Japan’s rail system is deservedly praised, with efficient and clean trains that run pretty much everywhere in the country. There’s another way to get around the country though, one that visitors and even long-term residents may not be taking advantage of. I’m talking about cars. While it can be relaxing to plop yourself into a train seat and let the world pass by, driving opens up all kinds of avenues (literally) for the adventurous traveler. You can see a different side of Japan, one where the trains might not go, and all at your own pace.

While the destination is sure to be fabulous, the journey is often just as fun. A big part of this is due to the rest stops sprinkled across the country. Always more than just a parking lot and a bathroom, many are practically destinations unto themselves, with some even offering amusement park-like rides and playgrounds for children.

Read on to get the most out of your next Japanese road trip.

Service Areas

Photo: PIXTA/ GengorouAside from what you’d expect of a rest stop—a parking lot and bathrooms—there are also plenty of restaurants and shops.

Japan is crisscrossed by a series of high-speed toll roads known as kousoku dourou in Japanese. There are two kinds, sabisu eria (service areas) and pakingu eria (parking areas), indicated on highway signs as SA and PA. Service areas are positioned every 50 kilometers or so and aside from what you’d expect of a rest stop—there are also plenty of restaurants and shops.

Photo: PIXTA/ papa88What will it be?

Food is the real fun of the service area. Every region of Japan has its own local specialty dish and these are usually represented. You don’t even need to leave the toll road to try a regional delicacy like Hamamatsu gyoza (pot stickers) or Oita toriten (tempura fried chicken)—there’s a restaurant serving it at the service area. Some of the bigger ones even have yatai, or food stalls, out front.

Service areas usually have omiyage (souvenir) shops as well selling souvenirs and packaged food. This is a great opportunity to pick up a local sweet treat. Don’t forget to check for craft beer and unusual sodas as well. You don’t often get the chance to try miso or unagi-flavored cola. For something more familiar, there will of course, be a convenience store.

For your car, there is usually a gas station positioned just before the freeway entrance, although prices are often much higher than in cities.

Parking Areas

Photo: PIXTA/ CRENTEARTry some traditional home-cooked meals using local products.

In contrast to service areas, parking areas are much more simple affairs. The clue is in the name, with the focus being on a place to park your car. Of course, there’s also a bathroom. Whether it’s a PA or SA, the bathrooms are always open 24 hours and immaculately clean (this is Japan, after all).

While your refreshment options may be limited to vending machines, many PAs also have restaurants, although often more simple affairs than the kind at the all-singing, all-dancing service areas. However, these are not to be ignored. Many specialize in the kind of satisfying, down-home cooking that truck drivers miss when on the road.

Highway Oasis

Photo: PIXTA/ gandhiA fancier take on the usual service area.

The highway oasis is the unicorn of Japanese rest stops. A special designation for either a service or parking area, indicates a rest stop with a park-like atmosphere. There are only eight in the whole country, meaning they are very special indeed. If you’re lucky enough to come across one, you may find a planetarium, barbecue facilities, or even golden toilets!

Whether you plan your trip around these rest stops or just take them as they come, they’re sure to contribute to the fun of a road trip.

Michi No Eki Roadside Stations

Photo: PIXTA/yamahideEver seen one of these backroad service areas?

For a cheaper (and slower) driving experience, try local roads. Another benefit to taking a long way is the Michi No Eki or roadside station. These are government-designated backroad rest stops. Every prefecture has them, and with more than 1,000 across Japan, you’re sure to come across at least one on your travels.

The focus here is on local cuisine, produce and crafts. Because of this, it’s an excellent way to get to understand the area that you’re passing through. Seaside stations specialize in seafood, while ones in the mountains will have fresh vegetables on the menu and for sale in the shop.

Of course, the Michi No Eki also has other amenities that a road warrior might need, such as parking, bathrooms and vending machines and probably a convenience store as well. And while the restaurants will keep regular business hours, the parking lot, bathrooms and vending machines stay open 24 hours a day, all year round.

Where do you like to stop when road-tripping around Japan? If you have a favorite rest stop, let us know in the comments.

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