Rediscovering Japan by road trip

What better way to visit Japan than by renting a car like an Aston Martin DB11 to see the sights?

A drive to Tokyo’s most scenic neighboring prefectures

There’s no question Filipinos love road trips and vacations abroad. So why not combine the two to make a journey truly memorable?

Having been a long-time favorite destination of Filipinos, Japan can be experienced anew when toured by car and with the family. There are Japanese car rental companies that offer a wide variety of vehicles. Filipinos looking to drive around Japan will have to secure an International Driving Permit (IDP) from the Automobile Association of the Philippines (AAP) and must be familiar with driving on the right side of the car and the left side of the road. Have a credit card or cash ready to pay for the tolls. Fuel prices are similar to the Philippines.

Renting a vehicle while in Japan is an enjoyable way to get around thanks to the extensive highway network, well-maintained yet scenic roads, and ease of getting around. Plus, just a short drive from Tokyo are prefectures rich in heritage, culture, and experiences worth looking into.

A circular driving route passing by some unique prefectures around Tokyo.

The Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) were kind enough to take us on one such enjoyable itinerary, making for a unique circular route that will make for a memorable trip. Each stop is just a two-hour drive away, ensuring the drives are manageable and hardly tiring.

I. Tokyo

Our Journey starts in Tokyo, serving as convenient entry point into Japan. With sites like the Shibuya Crossing, Hachiko Statue, and bright lights of the Akihabara district, there’s no better city to help get you reacquainted with the country after a long absence due to the pandemic. Thanks to the modern public transportation, there’s no need to have a car while in this city as nearly every place is easily accessible by train.

Meiji Jingu Shrine

For those looking for something new to experience in Tokyo one unique but often overlooked location is that of Meiji Jingu Shrine.

Meiji Jingu Shrine is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji, the emperor of modern Japan and his consort, Empress Shoken. The shrine is situated besides Yoyogi Park. Together, they form a large forested area within the densely built-up city. It creates appreciable contrast to a bustling city thanks to its spacious shrine grounds with walking paths perfect for a relaxing stroll. It’s ideal for those seeking some divine intercession for personal intentions as wishes can be made at the shrine through various means. Don’t forget to pick up a charm on the way out with specialized items for those seeking good luck or good fortune.

Traditional tea at Ujien in Urasando Garden.

Another great method to slow down in the midst of the fast-paced city is to experience a traditional tea ceremony at a place called Ujien in the Urasando Garden. This traditional style café allows patrons to make and drink traditional tea, sourced from Kyoto. With particular methods to pour, stir and even serve the tea, it’s sure to calm one’s spirits before the journey ahead.

II. Yamanashi

The vineyard of Lumiere in Yamanashi wine valley.

From calming start, we kicked our trip into high gear with a journey to nearby Yamanashi prefecture. Taking off by car from Tokyo to Yamanashi is just shy of two hours thanks to the highway, which is similar to the time when taken by train.

Yamanashi is known among locals as a wine producing region, especially famous for its locally-developed grape variety, the Koshu grape, which is turned into Koshu white wine for which the region is known for. Being in the center of four continental plates, the region’s varied topography and weather are best suited for this particular grape, and quite coincidentally, make for some of the most scenic vistas with rolling hills dotted with vineyards, set against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains.

The Koshu grape that is particularly well suited to the region.

As one can expect, the best activity to embark on here is a wine tour. Our tour entailed a visit to quite the unique mix of vineyards showcasing the very best Koshu and Muscat Bailey A wines the region has to offer.

98 Wines

The scenic view from 98 wines.

Our first stop in the wine tour was 98 Wines, a small-batch vineyard that still adheres to traditional production methods. 98 Wines grows their grapes organically and still presses the grapes by foot. Another highlight of the vineyard is the incredibly scenic view, overlooking the foggy valley and with Mt. Fuji visible in the distance.

Marufuji Winery

Marufuji Winery, home of Rubaiyat wines.

Next up was Marufuji winery, one of the region’s most storied vineyards best known for its Rubaiyat line of wines. The wine is named after a collection of poems from the Rubaiyat by astronomer and poet Omar Khayyám, translated by Edward FitzGerald. Founded in 1890, Marufuji still ferments a select few of its wine in traditional concrete tanks built in the 1960s. Its cellars are worth visiting as the barrels are stored beside some of the old concrete tanks lined with potassium and tartaric acid built over years of fermentation. In the dim light, the crystals twinkle like the night sky and create a truly ethereal sight, and scent.

Katsunuma Jyozo Winery

The vineyard of Adega Vinicola d’Aruga.

Our next stop was the Adega Vinicola d’Aruga (Wine Warehouse of Aruga) also known as the Katsunuma Jyozo Winery. Situated in the valley of the region, it dates as far back 1937. The vineyard was kind enough to take us to the vines themselves, just a short walk from its terrace. Here, the proprietors shared the vineyard’s many attempts with other grape varieties before settling on Koshu and Muscat Bailey A, which are best suited for the region. In their vineyard, grapes are grown using the shelf system, which has been determined to produce the perfect balance of number grapes and sugar content ideal for making Koshu wine.

Lumiere Winery

Lumiere Winery and Restaurant Zelkova.

