The Ultimate Guide to Van Life in Japan: What Every Traveler Needs to Know

Whether you’re a seasoned van lifer or a curious traveler, our guide offers invaluable info to help you enjoy the freedom and beauty of Japan in a camper van!

Mini camper van at a waterfall in Japan

Van life has gotten extremely popular over the last few years, and for good reason—it’s seen as a convenient way to explore the outdoors and camp in all of the best spots without compromising on comfort.

But while the most popular place for van life is undoubtedly the United States, not many people think of Japan as a place where van life is A LOT better.

In this article, I’ll go over EVERYTHING you need to know about daily life in a camper van in Japan. I’ll also explain what you need to look for when renting a camper van in Japan, and how to plan your Japanese camper van adventure.

Why Van Life in Japan Is the Best

Van life in Japan

When most people think of Japan, they think of massive cities, skyscrapers, and tiny apartments. However, Japan has some of the most EPIC landscapes on the planet and the convenience of Japan makes it PERFECT for van life.

Here are some reasons why Japan is the best place for van life:

Epic Nature

Japan’s nature is absolutely EPIC. Seriously, we’ve never seen such beautiful, diverse landscapes—all packed into an area that’s smaller than California.

Convenience

Japan is a country of extreme convenience—you can literally live on prepared grocery store bentos. And while being cheap, grocery store bentos are also very healthy! We’re talking rice, fish, sushi, and pickled vegetables—all for a good price.

And if you want to sit down and eat, sit-down restaurants are very reasonably priced as well.

Easy to Stay Clean

If you need to take a bath, you just have to find the nearest onsen. There are onsens all over Japan—not just in the mountains.

Pretty much any small city you go to will have at least one onsen, so plan to go through a city when you need to shower.

However, please note: Most onsens in Japan don’t allow those with tattoos. So keep that in mind if you’re searching for an onsen and have a tattoo.

Safety

Japan is an extremely safe country, and it’s rare that trouble will find you, especially if you’re out sleeping in your van out in the country. The police in Japan are also extremely professional.

Daily Life in a Camper Van in Japan – What to Expect

Daily life in a camper van in Japan

Staying in a camper van in Japan paid off in huge, unexpected ways.

First of all, we could sleep anywhere and be the first ones at any attraction in the morning. And we never needed to worry about making it back to a hotel at night either – even if we were far away from a city, we could just find a public parking area and sleep for the night.

It was such a huge burden off of our chests not having to worry about going to and from a hotel every day since we were driving our hotel around with us!

If you’re wondering about our first Japan camper van experience, we made a video about it, you can watch it below!

Our camper van experience in Japan video!

How to Stay Clean While Living in a Camper Van

Keeping clean is definitely one of those challenges you face when camping, and it’s no different when you’re camping in a van.

The good news? Japan’s got your back with a bunch of shower options, so you can freshen up and stay clean while on the road:

Onsens

There are TONS of onsens all over Japan. This is our favorite way of getting clean while touring Japan since an onsen is sort of like a Japanese spa—you’ll leave feeling refreshed and relaxed.

However, please note: Most onsens in Japan don’t allow those with tattoos. So keep that in mind if you’re searching for an onsen and have a tattoo.

Internet and Manga Cafes

You’ll find plenty of internet and manga cafes scattered around Japan and most of them have showers. So, just book a few hours at one of these cafes, and you’ve got access to their shower facilities.

Traveler relaxing in a Manga Cafe

It’s a great way to freshen up and maybe even catch up on some reading or browsing.

Rest stops

Keep an eye out for the bigger rest stops along Japan’s toll roads. Many of them have shower facilities. For a small fee, you can hop in for a quick shower.

Rest stop in Japan

Rest stops in Japan are a convenient option, especially when you’re on the move and just need a quick rinse.

Where to Do Laundry When in a Camper Van

For laundry days, Japan’s got you covered with plenty of coin laundromats. You’ll probably even spot some while cruising down the road.

