Kyoto, Osaka, Nara and Kobe

Kyoto, Osaka, Nara and Kobe

Most countries have the odd attraction or two that get somewhat over-hyped. In Japan, Amanohashidate would fit that description. A place with an almost mystical/spiritual appeal to the Japanese, and which draws tourists in the thousands, we dropped by on our way from Ine to Kyoto. Glad we did not make a special trip as we’d have been sorely disappointed – literally a non-spectacular  sand bar across a bay near Miyazu. Perhaps though, that brief disappointment was all meant to be since the rest of the week brought us all the splendour of Kyoto and Nara, a wonderful reconnection in Osaka with my old boss of 35 years ago, a full service of our vehicle (after an initial struggle) and a nostalgic visit to our old stomping ground in nearby Kobe.

Light and dark blue lines show our route taken this past week. Distance -short. Sights – many !

Unlike Amanohashidate, Kyoto, (Japan’s cultural heart and former capital) very much lives up to the hype – most visitors justifiably spend days visiting its historic shrines and temples, quaint backstreets and excellent shopping options. We limited our re-visit to a few of our old favourites, Kinka Kuji still topping that list – both of us consider it our favourite Japanese shrine/temple. It was just astounding to see the number of foreigners there ( and at other Kyoto sights ) during this visit – at first we thought it was simply because we had been previously travelling in parts of Japan where foreigners are less visible ( was it perhaps that we just noticed them more here ?) but in asking several Japanese merchants, they all confirmed that they have never seen so many foreign visitors in the city as there are at present. They pegged the cheap yen ( “en yasu” in Japanese ) as the driving force. How the world changes – during our time here in the mid 80’s the Japanese business people were all complaining about “en daka” ( the strong yen ). For the first time in many decades, travel in Japan now represents very good value and foreigners are flocking here. More on that in next week’s blog.

Our favourite Japanese shrine, Kinka-Kuji in Kyoto.
Possibly Japan’s most photographed sight..
Yasaka Shrine, Kyoto.
Famous Toji temple, Kyoto.
Kyoto backstreet near Kiyomizu-dera Dera
Kiyomizu Dera, Kyoto.
Kiyomizu Dera.
Japanese garden, Kiyomizu Dera.
Sannenzaka shopping street, Kyoto.
Japanese fans, Kyoto store, Sannenzaka.
Kimono clad women walking through backstreet in Pontocho, Kyoto.
Historic Pontocho street, Kyoto.
Street scene, Kawaramachi, Kyoto.
Kyoto backstreet scene. Many pretty canals branch off the river.
Our van is really NOT that big. Some in Canada could not believe we would travel so far, for so long, in something “so small”. In Japan they always want to put us with buses – sometimes we feel like we are driving a road train here!

The “service soon” indicator had stated to flash on our van ( we knew it was coming ) and had expected that to be solved with a fairly routine visit to any one of the many Mercedes dealers that can be easily found in all major Japanese cities. We figured Kyoto, one of Japan’s most international cities, would provide good dealer options and some English-speaking staff. Turns out we got two of those three things right – there were indeed several dealers, and the one we approached had a very helpful English speaking staff member (Mr. Isobe), but getting our vehicle serviced would turn out to be far more of an adventure than we had ever anticipated. While the Sprinter van is not a common Mercedes product in Japan ( we’ve not yet seen one on the road ) the V6 diesel engine and transmission it uses are very standard across the Mercedes range and hence the requisite oils and filters would/should be widely available. Indeed they were – but a service bay high enough to accomodate it was not !!! Not, it turned out, only in Kyoto, but nor was one apparently available anywhere in Kobe or Osaka, or, if there was, no dealer was willing to tackle servicing our particular vehicle ! Of course what needed to be done could easily have been done outside the service bay and an exception could easily have been made – but making exceptions to rules are not things that Japanese people tend to like to do. The long and short of it all was that our friendly Mercedes service representative, embarrassed at being unable to assist us “in house”, put us in touch with a local workshop that ( we were told ) specialized in “exotic cars and camper vans” ( a truly odd market combination we thought ). Fortunately, they were close by, able to assist us at short notice, and ( unlike all the Mercedes dealers ) were very happy to take on the challenge. Service completed the very next day ! Phew !

Isobe-san checking the van dimensions to see if there was a Mercedes dealer anywhere in Honshu that had a Service Bay high enough to accommodate us – yes, really ! And they all said no !
Ultimately, Mercedes Kyoto referred us to Tanimoto-san at NAC Auto who specialized in “exotic” vehicles and “campervans”. Despite that being a seemingly odd market segment, Tanimoto-san took great care of us and got the job done !
While our van was ( in our mind anyway ) far from exotic, some of his other clients’ vehicles certainly qualified ! A classic Porsche.
When we left NAC Auto, the van was cleaned to showroom condition! Vacuumed inside, too !
In true Japanese style ( where service is EVERYTHING), we were driven to, and picked up from, the nearby railway station so we could sightsee while the service was done.

