Spring and summer months are good for travels. Not always can we take time off and book a flight ticket somewhere, but there is a way to still enjoy the good days: travel by car.
Japan is full of interesting destinations, which are -ironically- reached easier by private transport than public.
A swan in the lake at Kairaku-en
A detail worth considering when planning a road trip is whether using toll roads or toll-free roads. Highways in Japan are not super wide, mostly with two lanes or occasionally three, but are well maintained and connect all corners of Japan. Planning a trip via highway is fast but can be expensive, as opposed to a slower, toll-free drive.
I once did such a trip with a friend to the city of Mito (水戸), in Ibaraki prefecture, which is a mere 2 hours drive north of Tokyo on a highway (considering inevitable traffic).
One of the entrances to Kairaku-en
The drive was nice and just a bit slow on exiting the city: roads going up, down, tunnels, roads as high as the fourth floor of a building…I mean, the spaghetti-junction roads here are famous and infamous at the same time. Leaving earlier to avoid the morning rush hours can help. But once one leaves the heavily urbanized areas, the rest of the drive is very pleasant. We drove along Sumida river until we hooked up to Route 6 road and then the Joban expressway.
In less than 2 hours we left the metropolis behind us, we crossed fields and rivers, and approached Mito, exiting the highway at the Mito minami (水戸南) junction. At that point, there was a sign for Oarai sun beach (大洗 サン ビーッ), so being it a warm and sunny day we agreed to take a detour and check out the seaside. Maybe even have a swim in the Pacific Ocean, if the conditions allowed. The Oarai beach is very wide and long, open directly to the sea and on a windy day (like the day I went) looks easily like a sand storm in the middle of a desert. Just a bit of wind was enough to hide the sight of the water completely.
Oarai beach - a different view
The final stop after the beach was Mito's Kairaku-en garden, which is considered one of the top three in Japan. There's a big pond in the middle of the huge garden, where black swans, ducks and fish live happily.
Black swan in the garden’s lake
Another peculiarity of the park is its 3000 plum trees (exactly that number!), not to mention the many tulips and other beautiful varieties of flowers. During the plum blossom festival the park is just an explosion of pink in all shades.
Details of Kairaku-en
Details of Kairaku-en - pretty ain't it?
We found a nice spot in the park to lay down and we simply enjoyed people watching, eating snacks and dozing off. We stayed in the park until sunset and then we walked to an area of the park with food stalls and lights, we had a few beers with the locals and answered their questions about our nationalities and our jobs.
Sunset walks at Kairaku-en
Sunset walking views at Kairaku-en
But time to go back to Tokyo eventually came, so after a quick dinner we went back to the car again to hit the road. Of course, not before the effects of alcohol were gone. Driving is fun, but safety is better.
Sunset exiting Mito city
A few more practical tips. For any road trip, you need a driving license valid in Japan. Provided that you have it, renting a car for a day is easy and affordable. All cars come with navi system, often with English voice guide, so there is no risk to get lost. Speed limit on expressways rarely exceeds 80km/h, so remember to watch your speed. And, finally, they drive on the left in Japan, remem ber that!
Driving at night on Japan highway
That said, enjoy roads trips in Japan, you discover more than you may think.