador Retriever" CD single in the car... Oh well, the next person to rent it gets some nice music to listen to!
I leave you with 10 days of accumulated dead highway bugs