Through a mutual friend I had been able to reach out to and connect with my old boss from our time living in Japan over 35 years ago and it was with much enthusiasm that both Lois and I were looking forward to reconnecting with him while in the area. Maenaka san and his wife, Hideko, had agreed to meet us in historic Nara for a coffee and lunch so we made Nara our next port of call. Now, 35 years is a long time between catch ups so needless to say we had lots to talk about and thoroughly enjoyed both the coffees and the lunch, the experience definitely enhanced by Maenaka san’s choice of venue, the historic Nara Hotel. Nara is very congested and I was concerned where we would park our van but he had that all taken care of and the valet had us parked up right in front of the lobby! Needless to say, our arrival created quite a bit of commotion with the usual, “oki” and “takai” banter ensuing ( “It’s big, it’s high” ). A spectacular lunch, awesome views across Nara Park and great conversations filled the mid-day with subsequent hours spent exploring Nara’s attractions. So wonderful to reconnect after so long.

My old boss in Japan, Maenaka-san and his wife, Hideko. We’d not seen each other in over 35 years !
We enjoyed an amazing lunch at the historic Nara Hotel.
Coffee followed, but I had tea. I was given a timer to tell when the tea had steeped sufficiently. Yes, that kind of detail at this hotel !
One can’t walk through Nara Park without being accosted by the deer. Hundreds of them !
Entrance to Todai-ji, Nara.
Today-ji, known for its Great Buddha.
Great Buddha, Nara.

While I had worked mostly in Osaka, we lived ( and Lois worked ) in nearby Kobe. Of course no visit to Japan would be complete without a good walk down memory lane and after navigating some pretty crazy traffic between Osaka and Kobe, we managed to find a great place to park up for the night, high up on Rokko Mountain with a spectacular view over Osaka Bay and the surrounding cities. Probably one of the best camping spots in Japan so far.

Confusing traffic lights in Osaka. Rather than a solid green with a red right-turn arrow, we often see this. Hmm.
Caught rush hour, it was slow going.
Camping spot on Mt Rokko, Kobe. The iOverlander app just continues to deliver great spots to stay.
View by day, and…….
…even more stunning at night.

Sadly, the next day in Kobe was a little more problematic. We did manage to stop by and walk around our old neighbourhood and check out our old place (which remains largely unchanged). Given that the great Kobe earthquake occurred in 1995 and damaged much of the city, there was no guarantee our old neighbourhood would look as it did. The difficulty of finding a place to park our vehicle in Kobe meant that we didn’t get to spend as much time as we would’ve liked in the city. Some Japanese cities are just like that. What parking that did exist in the city ( at least that we could find ) was all designed for these new micro cars that everybody seems to be driving in Japan ! No room for us 😔.

Our home for over 3 years in Japan, top floor unit in “Atelier G” (at the time the Japanese had a thing for French names).

Leaving Kobe to the west one does not drive very far until  the amazing new Akashi bridge comes into view. It was built just as we were leaving Japan, and now connects the Honshu mainland to the island of Awaji, which in turn forms a land bridge between Honshu and the island of Shikoku, the fourth of Japan’s four major islands. More on our travels in Awaji and Shikoku next blog.

Till next week….

Another “montage” of video clips from the week that was. Enjoy…….

Eastern Kyushu & Honshu’s Sainan Coast

Eastern Kyushu & Honshu’s Sainan Coast

The incredibly lush, green scenery of Kyushu continued all the way north and east as we left Cape Sata in the far south. Reaching the east coast an unexpected surprise was passing the Japan Space Agency’s rocket centre at Uchinoura. It’s certainly no Cape Canaveral but since we were here (and visits were permitted) we decided to go in and take a peek. Unfortunately, just as we did, a huge waft of fog enveloped the mountain bringing visibility almost to zero. Rather a non-event ! What was not a non-event was the beauty of the east coast and specifically an area known as the Nichinan Kaigan coast which extends almost to Miyazaki. While perhaps somewhat generously compared to Italy’s Amalfi coast, it does share some of the same steep cliff drop offs, rocky outcrops and pristine sea views as its more famous Italian cousin. The rutted, horizontal rock formations near Aoshima are quite unique.

Uchinoura Space Centre – we got “fogged out” !

Nichinan Kaigan coast.
Rock formation known as the “Ogres Washboard”, near Aoshima.

Miyazaki is one of the nicer small Japanese cities and while not holding a lot of interest for the foreign visitor it’s well known in Japan as being pretty much the centre of early Japanese civilization and Miyazaki jingu shrine is the very place where Japan’s first emperor ( Jimmu ), dating back to 600BC, is enshrined.  While famous Beppu ( known for its hot springs and thermal pools ) was the main attraction for us before leaving Kyushu, a slight detour west to unique Tackachiho Gorge made for a very worthwhile diversion – not just for the unique gorge itself but for the drive in which included some of Kyushu’s finest scenery ( and narrowest roads ! ). Hardy surprising I suppose, as it criss-crossed parts of Kyushu’s legendary Yamanami Highway.

