To save money on trips, my husband and I do car camping. This is becoming a common trend in Japan. There are even guidebooks on “Michi no Eki” or Road Stops (see the links below).
You can stay for free at road stops and cut down the cost of staying at a hotel. It’s best to choose road stops with onsens (hot springs) so that you can bath and relax before you bed down.
Car Camping works in fall, winter, and spring, but is not a good idea in summer (because it’ll get really hot and stick inside the car and you don’t want to sleep with the windows rolled down).
It’s also a good idea to buy curtains for the inside of your car, or use sun shields (so that people can peer inside your car while you sleep).
This has been our experience so far (as I mentioned in others posts).
We have car camped three times and only once had a problem. During the last time, some hooligans circled around the parked cars, revving their engines and flashing lights to wake everyone, and eventually drove off. We never felt endangered or anything, it was just very annoying.
If you do car camp, try to park away from the other cars and in the shadows, but not too far from the restrooms. I tend to have to get up at least once or twice in the middle of the night to go use the facilities. It was chilly on all occasions and so I had to slip out to the toilets while it was nippy.
You also have to wash your face and brush your teeth in those cold restrooms.
It’s not the best night’s sleep.
I recommend alternating the nights you do it. It might where you down to do it several nights in a row. Perhaps, do it every other night to save on both money and sanity. After all, vacations should also be about fun.
The parking areas in Japan are huge and designed for buses and semi-trailers to stop at. You all stop in the same place together. Inside are live maps of the highways that show which roads and highways are clogged in real time. The big ones have cafes and restaurants. Very convenient.
The reason you can park there and sleep at them is because the Japanese government would rather drivers sleep there than drive sleepy. It’s considered necessary for safety.
It’s best to pick the more remote, less-trafficked ones with onsens so that you can get a decent nights sleep. Nevertheless, bring earplugs and an eye mask.
We love car camping because we don’t have to rush to get to a destination and check into our hotel in time. We can just park where the nearest road stop is — very flexible.
Car camping allows for much more flexible planning, something you lose a lot of the time when traveling in Japan.
In Japan everything gets booked during the holidays which can kill travel plans. However, with car camping that’s not a concern. I’ve never seen one even close to full.
Some people even bring tents and just sleep in a tent outside of their car. Try it out if you have a car in Japan and want to save money on travel.
Here are more links about Japanese Road Stops: