After talking for months about traveling by campervan, I finally got the chance to do it during my recent Japan trip. And what an adventure it was! On the first day, I took photos with sunflowers that towered over me, entered the world of Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away, ate 100-yen conveyor belt sushi hoping to win a capsule toy, bathed with strangers in a super sento and slept overnight in a car park for the first time! Read on to find out how you can do the same!
Breakfast was provided at Richmond Hotel Narita. While there wasn’t a big spread of food, it was sufficient for me. If you prefer, you can opt to use the breakfast coupon at Narita Airport instead.
Like I mentioned in my previous post, I spent the night here mainly because it was near to the campervan rental office. I did not have plans to do any sightseeing in Narita. But if you ever have a few hours to kill at Narita Airport, you can check out the Narita Airport Transit & Stay Program, AEON Town Narita or Naritasan to draw an “Omikuji in English”.
Most travelers to Japan would never think of exploring the country with a campervan or a self-contained motorhome but it is completely doable, and recommended if you want to travel freely. Since there is no need to book accommodation beforehand, you can have total freedom in where you want to go, even changing your travel plans at the last minute.
My research showed that there were only a few companies that rent out campervans in Japan. I went with Japan Campers (JC) because I wanted a miniature camper which JC offered and I was sold on their custom-made navigation guide. But the miniature campers were all booked (6 months ahead!!) and I had to settle for a mid-size budget campervan (4.6 x 1.7 x 2m Mazda Bongo).
A JC staff came to pick me up from the hotel at 9.30am and my luggage (wrapped nicely) was delivered by TA-Q-BIN to their office at 10.10am. I was eager to start my journey asap but I could only leave with my campervan at 11.30am. The orientation process of checking the vehicle for defects, learning how to prepare the sleeping space and how to use their navigation guide, familiarising with the cooking utensils and other equipment provided, going through the traffic rules and conditions of rental, signing the rental agreement and making payment, etc. took longer than I had expected 😟.
Curious to know what’s inside the campervan? Take a look at this video…
Lost without my Google Map
Since the campervan uses the Google Map (not an in-car GPS) for navigation, I had all the locations saved on Google Map ahead of the trip, or so I thought. Saving locations on Google Map in advance was necessary for this trip because some of the places I was visiting were not marked in English on Google Map. The Kiyose sunflower field was one such case. But I could’t log into my Google Map account on the iPad mini provided by JC for navigation. Worse, I realized that I didn’t even have the venue saved 😱! After driving to a wrong location, I made a frantic last-minute search on the internet (and google translate) before I found a likely location, 30 minutes away!
I love Google Map but on this trip, it gave me lots of frustrations by directing me through endless narrow streets in small towns with slow traffic. Anyhow, I found the car park to the sunflower field but by then I had already driven for 3 hours, double the time I would have taken if I wasn’t lost. And I didn’t even have time for lunch. So make sure you save the location (link given below) on your Google Map if you are going to the Festival.
Kiyose Sunflower Festival
Sunflower plants as tall as 1.8m
It was at the tail end of the Festival when I visited. The flowers nearer to the entrance were past their prime, bowed down under the heavy weight of the brown centers that were filled with seeds. But walk further in, you will find the younger sunflower plants that were at peak bloom. The plants were as tall as I am and the blooms were bigger than my hand. This sunflower field was much more expansive and crowded than the one I visited in Okinawa in January this year. The sight of these bright flowers instantly lifted my mood but I wished they had a sunflower maze that I could get lost in. Visitors were not allowed to enter the field (beyond the walking path provided) but many (including me) could not resist entering the fields to be surrounded by these beauties.
Plastic cover was laid over the walking path connecting the different blooming areas but it can get muddy in rainy weather. Just like other Japanese Festivals, they had stalls selling food and souvenirs as well as game stations. Potted sunflower plants were selling for JPY 200 each. During the weekends, you can enjoy special events and fun activities but expect even more crowd.
If you love to visit a sunflower festival during your trip to Japan, then you must check out this Japan Sunflower Forecast/Schedule (use Google Translate). For other festivals and events in Tokyo, click here.
Access to Kiyose Sunflower Festival
19 Aug – 3 Sept, 9am – 4pm
Sunflower Diary (use Google Translate)
Free Shuttle Bus Time Table on Saturday and Sunday during the Festival : From bus stop at North Exit of Kiyose Station 清瀬駅 (Seibu Ikebukuro Line) to Community Plaza Himawari bus stop コミュニティプラザひまわり（バス) then walk about 7 minutes to the festival venue
Bus Time Table : From North Exit of Kiyose Station, take the Seibu Bus bound for Shiki Station South Exit (Bus stop No. 2, Kiyo 61 Line) and get off at Green Town Kiyoto bus stop, then walk for about 6 minutes
Free Car Park location walk for about 6 minutes to venue
Mapcode : 5 380 872*88
Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum
I was really running late when I left the sunflower field but I had to get to the next destination on the itinerary, no matter what. It is a must-visit for Studio Ghibli fans. Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum (Edo-Tokyo Tatemono-en) 江戸東京たてもの園 was the real life inspiration for the Spirited Away world. Exhibited here are historical buildings of great cultural value, which were constructed in Tokyo between early Edo period and post-World War Ⅱ period. Items that were used by the people during that period are also exhibited inside the buildings.
