Recreation in Japan is serious business. Consider the people waiting in line for hours just for the chance to shake hands with a man in a furry mouse costume. Tokyo Disney Resort alone welcomes more than 17 million guests annually, and these figures are on par with the dozens of other amusement park in the country. Japanese people work hard and play hard, and there is no shortage of entertainment options willing to take those hard-earned yen.
However, many residents of Japan can testify that their popularity can be a drawback, especially during the peak travel seasons when eager travelers flood the roads, trains and planes. It can easily take more time getting to these attractions than the actual time spent enjoying them. The Japan Travel Bureau estimated nearly 22 million people travelling domestically during “golden week”(The first week of May) in 2014. This sudden bottlenecking creates long traffic jams and crowded trains, but it also presents a business opportunity.
Expressway service areas have stepped up their game to a degree that anybody living outside of Japan might consider absurd. They’ve become so popular recently that many Japanese travelers have abandoned their usual vacation spots and have made the service areas the destination. The TBS television show “Yonimo Fushigi na Ranking Nande, Nande Nande” ranked the most popular travel destinations this year with Tokyo Disney Resort and Universal Studios Japan coming in first and second respectively. Third place on the list? Kariya Highway Oasis – a highway rest stop just outside of Nagoya.
Upon pulling into the parking lot, it becomes clear that this particular rest stop offers much more than a place to empty (or fill) your bowels. Instead of a bank of vending machines, Kariya Highway Oasis offers two large food courts, a grocery shop with locally grown produce. Parents can relax in the hot springs while the kids ride the giant ferris wheel, play on the seemingly endless playground equipment or go on rides at the small amusement park. Perhaps the most intriguing are the signs for the “deluxe toilet” which includes plush leather sofas in the women’s room that is more like a fancy hotel lobby than a toilet – and glass walls at the urinals in the men’s room so that it seems like you are peeing into a flower garden. There isn’t any way to make that sound less weird…
Perhaps even more impressive is nearby Kawashima Service Area in Kakamigahara, Gifu. This service area boasts a nature park, barbecue pits, and a three-story aquarium complete with a sea-lion performance. Kids can navigate mazes, feed capybara, or have tea in a traditional japanese thatch-roofed home. Both of these service areas could take a whole day to explore, and are more than enough to get your mind off the soul-numbing traffic, screaming kids and that DVD of anpanman that is on constant loop in your car.