Make sure you have some cash or coins handy since Japan’s coin laundry facilities don’t usually take cards.

🧺 Here’s a laundry tip: Try to find a spot where there’s an onsen and a coin laundry close to each other. That way you can soak and relax in the onsen while your laundry spins. Pretty efficient, right?

Managing Food and Cooking in a Japanese Camper Van

Japan has TONS of options for food while touring around in a camper van. Here are some ideas:

Grocery Store Bentos

On our last camper van adventure in Japan, we ate grocery store bentos pretty much every other night. They’re not just delicious, they are also a super budget-friendly option.

Japan discount grocery store bentos

And get this—if you go to the grocery store in the afternoon, most bentos are marked down 20%!

Konbini Food

Japan’s konbini (convenience store) food is on a whole ‘nother level. You can pretty much eat your entire meal from a konbini.

Konbini food in Japan
Japan’s konbini (convenience stores) have TONS of options, so you can eat there and feel fully satisfied!

While we don’t recommend eating Konbini store food every day, it’s a great option when you need something quick and hassle-free.

Cook in the Van

Most camper van rentals come equipped with some cooking gear, be it a gas stove, a microwave, or even just a hot water boiler. At the very least, you can whip up some ramen right in your camper van. And some vans come with enough equipment to allow you to play gourmet chef on the road!

Dining Out

Japan is overflowing with incredible, budget-friendly restaurants. When you feel like stepping out of your camper van and enjoying a relaxing meal in a more traditional setting, there’s always a great restaurant nearby waiting to be discovered.

Where to Park Your Van and Sleep

Japan has tons of rest areas EVERYWHERE. They are called “michi no eki” or “roadside station”. It’s completely fine to pull into one of these rest areas and spend the night. You’ll see lots of other people doing it as well.

Parking and sleeping at Japan rest stop
We parked our van at this roadside station next to the ocean for the night and had a good sleep!

And forget what you think about rest areas—the ones in Japan are well-lit and super safe.

All of Japan’s rest areas have at minimum a few vending machines, and many rest areas have restaurants and shops. The larger rest areas even have full-blown food courts in them!

The best part about Japan’s rest areas is that they all have 24/7 restrooms in them and they are always pretty clean. Some of the bigger ones even have showers!

It’s also totally fine and legal to sleep in public parking lots. As long as you’re outside of the big cities, there is free parking everywhere. And Japanese parking lots are always very nice and orderly.

If you’re in the countryside, you can often find cozy places to pull off on the side of the road, especially in Japan’s mountainous areas.

Camper van in Japan mountains
One of our all-time favorite spots is an epic pull-over in the mountains. It’s along an old road that doesn’t see much traffic so it’s always safe and quiet.

🚐 Ready to start your Japan camper van adventure? Book a camper van rental with Samurai Campers and use code chloeandtrey for 5% off!

Where to Use the Restroom

Public toilets are not hard to find in Japan. Even the convenience stores have toilets that you can just walk in and use.

In all of our time living in a camper van in Japan, I can’t recall any time that we had trouble finding a restroom. Just make sure to use the restroom any chance you get, and you shouldn’t have any emergencies.

Dealing with Trash

Something that you might not consider if you’re coming from another country is how you’re going to get rid of your trash.

Japan is notorious for not having trash cans everywhere since it’s expected for everyone to take care of their own rubbish.

Since you’ll be living in a van, you don’t have the usual trash services that are available to people living in a house, so getting rid of your trash becomes a huge challenge.

Our advice is to throw away your trash little by little every chance you get.

If you eat a lot of grocery store bentos those plastic trays will start piling up in your van. The proper way to dispose of those bento trays is to return them to the grocery store—most grocery stores have a bin where you can dump those trays.

For other trash, the best way that we’ve found is to find a trash can at a rest area or roadside station. Some rest areas have trash cans, so every time you stop at a rest area take that opportunity to dump as much trash as you can.

Japanese trash can and recycling bins
An elusive Japanese trash can next to some recycling bins!

