Highway Rest Areas: Just Places to Stop?
Japanese rest areas have evolved from places for drivers to take a break, gas up, and stretch their legs, to destinations in their own right. Some rest areas even have unexpected facilities like hot spring baths, Ferris wheels, and coin laundries.
The first controlled-access highway in Japan was the Meishin Expressway. When it opened in 1963 the Meishin was only 44 miles long. Today, Japanese expressways total nearly 5,200 miles, long enough to build a highway between New York City and Honolulu. These roadways form the backbone of Japan’s long distance motor vehicle transportation network in conjunction with approximately 34,440 miles of national highways and nearly 80,400 miles of prefectural roads.
As in other countries, rest areas are placed along roadways in order to provide places for drivers to relax, restroom facilities, and information about local attractions and road conditions. There are four kinds of rest areas in Japan: service areas, parking areas, highway oases, and michi no eki, or “roadside stations.” Service and parking areas are accessible on expressways, which are usually toll roads, and are operated by the expressway companies. Michi no eki are built by local governments or an affiliated organization and are mainly located on national highways. A Highway Oasis is a service or parking area that is also accessible via local roads. This makes their attractions and shops available without having to pay to use an expressway and expands their popularity as weekend and holiday destinations.
Some of the most famous rest areas offer vistas of places like Mt. Fuji, Lake Biwa, Tokyo Bay, and the Seto Inland Sea. Visual stimulation can also extend to the design of rest areas. For example, some are themed to resemble Edo period buildings, European villages, or scenes from storybooks. Green spaces for families to relax and for children to play in are also common features. Larger rest areas may even contain luxury restrooms, gourmet restaurants, shopping malls, amusement parks, and other attractions that often entice visitors to spend several hours enjoying themselves before continuing on their journey.
Michi no eki in particular are often tailored to a specific theme or showcase local attractions. Many also incorporate features such as museums, farmer’s markets, and local craft markets that help integrate them with their local communities. Michi no eki are often used to introduce the charms and products of an area to travelers and special menu items incorporating exotic, local, and seasonal ingredients are often available.
One common and popular item found at many rest areas around Japan is soft serve ice cream that has been flavored to reflect what an area is famous for. Examples of popular flavors include blue rose near Mt. Fuji and mango in Okinawa. Seasonal flavors like blueberry, grape, peach, melon, sesame, biwa (loquat), and strawberry are also very popular. Many travelers enjoy being able to taste these local flavors and some make it a point to try as many as possible. If you travel around Japan, maybe you should too.