It’s been already 9 months and 10,000 kilometers we are living across Japan in our small camper van. We are a mixed couple (European/Japanese) with a 1 year and a half kid. As a lot of people are curious about our experience, I’ll try to cover everything you might want to know before getting into van life in Japan or renting a camper to visit the country.
TLDR: Japan might be one the best country in the world for vanlife!
✅ Free parking & clean toilets
✅ Diverse Nature
✅ Good food + cheap restaurants
❌ Campsites can be expensive and have strict rules
How do you end up living in a van?
I always love traveling, exploring, and camping. After spending the first corona year in Europe we decided to come back to Japan (mixed couple (European/Japanese) with a 1 year and a half kid). We already lived a few years in the Tokyo area but wanted to experience living in the countryside. As we didn’t know where. We thought that getting a van and going everywhere until we find our paradise is the solution. I always dreamt about the idea but..
It was a hard choice: moving in a van with a small kid, there was an upfront investment, changing our lifestyle…
But if I had to do the same choice again, I’ll do it for sure!
It’s definitely not for everyone! It’s sometimes super tiring but the magic of waking up every day in nature and discovering new places has no price.
What van do you use?
We are the lucky owners of a Kuma Q built by DreamDrive. It’s based on the Toyota Hiace Super Long and we love it. The van features a full-size bed, a kitchen a ton of storage. The living size is quite small compared to USA/European vans but just enough for us to live and store our things. It’s also built with wood using natural paint which is pretty important for us living full-time with a small kid.
We added some temporary storage under the bed to store clothes/food and kid’s toys and here are some photos when it’s fully loaded:
In the evening we move the baby seat to the front passenger seat and put the behind seat flat. We use it as a tatami area when eating on a small camping table.
To see what campers and vans are usually used in Japan you can check Camp no Fuji.
Where do you travel?
We mainly travel along the coasts and through mountains always avoiding big cities. Japan offers a super rich nature, small villages that conserve their unique atmosphere with little shops and restaurants ready to warm you up. Even if we tend to never sleep 2 times at the same place, we travel slowly to get time to work and explore a lot by walking to discover the small details.
Our favorite prefectures are Miyazaki, Oita, Yamaguchi, and Shimane.. We unfortunately didn’t have time to explore the north yet.
Where do you sleep?
We usually spend nights in 3 type of places depending on where we are and which is the best:
Free public parking (70%)
Most of our nights are spent on free public parking that often has toilets. They are often stated near parks, beaches, rivers, and tourist attractions.. We often find ourselves being the only one spending the night there. We usually park just before sunset and leave after breakfast and don’t settle anything out of the van while using them.
There is a lot of camping in Japan that accepts camper vans and RVs. We only use campsites when we find ones with great natural spaces. We usually avoid weekends and spend several days in a row so we can relax, set up outdoor tables/chairs, and tarp and grill things on our BBQ.
Camping in Japan can be expensive thought but are also a great opportunity to dump trash and refill/empty the water.
Michi no eki (10%)
Michi no Eki (道の駅) are roadside stations that you can find everywhere in Japan. In the countryside, they are often seen as a hub that connects local people and travelers with some shops offering local products, and restaurants. Some of those even have public baths (onsen 温泉). Even if they often offer a lot of comforts. they can get really crowded and noisy on weekends. A lot of truck drivers or young people spend all night with their engines on while sleeping/watching movies on their cellphone. We also once woke up in the middle of a car meeting on a Saturday night while it was empty when we went to bed..
When we find good offers or the weather gets hard for several days we don’t hesitate to stay in Ryokans found on booking.com. It’s also a good way to relax and have food made for you.
When visiting big cities like Osaka, Kyoto: we stay in short-term rental apartments/houses found on booking.com/Airbnb
Here are a few links that have good resources for places to sleep:
- Google Maps of free camping and hot springs with Michi no Eki
- Michi Japan Road Guide Offline (iOS app)
- Japanese blog about Free & Cheap Camping Information
Our van doesn’t have toilets, considering how difficult it is to dump trash I wouldn’t recommend using your own toilets while traveling. Japan has a lot of free public toilets. They are usually really clean and can be found in public parking, Michi no eki or convenience stores. When sleeping in nature we do sometimes pee outside.
