Road trippin' in Japan
Travelogue: Tokyo to Misawa via open road
An eight-hour road trip covering 400 miles from Tokyo to Misawa Air Base offers various views of rural Japan: Green rice fields, snaking rivers, snowcapped mountains and farming villages dotted with tile-roofed wooden houses.
Start on the Metropolitan Expressway, or Shuto-ko. The expressway is always crowded during morning and evening rush hours, so it’s best to leave Tokyo before 8 a.m. It’s also one of Japan’s oldest expressways, renowned for its narrowness. Not to worry, though, you will not be on it for long. Take the Tohoku Expressway at Kawaguchi Junction.
Tohoku Expressway is Japan’s longest, spanning eight prefectures. It has 11 service areas (or SAs according to road signs) and 26 simple parking areas (PAs) from Kawaguchi Junction to Misawa.
The Tohoku Expressway is crowded during holidays such as around New Year’s; Golden Week, from late April to early May; and Bon, the week of Aug. 15, according to Japan Road Traffic Information Center. When planning a trip around these times, it’s best to check the traffic information frequently at: www.mlit.go.jp/road/ traffic.
Kamikawachi Service Area in Tochigi Prefecture is about 70 miles (113 kilometers) from the start of Tohoku Expressway. This could be a good place to take a rest or change drivers. This service area is also in Utsunomiya City, which is famed for its “gyoza” dumplings. You can sample this local delicacy at the cafeteria-style restaurant here.
From this service area you can also see beautiful rice fields and traditional villages with wooden houses. The scenery continues along the road throughout most of Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures.
After another couple of hours of driving, Chojahara Service Area in Miyagi Prefecture is another good place to take a break. The cafeteria at this service area is known for its tasty ox tongue and other beef dishes – all specialties of Sendai City. This is the perfect stop for a quality lunch.
Traveling on from this stop, there are fewer vistas and other cars, making future breaks as much about breaking the monotony as getting some rest from being behind the wheel.
Be sure to drop in at Iwate-san Service Area in Iwate Prefecture before leaving the expressway; this is the last service area with a gas station and around-the-clock restaurant facilities. The next opportunity to refuel may not be for another 100 miles (160 km). This service area also offers beautiful views of snowcapped Mount Iwate, the symbol and pride of Iwate Prefecture.
When leaving this area, the road splits in two directions, one for Aomori and the other for Hachinohe at Ashiro Junction. Take the right for Hachinohe, and about 30 to 40 minutes of driving will bring you to the tollgate for Momoishi and the 2nd Michinoku Toll Roads. Go through the two short toll roads (about 10 miles, or 16 km) and get off the road at Shimoda Momoishi Interchange.
Turn right at the first intersection after exiting the expressway and drive along Route 338. About a 15-minute drive will lead you to the POL Gate of Misawa Air Base.
It may be a long drive, but you will find that it is time well spent with some beautiful rural views and tasty local foods on the way.
Travelogue: Tokyo, Iwakuni, Sasebo or bust
From Tokyo to Iwakuni we took the Tomei Expressway from Ebina Interchange toward to Nagoya. We got on Ise Wangan Expressway at Toyota Junction. On Ise Wangan Expressway we stopped for lunch at Kariya Highway Oasis. (A “highway oasis” is kind of a supped-up service area (SA) that’s usually a littler bigger with a large shopping and an entertainment areas.)
Just beyond Kariya’s rest area section is a huge Ferris wheel, kid’s amusement park and variety restaurants offering local and western fare. There’re huge souvenir shops, a fountain and a “deluxe toilet” where the women’s room includes a carpeted washroom with a sofa. There was even a huge hot spring facility. It’s like a roadside highway Disney Land. \For lunch I had a miso pork cutlet. A Nagoya delicacy, this is a fried pork cutlet with thick dark miso sauces that go well with white rice.
We got back on the road and took Higashi Meihan Expressway at Yokkaichi Junction, then Shinmeishin Expressway at Kameyama. We headed toward Osaka to the Meishin Expressway. The most tricky part of navigating was at Suita Junction in Osaka where there seemed to be an endless number of lanes where four different expressways meet.
We had to be very careful to stay in the right lane, watching for the right signs. Eventually, we took Sanyo Expressway at Kobe Junction and exited the expressway at Iwakuni.
Driving from Iwakuni to Sasebo Naval Base was pretty simple. We took Sanyo Expressway from Iwakuni to Chugoku Expressway at Yamaguchi junction toward to Kitakyushu.
When heading toward Kyushu, I recommend to stopping at Dannoura Parking Area. If you are driving from Sasebo to Iwakuni, you should stop at Mekari Parking Area. From these two stops, you can view the 0.7 mile-long Kanmon Bridge, the only bridge connecting Kyushu and Honshu islands. These parking areas also have good seafood restaurants.
After you get back on expressway and drive cross the bridge, the expressway becomes Kyushu Expressway. The Nagasaki Expressway at Tosu junction took us to the Nishi Kyushu Expressway toward Sasebo at Takeo Junction where we got off at the Sasebo Chuo Interchange.