2018 Road Trip in Central Japan

12/29/2017 - 1/13/2018

Tokyo - Karuizawa - Kusatsu - Kanazawa - Shirakawa - Kyoto - Osaka

I won’t pretend that this was a just a casual trip. In fact, I never thought I would have a chance to go on a road trip in Japan before 30. I didn’t know Japanese. I barely do now. It’s really a dream come true.


I was excited after arriving from a 12-hour long flight, Japan Airlines’ JL7 (BOS - NRT) on Dec 29, two days before the New Year’s Eve. It’s not my first visit to Japan, it certainly won’t be the last one (who knows), but it would be my first road trip. I knew it would be fun driving in Japan.

But driving in Tokyo? Not so much. Expensive toll fees and parking problems could be painful, not to mention the heavy daily traffic. Plus, Tokyo already has probably the most convenient (and sophisticated) metro system in the world.


I had a wild plan of staying for more than 6 days in Tokyo - it’s great knowing what to expect. But it turned out that even a week was not enough. Tokyo is more than just a metropolitan city - it’s a little universe. Food, people, nature and tradition harmoniously co-exist here. No, they are more than just existing - they’re delicately functioning.

Tokyo Dori
Tokyo Tower
Tokyo Tower

For Westerners, Michael Pronko’s Motions and Moments offers a great POV into the daily urban life of Tokyo. As a Chinese, I enjoyed trying to immerse myself into the city, and imagine that I actually live here. I tried so much that I got tired of taking photos like a tourist, which I am. Now I am regretting.


It’s places like Kamakura that make Tokyo even more diverse. I know Kamakura technically belongs to the Kanagawa Prefecture, but many tourists in Tokyo would do a one-day trip here to visit the historic temples and gardens. Plus, it’s adjacent to the Shonan beach, which compensates the lacking of similar ocean views in Tokyo.


Kamakura is famous for its five great Zen temples, of which I picked the top 2, Kenchō-ji (建長寺) and Engaku-ji (円覚寺). In these temples you can really feel the successful localization of Buddhism in Japan. You can even hike a bit here, which let me grab a beautiful shot of Mt. Fuji in the sunset.

Mt. Fuji
Mt. Fuji in the sunset

I didn’t bother driving here from Tokyo because of the rush hour traffic. Taking a JR train was extremely convenient (and cheap). Kamakura really is a perfect day-trip destination.


Driving in Karuizawa

The drive from Tokyo to Karuizawa took us about two hours, mostly via Kan-etsu Expressway (関越自動車道) and Jōshin-etsu Expressway (上信越自動車道 ). The Japanese Kanji of Karuizawa is “軽井沢”. I really like its name for the casualness it conveys. “軽” means light, which is exactly what Karuizawa is - small, quiet and relaxing. It is also expensive, which is rare for rural Japanese areas. Maybe it’s because Karuizawa is supposed to be a place where the rich / privileged own luxurious houses and villas for summer vacations.

An ideal vacation house I found on Airbnb

I grew interest in Karuizawa from the Japanese TV series Quartet, later the new season of a Netflix show Terrace House: Opening New Doors. Both are based in Karuizawa, and fun to watch.

Characters in Quartet were here
Park in Karuizawa
Snowman in Karuizawa

I heard it was best to take a bicycle tour to visit the place, and this was confirmed as we drove through the beautiful town. The sad thing was, we arrived at Karuizawa on a cold January day, so there wasn’t really much we could do. Museums and hiking trails were also closed during the winter season.

Church made of stone

We would love to try the Hoshino hot spring, but we already got one in our hotel room at Marriott, and we were heading to Kusatsu - the famous onsen town - the next day.


It was a fun drive to Kusatsu - we drove on Japan’s national highways(国道292草津) in Gunma Prefecture, where I saw the snow chain road sign for the first time. This highway has a famous section across the Shiga Highlands(国道292志賀高原段), known as the highest national highway in Japan, and it’s supposed to have incredible views. The sad thing is, again, that this part of roads were closed from November to April due to the heavy snow. Maybe next time!

Yubatake at night

We stayed at one of the most expensive onsen hotels called Onsen Boun. The interior wasn’t as good as in the pictures but the onsen was the real deal, and it was absolutely beyond expectations.