For plastic bottles, many places have recycling bins for bottles, so empty bottles are not too much trouble to get rid of.

Staying Organized While in a Camper Van

Staying organized in a camper van can be a bit of a juggling act. It seems almost unavoidable that your belongings start spreading out across the van, and before you know it, you’re spending precious time rummaging around for your stuff (I know I do!).

Japan camper van mess
Don’t mind the mess 😅

This is why setting up an organizational system early on is key. By assigning specific spots for different items, you create a little order in the chaos.

For example, we have a designated spot for electronics, another for clothes, and a separate one for food. This way, everything is always right where we expect it to be, so we don’t always have to go on a search for our stuff.

How to Plan Your Camper Van Adventure in Japan

As with any vacation, a Japan camper van trip requires planning and logistics. Fortunately, Japan is pretty much the easiest and most convenient country to live in a van, so planning is quite simple and you won’t need to worry too much.

How to Plan Your Route for Your Japan Camper Van Trip

When it comes to planning your camper van route around Japan, we don’t recommend planning too far ahead. The reason is that there is just so much to see in Japan, and you never know when you might run into an area or find something that you want to explore a little more.

For example, on our last camper van trip around Kyushu, we got a tip from a friend during our trip that going around Kyushu’s southwestern coastline would be an awesome trip.

So instead of spending more time in a place that we had already visited, we took his advice and went around Makurazaki’s lost coast… and it turned out to be the highlight of our trip.

Kyushu's Satsuma Peninsula. The island pictured was in the James Bond movie "You Only Live Twice"

We wouldn’t recommend our mantra of planning less if it wasn’t Japan. Japan is just so convenient, so it’s easy to change your plans on a whim. There are tons of rest stops where you can sleep, free parking is everywhere, and most places are super safe.

If you’re on the lookout for free parking spots in Japan where you can safely sleep in your van, be sure to check out the map below. The map also highlights public onsens, ensuring you have options to stay fresh and clean during your travels.

Seasons and Weather

One BIG thing that you need to take into account is Japan’s seasons and weather.

Everywhere in Japan except for Hokkaido is a no-go in the summer. Japanese summers are absolutely hot, humid, and pretty miserable.

If you try to camp around Japan during the summer, you’ll be severely limiting yourself to mountain areas or else risk being uncomfortable all night.

Likewise, Japan’s winters tend to be pretty frigid, and many places get at least some snow, so we don’t recommend renting a camper van in Japan during the winter. The exception to this would be southern Kyushu, which doesn’t see the same frigid temperatures as the rest of Japan during the winter.

🌤️ Need to know the weather in advance? We use Weatherspark to get weather information for ALL of our trips. It gives you accurate historical weather data for anywhere in the world, so you figure out when the best time of year is to visit a place.

How to Budget for Your Japan Camper Van Trip

Camper van life in Japan can be as cheap or as expensive as you make it. If you plan to just chill in a few different spots while eating ramen and grocery store bentos, then it will be pretty low-cost.

However, if you go galavanting all over Japan and doing tons of activities, then your costs will add up fast.

Here are the main budget items that you should account for on your Japan camper van trip:

  • Van rental
  • Van rental insurance
  • Food and drinks
  • Gas
  • Toll road fees
  • Activities
  • Laundry
  • Showers (Onsen, Manga Cafe, Rest stop)

Gas in Japan tend to be a bit higher than the average gas price in the United States—so be prepared to pay a little more at the pump.

Some camper van rentals have the fuel economy of their vans listed on the website, so you can estimate how much you’ll be paying for fuel depending on what route you take and what vehicle you rent.

Another cost that you need to keep in mind is toll fees. Japan has TONS of toll roads. They’re hard to avoid if you want to drive around efficiently, but it can be done if you have lots of time.

Keep in mind that if you intentionally try to avoid toll roads, you might end up paying more in fuel costs, so it might be worth it to just stick to toll roads when you need to drive long distances.