An empty water bottle/adult diaper can sometimes be useful in the middle of the night to avoid putting on your clothes/shoes and exiting the van in the cold weather.
Japan has a lot of rules for trash sorting and it can be sometimes hard to deal with trash. We recommend throwing things little by little as soon as you encounter trash. We had some tricky situations as baby diapers are quite smelly and Japanese food is often wrapped in a lot of plastics. Some prefectures/towns have strict policies and it’s hard to find places to throw away things legally. Convenience stores have also trash box you may use but keep in mind that they are only intended for products from the store itself.
On paid freeways service areas there are always trash boxes. We found ourselves sometimes taking the freeway just for the goal to empty our bags..
It has been pretty easy to find clean water. We have a 23L reserve of clean water that we mainly use for dishwashing. You can often find water taps near beaches, parks, or behind public toilet buildings. It may be interesting to buy a key for using water taps as they are often removed (you could get in trouble for doing so..):
In case you don’t find free water, campings always have it.
We drink and cook using water from bottles bought in supermarkets/drug stores. (Water is way cheaper in big supermarkets than in convenience stores).
Our dirty water tank is 23L too and we empty it most of the time in rain drains. The water only contains tiny food/ecologic dish soap.
Our van has 2 Lithium 100AH batteries and a solar panel. As we drive often and Japan is a country pretty sunny we never had a problem so far staying charged. The biggest energy consumption we have is a small rice cooker and laptops.
Same as toilets we don’t have any showers in the van. We do have an external shower that we only use for small washing after the beach. Japan offers a lot of Onsens and Sentos. You can also sometimes visit Ryokan baths as a day visitor, or find onsens in remote nature.. Here is a website in Japanese that list some mixed onsens often free and located in complete nature.
We usually don’t bathe every day and listen to our body’s needs. It’s easier to stay clean during the winter than in summer which can be really hot and humid.
In case it’s hard to find a public bath you can always opt-in for a visit to some Manga Cafe. They are located everywhere in Japan even in small cities and are open 24/24 and often have a shower. (the atmosphere can be creepy for a family visit as it’s often only males staying there reading books and browsing the internet in silence..)
We use coin laundries and wash and dry everything at the same time and come back later. We have 2 sets of bed sheets and are quite minimalist with the clothes we wear ourselves.
We often skip breakfast and just enjoy a cup of coffee. The drip bags are super convenient to use as we only have to make hot water and take a cup out. Those single-use coffee sets are amazing for camping in general.
At lunch, we often eat at restaurants. Japanese restaurants often offer cheap sets full of different ingredients. They are often cheaper than what you’d pay for buying everything plus you can relax and discover new foods from different prefectures..
In the evening we always cook inside the van. In Japan, sunset is pretty early compared to the rest of the world so we enjoy long evenings relaxing, cooking, and eating with the family. We mainly used one pan, a Staub pot, a small rice cooker, and a portable gas stove.
One useful tip to save cooking time is to cut a lot of vegetables and put them together with different meat/spices in several Ziplocs in the fridge. It reduces cooking time and storage space as every meat/fish is always packed in a lot of plastics. You can then eat for a few meals just by cooking the content of your ziplock in the pan and mix with some rice.
We never had any issues with safety as opposed to Europe where I would dare to let a laptop and camera in a car. While sleeping in normal parking I think it is important to keep discrete so people will not bother you and you will not annoy anyone.
In Japan, safety needs special care when it comes to nature. Keep in mind that earthquakes and heavy rains can be quite dangerous and you should always know how to get to safety when you arrive in a new spot or not stay in your car during strong conditions.
In some areas, it is also important to keep an eye on wildlife: Japan has a lot of bears, monkeys, snakes, and insects you should keep an eye on.
Most of Japan is best visited from September to November and March to July. Summer can be really hot unless you go to the alps or Hokkaido (north) and winter can be really cold, especially in January/February. During those summer months, we traveled back to Europe and plan to stay in some hot places during the early year (January/February).
It is important to have a heater in your van (like a Webasto) for enjoying January to March and good ventilation for the rest of the year (MaxFan).