Heiwa ( Peace ) Park, Miyazaki.

Miyazaki Jingu shrine.
Tackachiho Gorge
Tackachiho Gorge

Beppu never disappoints and on this occasion, in addition to visits to a number of its well known red and blue colored thermal springs we managed to find a little, out of the way, quiet outdoor onsen, of the type that can be harder to find. Not only were there pools of differing temperatures and supposed therapeutic qualities but this one included a soothing mud bath. Highly recommended should you get to Beppu !

Mud bath, Beppu
Outdoor onsen, Beppu.
Red coloured jigoku, Beppu.
Blue/green jigoku, Beppu.
Tatsumaki jigoku, Beppu

West of Beppu and across Kyushu’s north lies much heavy industry and generally unappealing urban sprawl  ( including Kokura, the city which was supposed to have been the 2nd A Bomb target – how lucky were they ? ) – good for a long “drive day” which got us across the huge  Kanmon Bridge connecting Kyushu with Shimonoseki on Japan’s main island of Honshu.

Kanmon Bridge, Shimonoseki.

  Here there was a decision to be made since our travels would now take us east across western Honshu. On the advice of the “Lonely Planet: Japan” author we opted for the more rural and scenic northern route across what is known as the Sanin Coast versus the more industrial and congested Inland Sea route ( parts of which we would explore later anyway ). An easy choice, really, since we had not explored this part of Japan at all previously. It turned out to be a great call since the route across the north over the next four or five days brought us ( mostly ) good weather,  great coastal scenery, two historic towns ( Hagi and Tsuwono ), one of Japan’s best preserved castles in Matsue, a sand dune surprise in Tottori, and finally a look at one of Honshu’s most historic and unique fishing villages at Ine. A week overflowing with sights.

Toll booths and toll roads always seem to cause us
an issue. Got on this one by accident !
I lost the bet in Korea but won it in Japan. We met Mr and Mrs Kim from Korea who shipped their Jeep over to Japan for a month of travel. So we’ve now met one other foreign vehicle !
At the Michi No Eki where we met the Kim’s, a car club was having a meet up – some nice machinery !
I got to check out a Lamborghini Countach. Very low.

Scene in Hagi.
Noble’s house from 1850’s, Hagi.
Ikebana display, Hagi.
Sanin coast, near Matsue.
Stunning coastal rock formation, near Matsue.
Beautiful Inari shrine, Tsuwano.
A street scene, Tsuwano. The canals each side are full of koi.
Traditional sake store, Tsuwano.
First glimpse, Matsue Castle.
Full reveal. One of the few original castles surviving in Japan and dating back to 1611.
Samurai house, Matsue.
Sahara desert, or ? Tottori sand dunes, Tottori. Not something I EVER thought I‘d see in Japan !
Traditional boathouses, Ine village.
Boathouses, closer view.

From the Sanin coast we head inland to Japan’s cultural capital, Kyoto and explore Kyoto, Osaka, historic Nara and our old stomping ground of Kobe. Till next week……

Note: This week I decided to roll all the video clips into one 4 minute “reel”. Gives a bit more continuity and the clips pretty much follow the order of the pictures above. Enjoy….

More Kyushu: Kumamoto, Kagoshima & A Kamikaze Story

More Kyushu: Kumamoto, Kagoshima & A Kamikaze Story

One can’t leave Nagasaki without being profoundly impacted by what you’ve seen at its most famous museum. We certainly were. This week, though, we’d see an amazing museum which detailed another tragic chapter in the closing days of Japan’s WW2 experience – in our continuing trip around the beautiful southern Japanese island of Kyushu we would discover the beauty of Unzen ( a spa town on the Shimabara peninsula ), the castle city of Kumamoto, the volcanic craters of Mt. Aso, and a few truly unexpected gems in the Kagoshima region ( one, as mentioned above, that had a similar impact on us as the A Bomb museum in Nagasaki did – albeit from a completely different perspective). Despite a generally dismal week weather-wise it was one that we packed a lot into.

Recent route ( in blue).
Unzen onsen…..the town is a mecca for them.

Directly north of Nagasaki lies a fertile volcanic area known as the Shimabara peninsula. Almost (but not quite) an island, this area presents a number of attractions but key for us was the spa/onsen town of Unzen. Unzen is generously endowed with some of Japan’s best spa’s – the scenery on the way up its tortuously windy access road is pretty impressive as well. Tested one of the local onsens and found it very soothing – no shortage of hot baths in this town. The ever friendly local tourist office referred us to a great little “hole in the wall” Japanese restaurant and again ( as in Fukuoka ) we were not disappointed – not a super busy night so ( as an added bonus ) the owners insisted on making us both a couple of traditional Japanese paper cuttings. Yet again, we’ve been dazzled by the incredible hospitality we’ve experienced on the road.