The last thing that I want to mention is insurance. Most camper van rental companies require you to purchase their insurance for an additional rate on top of the van’s daily rate.

Insurance is something that you need unless for some reason you have car insurance that covers you in Japan (most car insurance policies in the United States only cover you in the US and Canada).

How to Choose the Right Camper Van for Your Japan Trip

Before you even get started on your camper van adventure, choosing the correct van for your needs is SUPER important.

You don’t want to get a van that’s more (or less) than you need. Besides being your transportation, every van has its own unique features—so you want to pick something that fits your needs perfectly.

Basic Van Features (Size, Maneuverability, & Transmission)

Bigger isn’t always better.

In Japan, space can be pretty tight, and I’m not just talking about apartment sizes. This extends to its roads and parking spots too.

This makes choosing the size of your camper van a bit of a balancing act:

  • Opt for a van that’s too large, and you’ll find yourself struggling to drive down narrow streets and park in narrow stalls.
  • Go for a van too small, however, and you might end up wishing you just had a few more inches of elbow room.

The trick is to find that perfect-sized van that navigates Japan’s narrow streets without compromising on your comfort.

The mini camper van that we got the last time we were in Japan was a tad bit small for the two of us. It would be perfect for one person, but we wouldn’t recommend it for two—especially for a person over 5’10” (180 cm).

But the cool part about a mini camper van is that it’s super easy to maneuver around and park. The mini camper we drove has a smaller footprint than most of the cars on the road!

Should you get an automatic or manual transmission?

Most camper van rentals in Japan have automatic transmissions. Having an automatic transmission makes it much more accessible to any type of driver, and reduces the complexity of driving the van.

If you’re dead set on getting a camper van with a manual transmission, you might have a hard time finding one, and you’ll probably end up with an older van model.

Sleeping Arrangements (Bed and Privacy)

Getting a van with a bed that’s big enough for your group is pretty obvious, but you should also ensure that the van has curtains that cover the windows around the sleeping area.

Curtain in a Japanese Camper Van
Chloe shows us how to close the curtains in the mini camper van!

Curtains prevent any nosey bystanders from peeping into your van while you sleep. Closing the curtains before you go to bed creates a more secure environment and makes it much easier to get a good night’s rest while sleeping in a van.

Kitchen and Cooking Facilities

If you plan to cook while on your camper van adventure, check for all the necessary kitchen equipment that you need.

At the very minimum, most vans at least come with a stove burner or something that you can boil water with so you can have a hot cup of coffee in the morning or make instant noodles.

Storage Space

Once you get settled in a camper van, you’ll quickly learn that space is at a premium, and a carefully thought-out storage system will make your life SO much easier.

Storage system in Japanese mini camper van

It’s super easy to get disorganized while living in a camper van – between all the clothing, equipment, and electronics that seem to float around the van.

So make sure that your camper van has storage cabinets to keep everything organized—the more the better.

Power and Electrical Supply

Living in a van gets incredibly power-hungry!

Between charging up all your electronics and powering the van’s lights, the van’s power system also needs to power appliances such as the microwave and hot water boiler.

Most camper van rentals have all of this thought out and will have an ample power system, powered by a separate battery to keep all of the camper van’s electrical equipment going.

The power system in a Japanese mini camper

But in most vans, the battery is charged when you run the van, so if you park your van in a place for too long and use up all its power, then you’ll need to run the van if you want the battery to charge back up.

🚐 Ready to start your Japan camper van adventure? Samurai Campers has TONS of camper van rental options. Book a camper van rental with Samurai Campers and use code chloeandtrey for 5% off!

Heating and Air Conditioning

It’s very rare to find a camper van that has a separate air conditioner or heater unless it’s a very large camper van.

The reason is that air conditioners and heaters use TONS of power, so it doesn’t make sense to include it in a camper van unless it has a large power system.

With that in mind, it’s important to consider the season and area that you take the camper van to. Don’t plan on camping somewhere where it will be too hot or cold.

