It’s official: 2020 is the year that changed travel forever. We realized how much we had taken for granted—like scooping up those casual air tickets on a whim because they cost less than a sushi dinner for two. On the plus side, it’s gotten us thinking about other ways to travel—like renting a camper van to explore Japan.
Japan’s landscape is so diverse it has secluded mountain retreats, tropical beach hideouts, and soothing river escapes, all within a day’s travel or less.
Crowded bullet trains and domestic airplanes zipping across the map are probably best left for necessary travel only for the time being. The camper van, or as they say in Japan, the camping car, is a good alternative for domestic travel. It’s a comfortable, affordable way to see the country—and one where you have maximum control over hygiene, ventilation and all those other things we care about in a world where COVID-19 still exists. A rental RV is particularly awesome for families and groups of friends traveling together.
We visited our friends at Tokyo camper van rental store Dream Drive to pick up a motorhome before hitting the road for a white-sand-filled weekend away in Shimoda, on the Izu Peninsula.
Dream Drive: Easiest and friendliest Japan camper van rental
Run by a team of passionate Japanese and international camping car enthusiasts, Dream Drive is without question the most simple and hassle-free way to rent an RV, especially if you’re foreign.
Having rented plenty of regular cars in the past from Japanese-run rental agencies, we know that the paperwork, strict rules around return time and general reluctance to rent to those without a native Japanese license can limit options when it comes to rental companies. That means you’re often left having to choose between price, flexibility and quality (but you can’t have all three).
Given that Dream Drive’s team is made up of plenty of international folks, their approach to all the dry stuff when it comes to renting a camping car like insurance and paperwork is transparent and streamlined, but all watertight—if anything happens they’re just a call away.
The company builds custom Japanese camper vans of all sizes, from small two-people setups not much bigger than a sedan, to fully-fledged family-sized affairs with space to prep food and eat. Pets can also come along for the ride for an additional ¥5,000 fee. You can see what’s available on their website. Plus, at their on-site workshop, they’re continually building new models to add to the Japan motorhome hire collection.
All the camping cars also come with campsite essentials, like stoves, cutlery, a rechargeable battery, and hotel-grade bed linen for that slightly bougie touch.
For reference, the RV camper we took out for a spin was the Kuma, which at the time was modified for two people and provided more than enough space.
What do you need to rent a camping van in Japan?
While requirements for camping car rental may vary from company to company, Dream Drive requires drivers to have just the necessary license you’d need to rent a regular car in Japan or one of those controversial go-karts.
If you’re an expat who has been living in Japan for over a year, you’ll need a valid Japanese driver’s license or SOFA license. If you’re here for a short-term stay or under a year, what you’ll need is a valid driver’s license accompanied by an International Driving Permit (IDP), which you have to get before you enter Japan. If you’re coming from Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium, Estonia, Taiwan, Slovenia or Monaco, you’ll need your foreign license plus an official translation — which you can order online.
How do you find free camping spots in Japan?
Renting a camper van in Tokyo is easy. The hard bit is figuring out where to go, and if you want to save money, where to camp for free. There are plenty of paid camping options in popular weekend destinations north, east, west and south from the city, and many of these offer amenities that your van won’t have, including running water (although many Dream Drive options do have tank water and taps), showers and toilets.
There are a handful of crowd-sourced resources that list free camping spots throughout Japan, and the most comprehensive is the Free Camping and Hot Springs in Japan Facebook page, which has a Google Map outlining some of the best spots they’ve found. Dream Drive also has a news page which they’re constantly updating with tips and insights into van life in Japan.
If you want to know where you can pull in for the night for free, roadside stations (known in Japanese as michi no eki) offer public toilets, the occasional sento (bathhouse), free parking and cafe/restaurant setups, and of course convenience stores. That said, it’s not much of a nature escape if you’re planning to spend the Japan-by-van trip sleeping in parking lots.
As a general rule when going off road, if you can find a spot that’s not on private property, not too public and not in the way of others, you may get away with making that your campsite. We don’t want to take any responsibility for you potentially receiving a late-night knock on your van door, but if you’re discreet and leave the site more beautiful than when you arrived, you should be ok. That’s what we did in Shimoda.
Shimoda: A beach hideaway practically made for the van life
Located about 3.5 hours from Tokyo, on the southern coast of the Izu peninsula, Shimoda is a town that’s home to diverse coastlines, rugged little mountain escapes, and white sand beaches with crystal clear water. It’s also an excellent place for those who want to get out of the city without having to travel farther than half a day.
Traveling to Shimoda by car is generally a breeze, as the route is lined with plenty of rest stops and other scenic towns to explore along the way like Atami and Ito. However, if you plan to get there via the central road, as opposed to the coastal road, the middle of the peninsula is very mountainous, and best left to experienced drivers, especially when behind the wheel of a larger vehicle.
Perfect for beach-hopping, within this one town sits some very different options, such as the cove-like Nabetahama Beach, the popular Shirahama Beach, and the more laid-back Kisami Ohama Beach—the latter of which we managed to stay one night in the car without being asked to move along. But there are plenty of other options, plus campsites scattered along the coast, so if you’ve got the camping car, Google Maps, and a sense of adventure, you should be able to find your own little piece of beach paradise.
Visit Dream Drive to start planning your next van life adventure.