Japan Today

3 random joys of Japanese highway travel

By Amrita Singh

Exploring Japan by car can be uniquely rewarding. Beyond the ability to soak in the picturesque vistas on your own time, there are other experiences to be had. So whether you’re a passenger or a driver, if you’re traveling by car, be prepared for some random encounters — some exclusively Japanese — to liven up and surprise you and your travel companions on the trip.

1. Melody roads

Goofy for some — incredibly thoughtful to others — are Japan’s “melody roads,” where you can quite literally drive your car over a patch of road to create music.

Reminiscent of old vinyl records, grooves are cut into highways and byways at specific intervals to create sound vibrations when they are driven over. Between 250 to 500 meters in length, the series of furrows in these roads are constructed with carefully calculated depth and spacing so that they generate a rhythm and hum that is uncannily distinct and recognizable.

Known as “Asphaltophone” in Denmark and “Singing Highways” in the Netherlands, these are not something unique to Japan, but it’s here that you can find them in abundance. There are over 30 musical roads scattered across Japan, from Hokkaido to Okinawa. The tunes pressed into the asphalt range from cultural folk songs specific to the region such as “Futami Jowa” in Okinawa to popular tunes from "Spirited Away" in Gunma, "Evangelion" in Hakone and "My Neighbor Totoro" in Hiroshima.

Found mostly in the countryside to promote tourism and regional revitalization, authorities feel they also serve the purpose of speed control and definitely prevent dozing off at the wheel.

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The story forgets to mention the high cost of gasoline, toll roads, parking and not to mention the heavy traffic on expressways and bus loads of tourists at expressway service areas and other places of interests.

As a daily drive here in Japan for the past 37 years, driving out of the city to enjoy my days off hiking and camping is the only pleasure left as trains, hotels, and other tourist places have become too expensive and crowded due to the increase in tourists. Lets leave something for Japanese to enjoy their days off. I have on too many occasions come across tourist drivers that have no idea what they are doing on the roads, illegally parking and blocking traffic without a care in the world.

10 ( +11 / -1 )

I concur.

Driving here has become a bit of a nightmare in recent years, as it seems just about anyone can get a licence all too quickly. Worse are those Gold licence holders who have not driven in months or years as a result of living in Tokyo or Osaka, but suddenly get behind the wheel of a vehicle and think they're God's gift to the roads!

And don't even get me started on the expensive toll fees!

7 ( +7 / -0 )

For anyone confused like me, the article uses the American? meaning of highway, i.e., main road. Japanese also use highway to mean "expressway". The authority in charge of them is called JHA. When it snows people say "the highways are closed".

Anyway, the best roads in the countryside are all the little ones, not the "highway/main roads" (kokudo and kendo) that are built up and have traffic lights whenever you hit houses. The little roads have no traffic aside from the odd kei truck, sometimes amazing views, and go through "land that time forgot" communities where almost every house is a kominka. To me that is more important than having a michi no eki or a convenience store every 10km. Since they are narrow, the best way to enjoy these roads is on two wheels, by motorbike or, if you can climb hills, a road bike. I can only speak for Nagano, but you don't need a touring bike or gravel bike for the little roads here. A regular road bike with low gears is fine.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

@since1981: Are you living in Kanto area? I live in Kansai area and my top pick for road trip is Tottori prefecture; I've been regularly driving there several times to escape city life and the traffic is very light and driving there is always a joy, especially during autumn, where Mt. Daisen is blazing with beautiful colours; completely different with Nikko or Kawaguchiko, where the traffic jam is horrendous to the point that it was not really enjoyable. There is still several good spots untouched by mass tourism like San'in, Shikoku, and there is always Hokkaido (only the far eastern part, Shiretoko area, or far northern part, Wakkanai area).

Although I agree that the gas is rather expensive, and the tolls are total rip-off.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Okay, expensive to drive in Japan, and you MUST avoid holidays, but otherwise, I love driving in Japan! Have been for over 35 years, so have seen about all of it. The food. The food...love it!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

vistula, yup, Kanto. However as I run my own company, I take the pleasure of taking off on weekdays to the mountains and camping places as well as everything else are practically empty. Loving it. We as well will never travel on weekends and holidays. I also ride a motorcycle and the mountains are absolutely great on weekdays. My mate and I love it!!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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