If worst comes to worst, you can always turn the van’s engine on to run its AC or heater, but most vans shouldn’t be left idle for too long—so only do that in emergencies.

Bathroom and Shower Facilities

Many camper vans have at least a small sprayer so you can have your own “outdoor shower”. But it’s very rare for a camper van to have a toilet unless it’s a very large van.

There are public restrooms and rest areas everywhere in Japan, so finding a toilet is usually not an issue that we run into.

Safety and Emergency Equipment

When you pick up your van, make sure to familiarize yourself with the van’s safety and emergency equipment:

  • Spare tire
  • Fire extinguisher
  • First aid kit

At the very least, ensure that you know the location of the van’s emergency equipment, so you aren’t left searching for it when you need it.

Driving in Japan

Driving in Japan may seem intimidating at first, but once you get behind the wheel in Japan, you’ll quickly realize that it’s nothing to worry about.

I found driving in Japan to be very similar to the United States. Better yet, most people drive much less aggressively in Japan and follow all of the rules of the road. So driving in Japan turned out to be a much more relaxing experience than driving in pretty much any other place.

And the whole driving on the left side of the road thing? Not a huge deal—during my first time driving in Japan I got used to driving on the left side of the road within the first ten minutes, then it became second nature!

However, there are a few things that you should know about driving in Japan, such as some basic laws and road signs. I recommend watching the video below to learn the basics of driving in Japan.

I recommend watching this video from DreamDrive that covers the basics of driving in Japan. I watched it before our first Japan camper van trip and learned pretty much everything I needed to know about driving in Japan.

Make Sure to Get an International Driver’s License

You need to get an international driver’s permit in your home country BEFORE going to Japan.

Japan requires you to have an international driver’s permit if you want to drive on their roads. And your camper van rental company will also ask for a copy of your international driver’s permit.

If you’re in the United States, you can get an international driver’s permit from AAA (that’s what we did).

How to Use Japan’s Toll Roads

The toll roads in Japan are pretty straightforward so don’t be scared of using them. However, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • The toll road booths don’t take credit cards, so always have some cash to pay the tolls.
  • The toll booths with the purple ETC signs are for those that have ETC cards. The ETC card is a toll booth card that allows you to go through the ETC lane and pay your toll electronically. Some camper van rental companies allow you to rent ETC cards from them, so check with your van rental if that’s an option.
I recommend watching this video from Japanesquest about driving on Japan’s toll roads.

Navigation and GPS Tools in Japan

Google Maps is your best friend for getting around in Japan! It’s pretty much the only tool needed to get driving and public transportation directions in Japan.

You can also use Google Maps to filter out toll road routes for driving directions if you want to avoid paying tolls.

Packing and Preparation Before Your Japan Camper Van Adventure

Going on a camper van vacation is a little different than going on any other type of vacation. You should pack a little differently than if you were going to just stay at a hotel. It helps if you pack like you’re going on a camping trip.

Essential Items to Bring for You Japan Camper Van Trip

  • Bring all the toiletries and grooming equipment that you would normally use at home, especially if you’re going on a longer camper van trip.
  • Bring a variety of clothing—for both cold and hot weather. You’re going on a van camping trip, and you’ll need to dress for the weather. Leave the fancy clothing at home—you probably won’t find a chance to dress up.
  • Bring a towel—you’ll find lots of uses for it. Besides drying off, it will serve multiple purposes—napkin, rag, and even a blanket!
  • A headlamp will help if you go camping in the countryside, especially if you need to walk around at night to use the bathroom.

Most van rentals come with at least some type of cooking equipment—whether it be a hot water boiler, a gas stove, or a microwave. So bringing your cooking equipment is usually not required (but check with your specific van rental to be sure).

Mobile Data Options in Japan

Fortunately, staying connected in Japan is pretty easy with abundant WiFi in many places. However, using cellular data in Japan is not as cheap and plentiful as other places.

