[From November Issue 2012]
The refreshing snap in the air and unbroken days of clear skies, makes autumn the perfect season for excursions. When it comes to getting to tourist destinations, each mode of transport has its strong points: airplanes are convenient for reaching far off places, trains allow you to enjoy the gradual change in scenery and buses can efficiently ferry you around different sites. But if you want the freedom to travel to places at a time that suits you, a car is the best option. For such car users, “michi no eki,” or road stations, are very useful.
Michi no eki are free facilities built along national or major roads. Visitors can stop by for a break from driving and enjoy doing some shopping. Shopping and resting facilities on Japanese highways are called service areas or parking areas. But until michi no eki were built, easily accessible rest stops for drivers taking main roads, like national routes, were nonexistent.
Since michi no eki were first given a trial run in Yamaguchi, Gifu and Tochigi Prefectures in 1991, the idea has taken off, and now there are 996 michi no eki in locations all over Japan. The increase in the number of michi no ekihas brought a corresponding increase in the number of customers; approximately 40% in the last decade. At some michi no eki stops, there are even museums, art galleries, hot spring baths and restaurants that serve up dishes made with local ingredients. In this way michi no eki differ from the facilities available on highways as the stations themselves can be enjoyed as tourist destinations.
For example, “Den Park Anjo” located in Anjo City, Aichi Prefecture is located in the parking lot adjacent to “Anjo Denpark” – a theme park which opened in 1997 that is also known as “Anjo Sangyo Bunka Koen.” KITAGAWA Tsuyoshi, the PR representative for the theme park says, “Because of its sophisticated agricultural industry, Anjo City was formerly compared to the agriculturally advanced country of Denmark, and that’s why we offer interactive zones and gourmet dishes made from our bountiful harvests.”
Kitagawa says, “The park has 300,000 plants from 3,300 species. We pay close attention to the cultivation and landscaping of our plants, so that visitors can enjoy beautiful flower beds and flower shows any time of the year.” Visitors to the park have commented that, “I’m happy because it’s a place the whole family can enjoy: not only are there seasonal blooms, but you also savor hand-made sausages and local beers.”
With their spacious parking lots and bathroom facilities open to the public 24 hours a day, michi no eki have also came under the spotlight as disaster prevention centers. In reality, during the Great East Japan Earthquake last year, michi no eki in nearby areas were used as operations bases by the self-defense forces and as evacuation areas. There’s been a recent movement towards equipping michi no eki with emergency rations and power generators.
Since michi no eki are operated by local townships, each facility is unique. But one thing you will find at all these facilities is a souvenir stamp pad. Many of these road stations also have pamphlets in English, so if you stop by a nearby “station,” you will be able to enjoy both driving and Japanese culture at the same time.
Text: ITO Koichi