Another winery, Lumiere is most proud of its "Ishigura Wine." It is fermented by the valuable granite stone tank which was built in 1901 (in accordance with Japan Heritage), and brings unique flavors into the wine. If you plan to visit nearby Lumiere winery, it is the best to enjoy a glass of wine at lunchtime at the onsite restaurant Zelkova. The menu, with dishes made from fresh local materials, is perfectly matched to the selected wines.

MGVs Winery

Our final stop boasted of perhaps the most modern method of making wine. MGVs features alphanumeric products names, with the letter and number codes serving as the key to deciphering each wine's grape variety, harvest region, and how the raw material was processed and produced. With a variety of wines made under different conditions, you can get to know the wines by deciphering the product names.

III. Matsumoto

From Yamanashi, the next stop on the road trip was Matsumoto. This drive takes an hour and 45 minutes, and can sometimes even be faster than the train. For those that want to take their time, halfway to Matsumoto is the Prince and Skyline Museum which features a collection of vintage Nissan sedans and sports cars.

Situated within Nagano is the city of Matsumoto. Like Yamanashi, Matsumoto is located in a basin, surrounded by mountains and boasting of beautiful views.

Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle, still standing since 1592.

Our day started off with a visit to Matsumoto Castle, one of the few traditional castles remaining in Japan with a five-tier, six-story layout. Construction began in 1592 and lived through the tumultuous Sengoku (warring states) period and still stands despite multiple sieges and attacks. Visitors can enter the castle to see its collection of armor and weapons from the time, as well as the manicured gardens and moat that surround it. This is best left to the more athletic as steep stairs and low ceilings must be traversed inside. Nonetheless, it provides a unique insight into how royalty lived at the time.

Like Yamanashi, Matsumoto is known for its own brews, that of miso and sake. Fans of the drink will be delighted as the town also offers a tour of sake breweries with tastings.

Suwa Sake Tour

Enoteca machines that dispense Suwa Sake.

The locale is best known for Suwa Sake, and thankfully, it’s breweries are all along a single street and within walking distance. The tour takes visitors through five breweries: Maihime, Reijimn, Honkin, Yokosube, and Masumi, all along National Route 20. Each brewery gives visitors tokens which they then can use on the enoteca machines that dispense small amounts of Suwa Sake for tasting. Each brewery boasts of its own unique story, distinct blend, taste, and selection. The walk is also a great way to get around the city that boasts of traditional Japanese and colonial architecture.


Separating rice grains to make Koji-based sweet sake.

Yet another unique product of the region is Koji, a unique mold propagated on rice, wheat , and soybeans which are then left to grow before being fermented to produce products like amazake (sweet sake) and miso (fermented soybean paste). A visit to Wakamiya Koujiya found us donning the traditional working robe and headband before handling the Koji rice, separating the grains and ensuring even distribution of the prized Koji mold before aging.

Matsumoto Jujo Hotel

Matsumoto Jujo Hotel

Our day at Matsumoto soon came to an end, which saw us spending the night at the beautiful Matsumoto Jujo hotel. The “ryokan” (inn) boasts of modern design but is a short walk from the old town that still has buildings in the traditional Japanese and colonial architecture. There’s no parking at the main hotel building, however, guests can park at the hotel’s café nearby and walk up.

A long-established Ryokan’s bath turned into a bookstore and reading nook at Matsumoto Jujo Hotel.

The hotel itself is a long-established ryokan converted into a modern hotel with some of the original baths now converted into comfy, carpeted bookstore with delightful reading nooks.

The elegant rooms of Matsumoto Jujo Hotel.

Its suites boast of broad, spacious rooms with complete amenities, tatami floors, and of course, their own onsen (hot spring water) baths. The region is known, after all, for its hot springs, and no visit to Matsumoto is complete without it.

IV. Karuizawa

The roads of Karuizawa in autumn.

Our final stop was Karuizawa, a resort town Nagano famous for its ski resorts. Like what Baguio is for the Philippines, the locale is a popular summer destination for those seeking to escape the heat. It is located on an plateau at the foot of Mount Asama, and even during our arrival in mid-January, the nearby ski resort slopes were still covered in snow. Unlike Baguio, Karuizawa is yet another one hour and 45-minute drive away from Matsumoto.  This route boasts of winding mountain roads sure to perk up anyone who loves driving. The heavily wooded area is best enjoyed in the autumn when the leaves of the trees begin to turn red and offer a scenic backdrop to any drive. There’s also a wealth of hot springs to keep warm. Filipinos will love the sprawling Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza boasting of 240 shops and outlet stores.

Shishi- Iwa House

Shishi-Iwa House No.1 designed around the trees and landscape.

The town was the perfect place to punctuate our trip, particular with our stay at the Shishi-Iwa-House. This resort complex boasts of three building complexes designed by Japan’s Pritzker Prize-winning architects, Shigeru Ban and Ryue Nishizawa. Special care has been taken to build into the landscape and around the trees, resulting in unique, modern buildings, built with generous amounts of wood.

V. Back to Tokyo

Driving back into busy Tokyo

The final leg is longer two-hour and a half highway drive back to Tokyo, but that should be more than enough time to recount all the wonderful highlights of the trip with those in the vehicle.

Traveling by car in Japan may not be the most economical option, but it’s certainly a new way to see the country. With these interesting towns just two hours away from each other, the road trip is not long enough to get you tired, but still covers a lot of ground in a short span of time. It’s certainly a unique way to see Japan and experience something new, even for those who have already been to the country many times.