I only had an hour to explore the Museum before the closing time (6pm). It wasn’t enough but I managed to tour the Center and East Zones which had the key Spirited Away buildings – House of Korekiyo Takahashi (C3), Second House of the Nishikawa Family (C4), Bar “Kagiya” (E3), Public bathhouse “Kodakara-yu” (E4), Stationery Store “Takei Sanshodo” (E6) and City Train Model 7500. I will post the photos that relate to the specific scenes in the film in a separate post. Meanwhile, here are the photos of the reconstructed buildings in the East Zone.
The Public Bath at the end of the Old Edo Street
You will recognize a familiar scene from the film inside this train
The museum mascot, Edomaru was drawn by Hayao Miyazaki 宮崎 駿 himself!
Miyazaki is the director, producer, screenwriter, animator, director and co-founder of Studio Ghibli.
Mapcode : 5 166 506*63
I went to a nearby Kura Sushi restaurant for dinner thinking it was just another conveyor belt (kaiten) sushi 回転寿司 restaurant. I didn’t know it was popular and that it offers more than just sushi. When I arrived slightly before 7pm, there was only a handful of customers in the restaurant. But it quickly became crowded and when I left one hour later, there was already a long line of people in the waiting area.
Kura Sushi serves affordable sushi at only JPY 100 per plate. The sushi plates on the conveyor belt are placed inside individual domes instead of removable plastic covers. The dome opens up as you gently pull the edge of the sushi plate. Besides choosing your sushi from the conveyor belt, you can also order from the touch-screen panel above your table. They have a varied menu (picture-based) consisting of rice bowls (with beef, unagi, ebi, etc.), curry rice, ramen noodles, soups, snacks, desserts and drinks. Best of all, they have calorie labeling on each of the menu items. These special orders are delivered to you on a separate belt above the sushi conveyor belt, stopping right in front of your table.
Empty sushi plates are returned via a special slot at your table and the number of returned plates are automatically counted. You don’t have to get a waiter to count your plates at the end of your meal. Every 5 plates that you put in the slot, you earn a chance at winning a gachapon (capsule toy) right above your table. I imagine kids will love this reward for eating up their sushi!
The food was affordable and decent. Here, you can help yourself to the food and drinks without having to speak Japanese. Even if you are a frequent patron of a kaiten sushi restaurant, you will still find eating at a Kura Sushi store a refreshing experience. Just make sure you arrive early to beat the crowd.
Website : Menu and store locations in Japanese (use Google Translate)
Mapcode : 5 166 142*82
Ofuro no Osama Hanakoganei
After numerous baths in a Japanese ryokan/hotel onsen 温泉 ♨️ (natural hot spring), I am at ease in the company of other naked female bathers. So settling my daily bath while traveling in a campervan was not a problem for me. I just had to seek out (gender-segregated) public bath (sento 銭湯) that didn’t cost too much and had above average reviews. Typically, sentos use heated tap water instead of hot spring water (in which case it’s an onsen). They are also different from those in ryokans and hotels in that they are open to the public. But some bath facilities in ryokans and hotels are also open to the non-staying guests as well.
On this first day of my campervan trip, I went to this bath complex, Ofuro no Osama (Hanakoganei branch) おふろの王様 (花小金井店) which is a “super sento“. It offers 16 types of bath and sauna, 7 of which use natural hot spring water. They also have restaurants, gaming area, spa, relaxation area, barber, etc. This was a popular facility filled with local families even at 8pm. Can you believe that I actually spent close to 2 hours here! Next time, I will consider becoming a member (JPY 100 registration fee) and pay less entry fee in all of their sentos.
Tip : Bring your own towels to the bath (a small one for wiping yourself dry before exiting the wet area and a bigger one for drying yourself before dressing up). Or you can rent from the sento for a small fee. For ladies with long hair, make sure you have a rubber band or shower cap to keep your long hair from touching the water in the hot spring.
Mapcode : 5 197 208*66
My First Night in a Campervan
Michi-no-Eki (roadside rest areas, road stations) offers 24-hour free parking and clean restrooms that are perfect for campervan travelers to park and sleep overnight. Food outlets and markets at these stations offer local specialities and agricultural produce at affordable price. Road stations with 24-hour convenience stores are especially popular with travelers in need of refreshments after the usual store opening hours. In some stations, you can also find tourist information counters and stores selling local omiyage (souvenir).
The nearest road station that I could find on my first night was Road Station Hachioji Takiyama 道の駅 八王子滝山, which was more than an hour away from the sento. It was past 11pm when I reached the station and the shops were long closed. The car park was almost full with other overnighters in their cars and heavy vehicles. It was beginning to rain and I realized I had not prepared my sleeping space. My suitcase had to be moved to the front seats, the foldable mattress needed unfolding and the bed sheet to be laid. Feeling tired, I just closed all the curtains, folded down the back seats as flat as I could and covered it with a bedspread before going to sleep. It was cold that rainy night but I had a good rest despite sleeping on the makeshift bed zzzz…
Learning from the day’s experience, I should have:-
* Done more research before my trip instead of relying on JC’s custom-made navigation guide (which I could only check out when picking up the campervan). I was disappointed that the guide didn’t cover most of the places on my off-the-beaten-track itinerary. Knowing in advance the possible locations to take my daily bath and “park & sleep” along my travel route would have saved me lots of time and mobile data usage.
* Have my Google Map log in information on hand.
* Checked through my itinerary to confirm that I have saved all the locations in Google Map before the trip.
* Prepare the toiletries and a fresh change of clothes in the daytime and not rummage through my luggage in the dark.
* Have my bed in an ever-ready state so that I don’t have to move things around at the last minute in the dark.