Hmmm. If the parking space is not too small there is another issue ( low branches )!

Steaming hot “ofuro” bath.
Personalized paper cuttings made for us by the restaurant owner.

Thermal activity, Unzen.

After winding our way down to the coast, we took the 45 minute ferry from Tiara Port to Nagasu  putting us on the Kumamoto side of the Kagoshima peninsula and an easy drive east to one of Japan’s more famous volcanoes, “Aso-San” ( Mt. Aso). Still active, and constantly spewing smoke, Aso attracts hikers from all over Japan and beyond. We were actually surprised at how many foreign visitors we saw while there. Sadly, dangerous recent thermal activity meant that Nakodate crater is no longer accessible to visitors 😔. While at Aso the sun shone brightly so we were keen to get in all the hiking and sights that we could – our first sunny day in a while.

Also has craters within craters. Incredibly green.
Towns and farms exist inside what is the world’s largest caldera.
Resting during a hike.

You know it’s getting hot and humid when you see palm trees line the roads – entering Kumamoto.

Pretty Kumamoto is only a stone’s throw from Aso and its historic castle is a major draw. Like many such castles in Japan it’s seen a lot of renovations but it is definitely one of the better ones.  Kumamoto was also easy to navigate so we went right into the heart of the city with the van, taking in impressive Suizenji Koen ( Park ) as well. Parking was, thankfully, not an issue in Kumamoto !

Suizenji park, Kumamoto – the hill is meant to resemble Mt Fuji.
Japanese garden, Kumamoto.
Impressive Kumamoto castle.

The Kagoshima area is not far south of Kumamoto and basically represents the southern extremity of “mainland”’ Japan. That, we knew. There were two major events in Japan’s ( relatively ) recent history in which Kagoshima played a pivotal role ( that we did not know about ), but both of which we would explore during our time there.

The first. I won’t get into the weeds here but Kagoshima ( and the local Satsuma clan ) was at the heart of many of the events surrounding the early and often tumultuous days of “Meiji” all of which is described in great detail at Kagoshima’s Museum of the Meiji Restoration .  If you’ve seen Tom Cruise’s epic “The Last Samurai” it covers some of the political and military machinations during this tumultuous period in Japanese history, albeit with the usual Hollywood liberties taken. Fascinating stuff if you have any  curiosity at all about Japan’s rapid rise into a powerful modern state once it opened up to the world in the mid 1800’s. 

Saigo Takamori, samurai, nobleman, patriot, famous Kagoshima son.

As the Kagoshima area weather was not always cooperative we also loaded up on museum visits while there and based on a tip from another overlander we made the 1 hour trek out to the Chiran Peace Museum. Probably one of the most well presented and touching museums we’ve seen in a long time. Chiran, you see, tells the story of the “tokkotai” – a group better known outside Japan as “kamikaze” pilots. I’ll back it up a bit first. By March of 1945 the writing was on the wall for Japan in WW2. Okinawa was under Allied control and US ships were nearing the home islands ( Japan’s 4 main islands, of which Kyushu is the southernmost). Chiran is in the far south of Kyushu and, being the furthest forward operating base, was the airfield from which approximately half the young Kamikaze pilots departed to attack Allied ships, primarily around Okinawa. Over 1,000 in all.

Statue of a mother, looking up at her kamikaze son, flying off on what she knew was his final mission.

Hard, in today’s world, to understand why these young men were asked to make such a pointless sacrifice so late in a war which was, to all intents and purposes, already lost. While we never got the answer to that, we came away with immense respect for the courage of the young pilots, many of whom were not yet 20. The stories they wrote to their mothers on the night before their “final mission” had us both almost tearing up.  I was left with this thought – it’s got to be unbelievably tough for any parent to send a son/daughter off to any conflict knowing they might not return. Imagine being the parent of a son asked to be a kamikaze pilot ? Definitely a one-way ticket. I’ll let the following pictures tell the story.

Kamikaze pilot ready for his final mission.
Notes of support and encouragement were often written on a hino maru ( national flag ).
This pilot – a boy of 18.

Samples of clothing.
Googles and cap.

Remnants of a Japanese “Zero” fighter recovered from Kagoshima Bay in the 1980’s.
“Triangle” huts, where pilots spent their last night together, shared stories, sake ( and, according to one letter, often some tears).
Inside the triangle hut. Pictures of the pilots can be seen on the wall.
Letter to parents by young pilot, “Masanobu”
Page 2 of letter..
The original Chiran base ( airfield) has long since been redeveloped but remnants remain in the town – here a water tank from the war period.

Following the incredibly sombre experience in Chiran some relaxation was in order – what better place than nearby Ibusuki, home of the famous Japanese hot sand bath . A wonderful experience where you lay on a bed of hot sand ( heated from hot springs below the sand ) and staff cover you in more hot sand up to your neck in which you then relax for 15-20 minutes. Invigorating..! The experience is completed with some further relaxation in a hot onsen afterwards. Bliss.

