Traveling Japan by train is one of the fastest, easiest and most efficient ways to get around the country, but it can be a bit pricey if you take the shinkansen (bullet train) without a rail pass of some kind. Although I support the use of public transportation, and, in general, Japan’s system is well worth using, I’ve also found that driving can be a cheaper way to get around, depending on what part of Japan you are in and where you’re going.
You wouldn’t want to drive a car around Tokyo, for example, as the train, subway and bus systems can get you nearly anywhere, but if you’re exploring more rural parts of Japan a car can definitely be useful, as you don’t have to rely on the bus system and its often sporadic times.
My husband and I have been using our car for most of our trips in the past year, and we have found that in our case, the cost of expressway tolls, gas and parking is less than the cost of a couple shinkansen tickets. So though we try to be “car free” as much as possible, having a car has allowed us to enjoy other aspects of traveling in Japan: the scenery on a drive (when you’re not in tunnels, that is), the places that are easier and faster to reach by car, and, as strange as this might sound, even the rest stops.
Coming from the U.S., images of rest stops for me don’t usually conjure up much more than a building with a bunch of stalls, maybe some free coffee and picnic benches. There are exceptions, of course, and it’s these exceptions that are more like a typical rest stop in Japan, or “service area” (SA), as they are known here.
My first experience at a service area was on a highway bus from Tokyo to Shizuoka, and upon walking into the restroom building I was surprised to see how enormous the women’s side was – and complete with electronic displays showing which stalls were open or occupied and which were western or Japanese style toilets.
Moving on from the restroom building, the place next door revealed a cafeteria-like setting with vending machines for food tickets where you choose what you want to eat, deposit money, take the ticket and give it to the folks behind the counter who will promptly whip it up. There was also an attached gift shop and small soft cream shop at this particular location.
Large (clean) restrooms are typical at most SAs, but not necessarily with giant electronic screens. Some might include a powder room or other features. For those afraid of the “squat toilet,” western toilets are common. I can also confirm that the Tokyo-bound Fujikawa SA, in Fuji, Shizuoka, has a couple of stalls in the women’s restroom (against the wall) with large windows overlooking Mount Fuji.
Other SA features often include restaurants, food court dining areas (usually Japanese fare), cafes, small food or beverage shops, a convenience store, gift and souvenir shops, information counters and gas stations. Some SAs offer Wifi; massage chairs or services; postal, delivery and fax services; showers; sento (Japanese-style bathing); and a laundromat. If you’re traveling with pets or kids, you can find “dog runs” and playgrounds at some locations, as well as a baby corner and rental strollers. Or if you’re in the mood for fresh veggies, you might be surprised to find local produce or farmer’s markets set up at some SAs. A few places even offer lodging. You might even come across a Starbucks, Tully’s or McDonald’s at some locations.
Stopping at SAs is also a good way to try and buy regional specialties, whether food or gifts (or both). Here in Shizuoka that means green tea, and endless combinations of it with something else. Fujinomiya yakisoba, Hamamatsu gyoza, Shizuoka melon, and other flavors also make appearances at Shizuoka SAs along the way.
Along most expressways in Japan, Service Areas will be around 50 to 150 kilometers apart, but if you find yourself needing a restroom, say, right now, or your stomach is reminding you haven’t eaten in ages, you’ll be happy to know there are also Parking Areas (PA) in between SAs. They aren’t typically as extensive as SAs, and many don’t offer much more than bathrooms and vending machines, but some do have gas stations and convenience stores or snack shops.
SAs may not be a major Japan tourist destination in themselves, but I can tell you that the ones on the Tomei and Shin Tomei Expressways are often full during the day (whenever we drive anywhere, it seems), if that says anything, and people enjoy eating, shopping, relaxing and letting their children or pets run around before being forced back into the car again.
In any case, they offer a much more pleasant way to take care of “business” while on the road.
You can find information about Japan’s Service Areas on the NEXCO West, and Central websites in English, and Japanese for NEXCO East. The other two are available in Japanese as well, and there is more information about the places on the Japanese version of each site.
If you aren’t in Japan and want to check out these SAs for yourself, check out this Google street view. (The site is in Japanese, but you can click any of the images to tour them).
If you have a travel tip or question you’d like to see addressed in this column, drop me a line at email@example.com