Exploring traditional mountain towns and hot spring villages with Nick Saxon and Shino Timmermans.
Public transport in Japan is by far the best in the world, yet the true magic of Japan—in all its rugged mountainous and mystical beauty—lies beyond the reach of bullet trains and local public transport. If you are able to get to a remote destination, finding comfortable accommodation to rest your weary bones can be challenging, time consuming and expensive.
A camper van is the perfect solution to eliminating the stress of finding a place to sleep and the difficulty of exploring off-the-beaten path destinations at your own pace. Besides, who doesn’t like sitting around a crackling fire, sipping on a cold beer after a long day hiking in the mountains or exploring Edo-era post towns?
All you need is a good co-pilot, your favorite road tripping soundtrack and some inspiration.
Our 2020 Japan journey started with an hour train ride from Haneda International Airport to the Dream Drive office in west Tokyo. When we arrived in Komae, the Dream Drive staff were friendly, knowledgeable and our van was prepped, sparkling clean and ready to roll. Our road trip started with a short drive through the city before jumping on the expressway bound for our first stop—Mt. Fuji.
Mt. Fuji (Yamanashi)
Japan’s iconic mountain was a natural first destination as it was northwest of Tokyo in Yamanashi Prefecture and en route to Nagano. The Dream Drive team gave us some tips on places we could park and enjoy views of Mt. Fuji. Sure enough we were able to back right into a spot on a little lake (Saiko), pop the boot open and enjoy a stunning view of Fuji-san. Not a bad way to start the trip and waking up to a clear view of Mt. Fuji is unforgettable.
Nozawa Onsen (Nagano)
The next morning we set out for one of our favorite places in Japan, Nozawa Onsen. We can’t seem to stay away from this traditional mountain ski village with snow falls, warm hospitality and great vibes. Our winter gig at Winterland Lodge & Taproom is becoming an annual event. This is the one location we didn’t sleep in the van as we stayed in our friends’ studio apartment at Yoji Nozawa and then a night at Winterland Lodge so we could enjoy hanging with our Winterland friends, eating delicious gyoza and enjoying some tasty craft beers after a fun night playing music for locals and guests. We parked the van out front and had a lot of people stopping by checking out the fully-loaded, custom-built interior and pop top.
We spent the days in Nozawa Onsen exploring and busking our way around the quaint little ski town, with its gorgeous traditional temples and shrines at the top of the village, alone in the silence of the snow. After a few amazing days and nights with the Winterland crew, we departed for Shibu Onsen in search of monkeys and more hot springs.
Shibu Onsen (Nagano)
The historic town of Shibu Onsen is only about 40 minutes from Nozawa Onsen and is another one of Japan’s traditional hot spring towns. It is nestled in a narrow river valley. We parked the camper van alongside the Yokoyugawa River with the sound of the water sending us quickly off to sleep. We spent the following morning exploring the town, stopping for a pleasant lunch of yakitori and and some tasty Shiga Kogen beers. After lunch, we set off for the nearby Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. Its a wonderful way to spend the afternoon, watching these little monkeys chase each other around in the beautiful natural surroundings and relax in the hot springs.
Next up was Takayama. This town, in the mountainous Hida Region of Gifu Prefecture, is well-preserved and still holds that traditional charm. You can close your eyes and imagine back to when the city thrived as a wealthy town of merchants back in the Edo Period. There are plenty of coffee shops and sake breweries, and you can even take a ride around town in a rickshaw if you have done enough walking. We arrived back in the van that night where we had left some beers in the snow, which were perfectly cold and just right for a night cap while watching the sun sink over Takayama.
Shirakawago is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is only about an hour drive from Takayama but we decided to take our time and spent the night at one of the many road stations found throughout the country known as michi-no-eki. These spots are great for breaking up long drives as they have public bathrooms, vending machines with hot coffee and often restaurants and other facilities. They also allow overnight parking.
The postcards we had seen did not do justice. The famous gassho zukkuri farmhouses still had some snow on their roofs. The weather was perfect and blue skies made walking through the village an absolute pleasure. This was yet another place that had our jaws hanging low in awe. Some of these farmhouses were more than 250 years old. The centuries-old architectural style is designed to withstand heavy amounts of snow in the region. We paid a small fee to take a tour inside one of the farmhouses and found no nails were used in the construction of these buildings. The whole design was fascinating to see first hand.
We spent the night parked up in the hills, nestled away in a quiet gravel area surrounded by pines. It was too hard to leave so we decided to spend a second day there to explore further; it would’ve been difficult if we were in a hotel or ryokan as accommodation is often full here, but we didn’t need a reservation where we were staying.
The following morning, we were once again greeted by gentle falling snow as we stepped out of the van for our morning coffee. The road was calling so we said our farewells to Shirakawaga-go and headed for another of the well-preserved ancient trading towns in Japan: Tsumago-juku. It was only a three-hour drive from Shirakawago, and it snowed the whole way, but once we arrived, it once again felt as though we slipped back in time.
A this point of the trip we had figured the gods were watching over us. Not only had we had good weather, but we managed to arrive with very few tourists around, making the whole experience even more relaxing. It is not hard to navigate Tsumago’s single road through the village. The locals smiled as we passed through each little house, some occupied, others empty. Coffee shops and cafe’s were here and there, giving us our much needed caffeine fix. The whole region feels at peace, and the sound of our own footsteps became more apparent. After more walking and exploring, eventually night fell on the Kiso Valley, and we ate our own weight in delicious local dishes, cold beer and local sake, then retired to the van.
Narai-juku was only an hour away, so we enjoyed a late start out of Tsumago and arrived around midday. It was our second time here, the last during the summer season. it was amazing to see the town in late winter, with snow still falling on the village as we walked the ancient streets. Narai has a quiet, soothing atmosphere, miles away from the frantic major cities on Japan’s Pacific coast. There are many traditional ryokan where you duck away from the cold. We didn’t mind getting covered in snow while snapping some last shots.
We soaked up our final day, knowing our trip had reached its end. Spending time in these peaceful places was nourishing. Several beers and toasts to whoever would bend an ear were made that night, as our snow burnt cheeks seemed frozen in smiles. We wouldn’t allow ourselves to think about the journey home, we were going to stay living in this moment as long as we could.
The camper van made everything so much easier. There’s nothing quite like traveling without time restraints. There’s so much beauty around every corner in Japan, so the hard part is choosing your path, but the benefit of having a traveling hotel is you can go whichever way the wind blows. Be sure to organize your International Driver’s License before you get to Japan and check out the SIM card options at the airport so you can use Google Maps and easily find michi-no-eki, gas stations and convenience stores to keep you fueled up. Also note many local businesses only take cash.
Singer/Songwriter Nick Saxon is also a voiceover artist and freelance presenter for the National Geographic Channel. Shino Timmermans is a photographer who also runs her own vintage clothing label and is fluent in three languages. You can follow their journey through Japan and “Songs Beyond Borders” on Facebook @nicksaxonmusic and on Outdoor Japan. Nick Saxon’s new single “Be My Forever” was written while road tripping in Japan and is out now on Spotify & iTunes.
Traveling Japan in a van is a perfect way to reach strikingly beautiful locations for a fraction of the cost of staying in ryokan and hotels. I recently traveled from Niigata through Gunma and Nagano to Nagoya and back this way. Along the way, I found temples, shrines, rivers, hiking trails, hot springs and more that I would never have found any other way.