Hot sand bath, Ibusuki. Photos not allowed – this one from the hotel itself.
While parked up in Ibusuki a very friendly Japanese fellow in an extremely “lifted” Mitsubishi Delica van insisted on photographing his vehicle together with ours. Despite his van’s lift kit he could not believe how “takai” ( high ) our van was in comparison.
Conical Mt. Kaimon, near Ibusuki at the very bottom of Kyushu. Typically the last Japanese landmark the kamikaze pilots saw as they flew south to certain death in Okinawa.

A short ferry ride across the mouth of Kagoshima Bay took us to the south eastern side of  Kagoshima-ken ( state ), close to the southern-most extremity of mainland Japan. Not just an “extremity” box to tick but it’s a particularly scenic drive to Cape Sata that attracts drivers and riders from all over Japan. We’d earlier reached Kyushu’s western edge (near Sasebo) so made the trek on to Cape Sata, Not only was the drive ( and hike at the end of it ) worthwhile, but it also afforded us a chance to camp at the first “formal” Japanese campsite we’d come across. Not exactly like home, but pretty close and ticked all the key boxes : flat, with potable water, and impeccable amenities. We hope to find more of these!

View of our van we don’t often see – on the ferry to Capa Sata.
Hiked out to the Cape Sata observatory- time for a selfie.
Cape Sata – end of the road in southern Japan
Bikers LOVE the road to Cape Sata. It’s all about the curves.

Being at the very bottom of Kyushu now, the obvious next direction is north, following a general route along the east coast of Kyushu- but, we’ll save that for the next blog 😊.

Till next week…..

Japan : First Impressions

Japan : First Impressions

Funnily enough, we got our first impression ( or should I say, first “reminder” ) while still on the ship from Busan. The ship is Japanese ( but managed together with a Korean company ) so it has more of a Japanese “flavour” one might say – tatami rooms that could sleep up to 10 people, its own “sento” ( hot bath ) and, something else we have only ever seen in Japan – beer sold from vending machines ( common not just on the ship but all over Japan ) ! Most people reading this blog live in North American or Australia – in any of those countries it would be emptied by under age kids in short order ! The Japanese, though, are known for following rules – even adolescents, it seems.

Japan is the only country we have been to where beer ( and other alcohol ) is sold in vending machines.
Our happy moment – finally leaving the Port of Fukuoka.
The day was not perfectly clear on arrival in Fukuoka but was much better than the air quality we experienced in Busan.

After an extraordinarily long first day dealing with customs, carnet  and insurance issues, it was exciting to finally drive out of the ferry terminal, with our van, ready to explore Japan. Fukuoka itself, a nice enough mid-sized Japanese city, does not have a ton of sights of interest but certainly enough to fill a day so we started our Japan sightseeing right there. On top of the interesting sights, a real delight was stumbling upon one of the city’s older, and very popular, yakitori restaurants; enjoyed the best wasabi-flavored chicken skewers ever, washed down with a generous serving of sake to celebrate our safe arrival in the country. Definitely a memorable moment, made more enjoyable by the company of some super friendly and helpful locals.

Downtown Fukuoka is a reasonably nice Japanese city, super clean, and very easy to get around.
Ohiri Park Japanese garden, Fukuoka.
Remains of Fukuoka castle.
Mist show, Japanese garden, Fukuoka.
The flowers were beautiful. Azaleas in a Fukuoka garden.
Loved this yakitori restaurant..!
The sake came in a glass, placed in a box. They filled the sake to overflowing so that it almost filled the box. Once you finish the glass one empties to rest of the sake from the box into the glass. Perhaps it’s a Kyushu thing !

From Fukuoka, the plan was generally to travel southwest in the direction of Nagasaki. Where possible, toll roads were avoided ( not hard to do ) giving us a great perspective on life in rural Kyushu; small towns, farms, fishing villages and the odd larger centre filled our first few days. Some great beach camping, scenic coastal drives and our first Michi-no-Eki ( literally “road side station” ) experience were highlights. We have nothing quite like a Michi-no-Eki; think of a farmers market, running every day from 9-5, with plenty of parking, impeccably clean toilet facilities and perhaps a small store. Place it on a main road so that passing travellers have a place to pull over, rest ( for a few hours, or even overnight ) and sample regional specialties that are for sale. These have only been around for 20 years but are now all over Japan…..well over 1,000 of them in fact, and they make great places to park up for the night as many Japanese (and others) do. It’s been a hugely successful idea- we are already fans.

Lois in a michi-no-eki near Nagasaki.
Beach camping, just south of Fukuoka.
Terraced rice fields, rural Kyushu.

Travel on Japanese back roads is slow, with much of it done between 40 and 60km/h but being in no hurry that gave us the opportunity to better appreciate the whole experience. Given that distances are not great, and the roads are usually windy in mostly mountainous conditions, the slow speed is not an issue- but I would not want to be driving across Canada at that speed. For most of our first few days the weather was either overcast or drizzling – unfortunate ( and unseasonal we were assured ) but it’s what we had so it limited some of our outdoor options.

