Planning our first ever Japanese road trip!

We’re doing something different in 2017, we’re going on a road trip! Road trips have always been out of scope for us due to our lack of driving licenses but in September 2015 Tom got his and we haven’t looked back. So far our only experience of driving abroad is in Majorca but Japan is clearly the next logical step!

One of our favourite parts of travelling is the planning and this trip certainly needs a lot of that. I’m going to update this page as and when we get things booked/make decisions, we haven’t done a lot of planning yet but I’ll let you in on what has been decided so far.

As of 13 November 2016:
We’re going in February 2017 and we’ll be exploring Northern Honshu. Originally, before even picking up a map we planned to travel up to Sapporo in Hokkaido for the snow festival but having started plotting a route we don’t feel we have enough time to enjoy all of our stops on the way so the furthest north we’re likely to go is Aomori (although that is also a long way so still TBC). We briefly toyed with the idea of just doing a one way road trip to Sapporo and flying back to Tokyo but the cost of not returning your rental car to it’s pick up destination, in particular when the new destination is on a different island, is extortionate so we won’t be doing that!

Handy map so you can see the distance I'm talking about:

The plan is to fly to Tokyo leaving the UK at 19:00 on a Tuesday evening (so that we can both work that morning) and arrive at Haneda at 15:50 the next day. We always fly direct (where possible) to maximise our time in our destination, we also pick evening flights when travelling to Asia and try to get to our destination for PM the following day as we find we avoid jetlag that way. This particular flight option is with ANA and costs around the £600 mark per person for a return flight. The added bonus is that it flies into Haneda not Narita, which is much closer to central Tokyo. We plan to have 8 nights in Japan so will be leaving on the Thursday of the following week, from Tokyo. So our trip needs to return there.

We’re then going to stay in Tokyo on that first evening to try and adjust our body clocks (read as – go out drinking and partying in Shimbashi) and then pick up our rental car the following morning.

In terms of cars we know we want the boxiest box car we can find. If you’ve never been to Japan or never seen images of Japanese cars in Japan then you may not be clear on what I mean by this…

Yep, boxy right?

As a UK national, to drive in Japan, you must hold an International Driving Permit (IDP), a current UK licence and insurance. An IDP is only valid for use in Japan for one year regardless of its date of expiry, you must carry your driving licence with you at all times. Tom hasn’t applied for this just yet but it’s high up on his to do list.

In terms of the route we’re still busy plotting this but destinations we’re definitely going to include are: Nagano, Joetsu, Niigata, Sakata, Akita, Aomori and Sendai. Maybe even in that order!

I'll post again as soon as I have more details. Eeek! I'm so excited just writing this!

Update 1: 26 November 2016:
The flights are booked and we fly out on Tuesday 31st January (arriving in Tokyo pm on Wednesday 1 February) and return on Thursday 9th February 2017.

We’ve spent hours pouring over the route and have decided we were being a bit too ambitious with our plans to travel as far north as Aomori. After all, this is a holiday and not just a journey so we don’t want to be covering too many miles and not having time to see and do everything we want to. Similarly, the box is probably not going to be the most fun thing to drive so no one wants to be spending days on end in it!

To help us plan our route, and subsequently come to the conclusion that we needed to cover fewer miles we printed out a map of Honshu and started plotting out areas/attractions that we wanted to visit. This is attempt 2 when we'd already decided not to travel quite so far north:

We’ve therefore decided that the route goes like this:

Night 1: Tokyo
Night 2: Matsumoto
Night 3: Nagano
Night 4: Niigata
Night 5: Sendai
Night 6: Koriyama
Night 7: Nikko
Night 8: Tokyo

So it looks like this:

Looks pretty simple and basic, but trust me, it's taken a long time to put together ensuring stops, overnight stays etc. are a relatively sensible distance apart. Next comes the fun part - choosing the hotels!

Update 2: 10 December 2016:

The hotels are booked, we've gone for some ryokan style (which we've yet to stay in), some basic western style and a couple of fancy ones. Most were booked through Expedia but a couple were reserved through since they cover a number of hotels not on Expedia.

Tom got his international driving license which is valid from 31 January for a year and so the next step was to book a car. We're using Nippon Rent-A-Car because they have an excellent English version of their website and also have many outlets across Tokyo. As we've opted for Shinjuku for our first night in Tokyo we'll be picking the car up from a branch there the next morning. The reservation was pretty easy and you pay on arrival, we selected a Honda-N-Box which was manly for comedy value and thought that was the end of it. Unfortunately we got an email from them the next day to say that if we were planning on travelling outside of Tokyo the car needed to be equipped with snow tires, this was an additional fee and, much to our horror, was not available on the beloved N-Box and we would have to change our car to a class S-S...

It's with much shame and disappointment that I can confirm that a class S-S is in fact a Honda Jazz. If you're not familiar with the Honda Jazz I suggest checking Jeremy Clarkson's review here, the title being 'drop this one in the bin, please, robot'

So the good news is that we'll be safe in the snow, and hopefully it's just us who associate such negative thoughts with the Jazz, perhaps to the Japanese it's a seriously cool car...

Update 3: 3 January 2017
Only 28 days, 8 hours and 12 minutes to go!

We spent most of yesterday (final bank holiday of the Christmas period) doing some in-depth planning for the trip to avoid the inevitable back to work dread and it was a really productive session. We completed some of basic tasks that are always on our holiday to do list such as booking our airport parking and checking the dog into the kennels but also focussed of the fun parts of the planning such as researching the areas we’re staying in and how to drive in Japan.

We’ve started looking into driving conditions and advice for surviving the winter in Japan and to be honest the internet has been a bit useless. I can see a lot of questions on forums such as Trip Advisor where people ask if it would be better to drive or take the train when visiting certain snowy areas in the winter and the response is usually just to take the train as driving is harder. As our car will have snow tires I’m not too worried but I have started to think about what we need to pack in the car in case of emergencies.

We’ve also started thinking about what else we need to know in relation to driving in Japan such as how petrol stations work, speed limits, road signs etc.

We’re now at the point where we know our basic route including the addresses of our hotels and where we’re parking, but also where we’ll aim to visit along the way, including areas for exploring in the evenings.

Eek, it’s all coming together nicely now!

Update 4: 7 January 2017

So we've nearly finished all of the planning now, we have the car, the route and we've also mapped out all of the hotels and things we fancy seeing and doing along the way. That's not to say we'll see/do everything in that order, or even at all, it's just to give us an idea of what we might want to plan in each day.

Therefore, I've created a new page that covers our full loose itinerary - enjoy!