Japan in a Van: Mt. Fuji


The first thing most people say when you tell them you’re going to Japan is, “wow, its expensive,” and they’re not wrong. Visiting Japan costs a pretty penny in normal times but with rampant inflation and price gouging across the globe, things have been amplified. In addition to that, everyone wants to go there now after several years of lockdown so tourism is buzzing and places are fully booked, adding to escalating costs. On the upside, the yen is weak against the baht and greenback so money will go a little further at the moment.

Another problem is that despite being a high-tech hub, Japanese websites mostly appear to have been made in the 1990s, have no English, and simply don’t function properly so booking things in advance was not really possible. Agoda was doing its usual price pumping and ‘last room’ scaring but we had little choice so had to swallow the big hotel bills since we couldn’t book them directly. Hotels in Japan are very expensive (an average 800 baht a night room in Thailand is closer to 3,500 in Japan) so we decided to rent a motorhome for the first week to give us more freedom of movement.

Regardless of the initial planning issues, it was a trip I’ve been wanting to undertake for years so what the hell.

Day One

We knew the first day would be tough. A 6-hour night flight from Bangkok to Narita, Tokyo, with sleep on the crowded Zipair 787 impossible. We’d been advised to prepare in advance and complete all of the Japan immigration formalities online on their Visit Japan app. But being armed with a deck of QR codes to fast-track us did not make an iota of difference to the hour of queueing at immigration. Thais get 14 days on arrival, Brits get three months.

Fortunately, getting into Tokyo from the airport to the RV company where we were to collect our motorhome for the next week was easy once we’d bought a couple of pre-paid Pasmo travel cards and jumped on the 9.07 train which left the airport at 9.07 on the dot.

Just over an hour later, we exited at Mita station and walked a few hundred yards to their offices to fill in some paperwork and meet the RV. It was in at the deep end next to familiarize myself with the vehicle and navigate and drive out of central Tokyo to our first camping site at Mount Fuji, around two and a half hours away.

Driving in Japan is generally pretty easy as speed limits are low and everyone obeys them and has respect for other motorists – the complete opposite to Thailand. The problem on this journey was Google Maps which, in its automated wisdom, decided to take us on and off the toll expressways to avoid traffic. While it did shave around 16 minutes off the whole journey, the problem was that it didn’t account for the costs … motorways in Japan are expensive so by the time we reached our destination we’d paid four tolls totaling almost 6,000 yen.

The distances are also deceptive due to the low speed limits (80kph on the highway and 50kph on main roads) and a very slow, underpowered RV so the journey took closer to four hours.

Nevertheless, seeing Mt. Fuji come into view for the first time is something I wont forget. We stopped at a local supermarket on the way to get some supplies and were delighted to discover that food and groceries in Japan are generally similarly priced to Thailand and wine and spirits are around a third of the price as there is virtually no tax on them.

After loading up, we motored on to the campsite, which was already very crowded, paid our 12,000 yen (campsites in Japan are not cheap), and found a spot to take in the spectacular view and crack a cold beer after what has been a very long 24 hours.

Day two

I was totally unprepared for the cold weather and froze the first night as temperatures dropped to around 7-8 degrees overnight. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep in the unheated RV. Waking up groggy after a second night of very little sleep, I powered down a strong coffee and forgot about the mental cobwebs as the clear morning view of Mt Fuji was breathtaking.

The campsite (Fumotoppara) near the foot of Fuji was very commercial, but we wanted something easy for the first couple of days. Just like Bangkokians, Tokyoites are very similar … flash cars, all the top-range branded camping gear, yappy foo-foo dogs, and selfie-obsessed. This camping ground was their Mecca and it was very busy despite being mid-week.

We decided to decamp for the day and drive to a nearby waterfall called Shiraito Falls which was pretty spectacular. Unlike Thailand, there is no dual pricing in Japan and attractions such as this are cheap to enter at just 400 yen.

Not wanting to freeze to death for another night, we drove back to the nearest urban area and a huge shop called Donki (Don Quijote), which was a sensory overloading labyrinth selling absolutely everything from golf balls to pickled fish, to acquire some blankets.

We stopped at one of Fuji’s five lakes on the way back to the campsite for a few photos. Before finding a parking spot for the van it was time for a shower (when its freezing cold, you don’t tend to want to get wet so much). Japanese showers, like their Onsens (hot springs), are communal and entered in your birthday suit. I’m way beyond caring about my physical appearance at my age so no problem there, and the hot water was welcome. Japanese toilets are also a thing to behold – heated seats, an array of bidet cleaning and drying options, deodorant sprays, and even ‘private mode’ that plays music to disguise any bodily noises on a keypad to your right.

It gets dark at about 5 pm in late October and a spectacular moonrise over Fuji rounded off our second day as we started to slowly acclimatize to the rapidly falling temperatures.

Day Three

Going to bed early means getting up early and I’m glad I did as the sunrise over Fuji was equally spectacular and the crunching of frost underfoot brought back childhood memories. However, it was time to decamp and head to Fujiyoshida to meet some friends who were over at the same time.

We met the gang at Fuji station and piled them into the van to drive up to the uber-touristy Arakurayama Sengen Park for the famous view of the shrine overlooking Fuji (which was obscured by clouds on this day.) This was the most touristy place I’ve seen so far, a lot of Chinese and quite a few Thais too.

It was time to end our brief encounter with JJ, Touch, Pat, and Mark as the road beckoned …

Next: Kamikochi