As specified inside of the safety part: it is essential to monitor weather events such as typhoons as they can be dangerous for people and goods.
👶 Living with a child?
Before moving into our van I thought that would be the only reason for our experience to fail. But kids are amazing at adapting to any environment!
Being 3 in such a small place is a challenge but has also a lot of benefits. While a growing kid that starts to walk, discover things will touch everything and try to make experiments when you just want to have some sleep or a safe drive. But that’s the same at home… It has been an amazing gift to be able to let our child explore nature, and walk on beaches every morning while we drink coffee.
Being all 3 together in such a small place is challenging but helps us be more connected to each other.
I do work as a software engineer remotely. Fortunately, I love what I’m doing and I am my own boss so I can adapt my workload to our rhythm. I don’t hesitate to enjoy nice places/weather while working a lot; early in the mornings while the girls still sleep, and when we settle somewhere. I would honestly not recommend living in a van with family if you can’t arrange your work schedule completely to what you want.
Driving in Japan is really smooth. People are less aggressive than in Europe, directions are available nearly everywhere in English and Google Maps works great! You can access a lot of remote places by car and often be able to drive/park on beaches.
We rarely use the freeway in our daily life as we enjoy taking time, but you should definitely have an ETC card that enables paying tolls without stopping: also some entrances/exits are ETC only.
A van/RV can be quite challenging to drive through some narrow countryside roads/towns. It’s important to always take time and not feel stressed and you’ll manage to get anywhere safely.
Also when using Google Maps in the countryside: if you happen to make a mistake it is often better to directly do a U-turn as the navigation often tends to correct your mistake by making you go through sketchy/narrow roads
🏕️ Favorite campsites/parking?
- Beach campground in Hamada, Shimane 🏄♂️
- Katazoegahamakaihinkoen, Yamaguchi 🏄♂️
- Okuragahama surf spot, Hyuga, Miyazaki 🏄♂️
- Niinohama beach, Yamaguchi 🏄♂️
- Tanabe-Kawayu Camping Ground, Wakayama 🌲
Our van uses diesel and averages 10.5km/L with a 580km range which is not that bad considering the power, size, and weight. We never had any problem finding diesel even in remote places.
🛒 Must have equipment?
Here is some stuff we used daily and recommend getting:
We carried two inflatable surfboards from Decathlon. One surf SUP and a 7’6 normal board. While the sensations are different from normal surfboards they are pretty convenient to carry without having to put them on the roof.
Japan offers a wide variety of waves along the coasts and I was lucky to surf in the prefectures of Miyazaki, Kagoshima, Oita, Shimane, Mie, Wakayama, Kanagawa, Tottori…
If you’re looking to visit Japan for a few weeks or want to experience a unique weekend, the company that built our van: Dream Drive offers the rental of equipped vans from Tokyo and has good support for English-speaking customers.
🎎 Is van life popular in Japan?
There are actually a lot of people using camping cars and vans in Japan. While traditional camping is really popular with young people. Camping-car users are mostly retired people and can be mostly encountered in michi no eki across Japan. This way of traveling got even more popular with the Coronavirus as people try to avoid contact with others and are also popular for people owning dogs as there are few hotels allowing animals.
During weekends and national holidays, it can be hard to find space in popular parking and campgrounds.
🎥 Discover on Youtube?
There are some nice content creators on Youtube showing how it is. I can recommend a few:
If you live in Japan you’ll need to register an address. One thing unique to Japan is that you’ll need to have or rent a parking space in order to buy a vehicle. In our case, we had the luck to be able to register our address and vehicle at some family address.
You’ll also need insurance for your car, we used Tokio Nishido Marine which also offers support in English.
Japan might be one the best country for van life in the world. It is because you get complete freedom on where you sleep and don’t have to worry about safety. This freedom has a price and comes with having to respect your surrounding at all times. Japanese culture has a lot of rules and as foreigners (from a different country or even Japanese from different areas) it is important to not bother others, keeping things cleaner than when you found them, offering a smile or a delicate bow…
You’re living life on the road in Japan and want to chat? Feel free to contact me. If you have additional questions I may not have answered yet, feel free to let me know in the comments.