There are two SIM card options that we recommend for foreigners in Japan:

Both of these options offer excellent coverage throughout Japan, however, each plan does have its drawbacks.

Sakura Mobile has the more straightforward data plan—they offer two plans, each with a flat 4GB or 25GB per month.

Mobal offers unlimited data, however, they have a fair usage policy that throttles your data to unusable speeds if you exceed 3 GB in a day. You can read more about Mobal’s fair usage policy here.

On our last visit to Japan, we ended up using Mobal and it worked fine for the first few days. However, our data was throttled after we started using it to browse social media and watch YouTube. We had to stop using it completely for 24 hours before our speeds returned to normal.

Overcoming Challenges While Living in a Van in Japan

It’s not a vacation if there aren’t new challenges involved, and a camper van vacation in Japan is no different.

What to Do When You Have Van Issues or an Emergency

If your van has any type of issue or otherwise breaks down, the first thing that you should do is refer to the terms of your van rental agreement.

The van rental terms should lay out the process of what to do if there is any issue with the van, including what to do in an accident.

  • If you are in a car accident in Japan, the number to call is 110. If there is an injury or fire, the number to call is 119.

The police in Japan are extremely professional, so you should not have any apprehension about getting the police involved if needed.

Adapting to Unexpected Situations in a Camper Van

If you’re living in a van in Japan, it’s important to be very flexible with your plans.

For example, if the weather turns bad, don’t hesitate to leave and find a better area.

Or if the spot that you were planning to camp at gives you bad vibes, then just leave and find another place (we’ve done that a few times).

Remember, it’s totally okay if a place doesn’t live up to your expectations. Maybe you had this image of a perfect spot, but in reality, it’s not all that great. No worries! That’s the beauty of van life – you’re not stuck there.

If a place isn’t what you hoped for, just pack up and roll out to somewhere more your style. After all, that freedom to chase the better vibes is exactly why you’re in a van, right?

What’s Next?

I think that I’ve covered just about everything that you should know before going on a camper van adventure in Japan!

If you have any questions about van life in Japan, don’t hesitate to leave a comment. And if you think that I missed something, feel free to drop a comment below and I’ll address it!

Trey Lewis is an outdoor enthusiast. Whether its hiking knife-edge ridges or just fishing by the river, Trey isn't afraid to get dirty in search of the next adventure.

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6 thoughts on “The Ultimate Guide to Van Life in Japan: What Every Traveler Needs to Know”

  1. Thanks so much for sharing! Any chance you can talk about buying a van in Japan and the rules for foreigners? We are coming on working holiday visa, and want to live in our van. How do we get an address when we won’t live anywhere permanently? Thanks for your help! All tips are so appreciated

    Reply
    • Hi Mikaela,

      My understanding is that you can’t purchase a vehicle in Japan unless you have an address in Japan and obtain a car parking certificate to prove that you have a place to park your vehicle that’s near that address.

      Hope this helps,
      -Trey

      Reply
  2. Hey Trey!
    Thanks for the advices! We’re going to vanlife Japan next month, do you have specific recommendations for Japan in winter?
    Thanks 🙏

    Reply
    • Winter van camping is a little more challenging. Try to find a van with a diesel heater so you can stay warm when the van is off. It also snows in a lot of places in Japan, if you’re planning to go in the mountains get a van with winter tires and snow chains.
      Have a good time!

      Reply
  3. Thank you for the super informative post! The map is very helpful in planning!
    We’re heading to Japan for few weeks in May and renting out campervan in Osaka. We’re building our own van back home so I’m pretty excited to see different solutions for a small Japanese van where you clearly need to optimise the space! Just wondering did you fish in Japan? Planning to take our flyfishing gear with us so any tips are welcome! 🙂

    Reply
    • Glad that you found our post helpful!

      We haven’t gone fishing in Japan yet. I love trout fishing so maybe one day! Make sure you check out some of the fishing stores while in Japan, though – I brought my stepfather to a few in Tokyo last week and they have so much gear!

      Reply

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