By the time we reached Nagasaki, things had improved somewhat and we had reasonably clear days there. The A-Bomb museum and nearby Memorial to the Victims were priorities and both truly conveyed the horrors of war, especially nuclear war, well. Hard not to get emotional when looking at some of the displays – it was not lost on either of us that, given the Japanese people’s general longevity, and the fact that it occurred only 78 years ago, there would still be a significant number of survivors alive in the city with clear memories of it.

The impressive Memorial to Victims, right beside the A Bomb Museum, Nagasaki.
Replica of the actual bomb that was dropped, known as “Fat Man”.

Downtown traffic, Nagasaki.

In addition to the slightly kitschy “Megane Bridge” there were a few other sights we’d hoped to see in the city but had to abort those plans when we realized two things: a) Nagasaki’s streets are really narrow ( even for Japan ) and challenged our ability even just to turn in some cases, and b) while there were parking places which we would have happily paid for, they were all way too small for our 7m long van ! Worse, many parking spaces, (even those in open air locations) have height considerations which treat our van as a (perish the thought)….bus !!! Japanese parking lots consider our van to be enormous and where we have been able to park ( based on either length or height ) we have been hit with “bus” size parking fees ( almost 5 times what a car pays ) in some cases. Not something we can’t work around but definitely a consideration that will require a little more “strategizing” as we visit some of the larger cities ( in rural parts, no issue ).

“Megane” ( spectacles ) Bridge, Nagasaki.
Parked here, back in Fukuoka and assumed we’d pay the ( posted ) car rate of ¥700 ( $6 Cdn ). Did not notice the vertical bars (with hidden cameras) that measured our height and stung us for the “bus” rate of ¥3,000 as we departed. Height as a cost criteria – in an open air lot ? Ouch. We’re learning fast.
First week in Japan.

Before I wrap up this week’s blog with a look at some facets of the country that are, well, uniquely Japanese ( enjoy ), an interesting little side note on Nagasaki and that fateful event on August 9th, 1945: it was not the intended destination for the 2nd A bomb. It was actually destined for Kokura, further north. The plane with the bomb actually flew to Kokura, circled several times and then aborted the target due to persistent cloud cover. The plane banked and headed south to Nagasaki, where, initially anyway, there was also cloud cover. They decided to wait there a bit longer – just before they would have had to turn for home, the cloud cover broke and the world’s second atomic bomb was released….the rest, as they say, is history.

You Know You’re In Japan When:

…..the taxi diver is wearing white gloves ( and always opens the rear curbside door for you from inside the car ) !
….the apples are blemish free, individually wrapped in clear film, and THEN wrapped again in protective foam mesh ! Always. And everywhere.
….ditto for avocados !
….in many fuel stations there is no “bowser” as such. Hoses are pulled down from ceiling pods in stations like this. In the big cities, it’s all about space !
…..and finally, in Japan even a visit to a simple public toilet is high tech. This one is typical – seat heats up as you open the door, it automatically flushes as you stand up ( but the blue button on the wall allows for a manual flush). The other 5 controls on the wall ? Two controls for the bidet, one other for the bidet water stream strength, another for sound volume control ( the sound of running water is heard while you do your business ), and a manual “stop” control. The small, wall mounted seat in front of the toilet is to place an infant ( should you be carrying one ) ! They’ve got it all covered here…….

Till next week……..

Shipping To/From Korea

Shipping To/From Korea

What follows here is a review of the process of shipping our Mercedes Sprinter van from Australia to Korea ( February 2024 ) and then on from Korea to Japan ( April 2024 ). A warning – our regular blog readers will find minimal information of any interest in this edition ( unless the excruciating minutiae of shipping a vehicle captivates you ! ) – the detail is provided for those who may be looking to do something similar with a vehicle, either from Australia to Korea or onwards from Korea to Japan. A little payback ( or paying it forward ) for the many who helped guide us in this process in the past.

Dropping the van at the Port of Melbourne for shipment to Korea.

After spending all of 2023 and the early part of 2024 travelling around Australia in our Sprinter campervan, we shipped the van via RoRo from Melbourne to Pyeongtaek, Korea. We shipped via a Wallenius Wilhelmsen car carrier that stopped in Fremantle, Singapore, Laem Chabang ( Bangkok ) and Kunsan en route and took almost 30 days. After almost 4 weeks travelling with the van in Korea, we took the Camellia Line ferry from the port of Busan ( Korea ) to Fukuoka ( Japan ). We hope that the details below will offer some valuable insights ( we’ve included pricing and contact info ) to overlanders ( or anyone else ) contemplating shipping to or from these ports. I know I echo the thoughts of every overlander in saying that THE most stressful part of life on the road is dealing with shipping, especially collecting your vehicle, and specifically off a RoRo ship. Fortunately, this time ours is a good news story.

