Michi no Eki: The Traveler's Haven
If you are on a long-distance trip around Japan, whether it be by bike, foot, car, campervan, or even stilts (hey, it`s happened), you will quickly find out that the sight of a Michi no Eki, or Roadside Station, on the horizon will often send a rush of relief into your veins.
On nearly every main highway in Japan there is a Michi no Eki (literally `The station of the road` - yup, the good old Road Station). These are large-ish buildings with toilet facilities and a shop or two usually selling local fruit and veg where truckies park outside for the night and the occasional traveler sets up camp. While it is not recommended for people to camp overnight at Michi no Eki as there is no promise of safety, this is an option many rough-and-ready travelers take to save money.
Michi no Eki probably have their roots in the Edo period, when travelers on pilgrimages or the postal routes would need somewhere to rest their weary heads and aching bones during their journey. Michi no Eki nowadays still provide necessities for travelers. They have large parking lots where you can park your car, caravan or motorbike overnight and also provide 24 hour access to toilets and tiny information centres (usually just pamphlets and occasionally the traffic report on a TV). This really is the easiest and cheapest way to stay the night somewhere if you are ready to bunk down in your car for the night. Just be ready to share the area with truckies – the Japanese drivers sleeping in their huge trucks getting their rest for the next long day of driving.
While the people that sleep overnight in the carpark of a michi no eki usually have a vehicle to sleep inside, you will occasionally see travelers buckling down for the night in a tent in a quiet spot around the back of the Michi no Eki, or sometimes even just in their sleeping bag if the night is warm. Do them a favour and don`t wake them up – they`re probably exhausted from a hard day`s bike ride or walk. Instead leave them a nice note to improve their morning the next day, or leave a little treat like a chocolate bar. Some of these travelers make use of the fact that Michi no Eki occasionally have a 24 hour open information centre (though small) and decide to sleep inside, away from the elements. While this is much warmer than sleeping outside, and there are less bugs, people are more likely to walk in during the night, disturbing the travelers` sleep. There are also usually bo-han kamera (security cameras) inside these information centres, but travelers should not depend on these to keep them safe – while Japan is fairly safe for travelers, like any country in the world there have been some terrible incidents where bad things have happened to travelers, so if you want an overnight stay, best buckle down at a guest house or youth hostel – do not make a Michi no Eki your first choice.
One of the other fantastic things available for travelers at Michi no Eki is food – of every kind. Normally there are one or two little counters selling hot food like oden, yakitori, fries, and `soft cream` (soft serve ice cream). For travelers the soft cream is possibly the best thing at Michi no Eki because, depending on the prefecture and the station, the flavors on sale are often different. Japan is big on knowing what prefecture is known for what food (i.e. Aomori is known for its apples, Yamagata for its `La France` pears, and so on), so the ice cream flavors at Michi no Eki change according to what fruit or food is famous in the area (at some Michi no Eki you may even find weird flavors like soy sauce, whitebait, and even jellyfish!). There is also a lot of local produce on sale, indeed almost every vegetable and fruit you can think of available at some stations, as well as some you`ve probably never seen before, like daikon or akebi (known as `chocolate vine` overseas). If you`re lucky enough, you may even catch a glimpse of a white strawberry or a square watermelon (available exclusively in summer and for a hefty price). Fruit is costly in Japan, so don`t be too surprised if you see a rock melon going for 2000 yen (approximately $20) or 6 strawberries for 1000 yen (around $10) – prices for fruit in Japan are based on quality and appearance rather than volume. In any case, make sure to try out some of the local produce while you`re there – a Michi no Eki is a great place to experience foods you`ve never tried before.
All in all, these road stations are fantastic places to stop and have a poke around if you`re a traveler, or even if you just come across one by chance. Buy some souvenirs, try out some of the local produce, and take a rest at a Michi no Eki on your next trip!