Roadside stations, or 道の駅 (michi no eki) in Japanese, are a network of over 1,100 public facilities made to help road travellers. They are located all over the country, near large as well as secondary roads and cities, and allow drivers to rest, refresh, but also discover the region. It is FREE for anyone to use, no questions asked!
What does a typical michi no eki road station offer?
All road stations offer free 24-hour parking and usually spotless restrooms, cold and hot drink vending machines, as well as some snacks. But many stations offer much more, as they aim to promote their region to the passing travellers: restaurants, local specialty shops, souvenirs, farmers markets, tourist information centers, wifi and sometimes even hot springs and museums. For all these additional facilities, you will need to visit at opening times: typically 9:00 – 17:00.
Many of them are simple roadside car parks with shops, but some are located in scenic rural spots with unforgettable views. Some of them are built right next to tourist attractions, or have even become attractions in their own right!
Is it ok to spend the night in michi no eki road stations?
In one word – YES! Many Japanese people stop there to spend the night in their car, so it is perfectly fine and accepted. The stations are designed for tired drivers to rest, after all.
Camping with a tent may be a tricky if the station is in an urban area, but many have some patch of park, and even indoors facilities where some wary travellers just put their little mat on the floor. Obviously, make sure to respect the environment and other travellers.
We ourselves have travelled all over the country, slept in dozens of michi-no-eki feeling perfectly safe, and never had any issues. If anything, it was great to refill our food stock with local produce like veggies or honey – and much cheaper than at the supermarket.
How to find michi no eki road stations while travelling?
The official website is a bit tricky to use, so you’d better download the Michi Japan mobile app. All stations are listed on a map, which works even offline. Use the filters to find the best roadside stations, or the ones with special facilities like showers.
A bit of history: michi no eki since the Edo period
While the word “eki” (駅) in Japanese now refers to a railway station, it was originally another word for the shukuba (宿場, post/relay towns – also called shuku-eki (宿駅) established during the Edo period. These post towns acted as free rest stops for travelling public officials, the inns being subsidised by the shogun. They were generally located along the Edo Five Routes, connecting the capital Edo (now Tokyo) with the outer provinces. Shops and tea houses aimed at all travellers grew organically around the official inns, becoming successful enterprises. Michi no eki, modern roadside stations, have been developed along a similar pattern of free public service for travellers!
While post towns largely died out with the advent of the railways, some of them have been preserved and rebuilt, and are today popular tourist attractions due to their quaint provincial town atmosphere. If you are interested in learning more and visiting some of them, you can find more information here.