Not our specific ship but the same shippingcompany and same type of ship.

Australia to Korea

We used Anthony Paratore of Bullock’s Freightmaster in Fremantle. Anthony was timely, competitive and very reassuring throughout. Highly recommended. We shipped RoRo, on a Wallenius car carrier from Melbourne to Pyeongtaek in Korea ( about 30 days ). We took marine insurance through Stewart Insurance Group ( Michael/Anastasia ) who were also excellent and prompt. Quote was based on our vehicle’s value so no point quoting insurance premiums here. They were very competitive and used Zurich, a major global player. Drop off at the Port of Melbourne was fast and easy, we paid about $150AUD for the required port escort and were in and out in about 45 minutes.

Anthony referred us to YCL Logistics ( in Seoul ) to handle to collection process in Korea. They were professional, prompt with communication and gave us white glove treatment all the way. Not cheap, but very much full service ( pick up from hotel, driven 2 hours to Pyeongtaek for vehicle collection etc, etc ). Our experience was complicated by the fact that Wallenius changed our port of delivery from Masan to Pyeongtaek and this added some time and expense to the process. No one’s fault, *&$# happens ! Kunsan, Incheon and Masan are far more commonly used and would have saved us some money certainly.

This is now our 4th international shipment ( 1 x container, 3 x RoRo ) and while the broad process is identical there are unique aspects of each that merit attention. In respect of Korea I should add this; while I can’t say it with absolute certainty I’m quite sure the majority who visit with their own vehicles come by ferry from one of Japan ( several port options ), Russia ( Vladivostok ) or China ( Dalian/Tianjin ). It seems that in the case of ferry arrivals ( vs RoRo carriers or container ships ) the port procedures and customs clearance processes are far simpler ( and hence far cheaper ). Our experience was on a RoRo carrier, from Melbourne ( Australia ) so the clearance procedures were quite a bit more involved and hence more expensive (we also got “white glove” treatment – just the way our Korean contacts worked which undoubtedly added to our costs ). I’m sure it could be done for less if one handled some of the process oneself ( as we’ve done ourselves in other ports ).


We had exceptional service from Anthony Paratore at Bullocks in Fremantle and would highly recommend him. For a 42cbm vehicle we paid $4,970 AUD ( approx. $US 3,230 ) from Australia to Korea – this included shipping freight and all port charges in Australia except the port escort in Melbourne ( approx. $150 AUD). Vehicle insurance is extra and no point in me quoting it here because it’s based largely on vehicle value so will vary enormously. Michael at Stewart’s in Melbourne was very competitive with a policy from Zurich Marine – and super fast.

At the Korean end YCL also served us very well. Super people with multiple English speaking contacts ( JB, Emily and James ) and very “full service” but as a result they are not cheap. We paid $US 1,100 to pick up our van in Pyeongtaek when all various charges were added.  Two things ( no one’s fault ) compounded the costs. Firstly, Korean Customs at Pyongtaek do not often handle individual vehicles (we were told ) and simply were not sure of some of the processes. They had to consult with the folks at Incheon and Masan in order to complete our clearance. At one point they even suggested that it may be required to bond our vehicle, place it on a flatbed truck and drive it to Busan since that is the port we intended to exit from and according to their understanding, we should enter and exit through the same port ! Our agent talked them out of that nonsense. Had the ship stuck to its original discharge destination I have no doubt the process would have cost less. According to our shipping agent, Incheon was the best port to enter Korea through if one had a choice ( we didn’t ! ).

JB Chang of YCL and I receiving our vehicle in Pyeongtaek. No damage, no theft !

That all said, the pick up process at Pyongtaek was incredibly easy and very fast. About 45 minutes. Only in Brunswick, Georgia ( in the US ) have we seen a vehicle released faster and with less fuss – about 30 minutes ( a striking contrast to our experience trying to clear the vehicle out of Melbourne when it first went to Australia !!). No one looked at the vehicle with us, no one checked that we had insurance (we did have it) – some basic ID checks, hi-viz vest and hard hat worn, proof of fees paid and we were on our way. All done digitally, practically no paper. So simple.

What Went Well:

Well, the most important thing of course – we got our vehicle in perfect condition with no damage and (critically) NO THEFT ! I went to extreme lengths to ensure that everything of value that was left in the van was secured in the garage compartment under our bed and that it was able to be locked separately from the rest of the van. Unless customs wanted to check it when it arrived in Korea ( which I could facilitate ) there was no way port staff or ship-board crew could access our stuff. No one ( from the port staff ) accompanied us to the van when we collected it ( just my agent and I ). Fortunately no one in Melbourne made us unlock that area of the vehicle when we dropped it there ( in some ports they do ). This was a huge relief based on two significant thefts on past RoRo transits.

Vehicles coming and going at Pyeongtaek port.

What Did Not:

While originally routed from Melbourne to Masan ( in the south of South Korea ), once at sea the shipping line changed our unloading port to Pyeongtaek ( nearer to Seoul ). This caused hassles and costs for our agents, and we were stuck dealing with a port not familiar with what we were doing. 


We felt the shipping cost to Korea was excellent value given typical shipping costs these days. We felt the clearing costs in Korea ( on our particular shipment ) were higher than normal ( partly for reasons noted above ). It cost  more than twice as much to clear our van in Korea than it cost to clear our vehicle in Brunswick, Georgia just 2 years earlier. I would have expected costs in the US to be higher than Korea; not so ! I would not assume these costs we paid to be normal, however, and am sure it could be done for well under $1,000 at other Korean ports. We know of people that paid considerably less than us.

Korea To Japan

We chose the Camellia Line ferry to transport our van from Busan ( Korea ) to Fukuoka ( Japan ). I cannot speak highly enough about this company. They did an excellent job from start to finish and we would recommend them highly. We booked it all via email through YJ Choi of the Busan office ( [email protected] ). The ferry was on time ( arrived early in fact ) and they were super well organized from A to Z. Staff at the office spoke English, as did their port staff and staff on the ship. We were personally escorted to the ship with our van, through customs in Korea and again in Japan. They explained exactly what documents we needed ( passport, Carnet, Int’l Drivers Licence, and vehicle registration documents). They took care of issuing the basic Third Party Insurance needed to get road-ready in Japan and directed us to the JAF ( Japan Autombile Federation ) office in Fukuoka for Carnet validation.

Arrived at Busan Port International Terminal. A huge but extremely well organized place. Getting there from our campsite was challenging, the only time we ( briefly ) got lost in Korea.

About to leave Busan, 10pm at night.


There was lots of room, ours was the ONLY private van/car on the ferry.
They allowed me to inspect the lashing process and made sure I was happy it was tight. Have never had that before !
Because we were shipping a vehicle the ferry company more or less gave us a personal assistant from start to finish. We were the only private vehicle on the ferry, along with a young Korean guy who had a motorbike.


We paid 726,000 Korean won ( $537 USD ) to ship our 3.5 tonne, 42cbm van along with driver, passenger and a 2 berth deluxe private cabin with its own shower and toilet ( 536,000 for the van and driver, 90,000 for the passenger, and 100,000 for the cabin ). In Japan we paid approx. ¥32,700 ($212 USD) in charges – ¥5,000 port fees, ¥3,000 Carnet validation at JAF, ¥16,000 Surety Deposit at Japan Customs and ¥7,700 mandatory Third Party Insurance for the van. Camellia Line had a good reputation, was used by others we knew of and sails on the shortest route from Korea to Japan. I believe the Pukwan ferry carries vehicles as well but sails to Osaka ( further, and more expensive ). For those interested there are also ferries from Korea to Russia ( Vladivostok) and Korea to China ( Dalian ) although the Russian one may not be running at present.

On board the “New Camellia”.

What went well:

Everything, until we got to Fukuoka where the delays at Japan Customs cost us many hours of wasted time. It was a very long day ! Throughout the delays in Japan the Camellia staff were excellent. They could not apologize enough. The actual customs inspection in Japan was cursory- they barely looked inside and never even opened the rear doors. They seemed more interested in our trip around Australia and Korea than anything else ! On that note, the customs inspection in Korea was very basic as well. Super fast and easy.

It took a long time to do the paperwork at JAF where the Carnet was validated on behalf of Japan Customs and necessitated us commuting half way across Fukuoka. Not a slick process.

What did not:

It was a long wait at the terminal in Fukuoka for the Carnet to be processed.and documents signed. And then more signed, and then more when I asked that Lois be allowed to drive the car as well. Supposedly, if arriving in Japan by ferry, one is not “required” to have a Carnet but that was never presented to us an option – they asked us right from the beginning about the Carnet so we never explored the TIP option. I will ask more about that and update this section if I find out further information on it, it may have been an easier way to go.

Not the QE2, but hey, it’s an overnight ferry ! The cabin was large, comfortable, on the top deck, had a huge window with private toilet/shower.
Celebration time ! Paperwork all done in Fukuoka and we could ( finally ) drive away ! Here with Camellia staff member and agents for Japan Customs.


We would highly recommend this route to Japan. Comfortable ferry, smooth crossing, well priced and very well organized. We had briefly considered shipping directly from Australia to Japan but decided to include Korea on the route for a few reasons; there was much of it we had never seen before, what we had seen had changed a lot in 40 years, and finally, we knew that the ferry crossing from Korea to Japan was quick, easy and ended up being even less expensive than we thought. It’s also a less popular destination for overland travellers which provided a more unique experience. For only an additional $US700 or so it was a very small price to pay to include both countries on our itinerary, and we are very glad we did.

What Next :

We are now in Japan and excited to begin exploring the “Land of the Rising Sun”. We will shortly start making plans to confirm space on a ship out of Japan for later this ( northern ) summer. Details on that once we have them.

Till next shipment…….!