Japan Glances

Service Areas

Society Culture

Service areas that once provided only parking, restrooms, and gas are increasingly offering a wide range of food and leisure facilities. By doing so, they are becoming secondary or even main destinations for motorists.

Rest Stops as Leisure Spots

Some of Japan’s service areas offer drivers more than just a chance to take a toilet break, fill up the tank, and get something to eat on their journey along the nation’s expressways. Local specialties and distinctive facilities are making these roadside oases important stopping places or even destinations in their own right.

The development of the expressway network across Japan brought with it the spread of service and parking areas. Japan’s first rest stop was the Ōtsuka Service Area in Shiga Prefecture, built in 1963. Although originally just a parking lot with restroom facilities, the location offered a scenic view of Lake Biwa and the city of Ōtsu.

Neopasa Hamamatsu on the Shin-Tōmei Expressway is designed with a piano motif. The city of Hamamatsu is famous for producing musical instruments. (© Jiji)

Over the years, rest areas have become increasingly sophisticated. Recently, service areas have started to sell exclusive bakery products and confectionary, as well as bentō lunches featuring local delicacies. They may have famous restaurants, promenades for pedestrians or pet-owners walking their dogs, hot spring and accommodation facilities, and observation lounges. What were once basic rest stops have transformed into popular leisure spots. The privatization of the Japan Highway Public Corporation in 2005 spurred on this change as an increased focus on profit led areas to seek to appeal to users in various new ways.

Service Areas as Destinations

In a survey of motorists on leisure trips, 49.7% stated that they had visited well-known service areas along the way as either a primary or secondary destination, and respondents expressed a wish for more restaurants and souvenir shops selling local food. This demonstrates that drivers no longer view service areas as only places to pass through.

Aerial view of Umihotaru Parking Area in Tokyo Bay. Photograph courtesy East Nippon Expressway Company.

There are organized bus tours that depart from service areas, too; drivers park their vehicles and get on the buses to visit local tourist spots or pick produce inseason. In the survey, 51.8% of respondents said they would like to take part in this kind of program.

The historically themed rest stop Onihei Edodokoro in Hanyū, Saitama Prefecture. Photograph courtesy East Nippon Expressway Company.

At one rest stop, visitors can even go back in time. In December 2013, Hanyū Parking Area in Saitama Prefecture reopened as Onihei Edodokoro with historically themed buildings, restaurants, and souvenir shops. It seeks to recreate the atmosphere of the Edo period (1603–1868) for drivers stopping on the Tōhoku Expressway and takes its name from Onihei Hankachō, a popular character in Edo-set samurai detective stories and television dramas.

Japan’s Top Service Areas

1 Fujikawa Service Area (Tōmei Expressway) Superb view of Mount Fuji.
2 Kariya Highway Oasis (Isewangan Expressway) A 60-meter-high Ferris wheel; natural hot springs; deluxe restroom facilities.
3 Taga Service Area (Meishin Expressway) Motel; Japanese-style rooms; bathhouse with sauna and massage rooms.
4 Tokumitsu Parking Area (Hokuriku Expressway) Connected to Mattō Seaside Park; includes a seaside camping area, barbecue sites, onsen, indoor pool, and cycle paths.
5 Awaji Service Area (Kobe-Awaji-Naruto Expressway) Ferris wheel with a high point 135 meters above sea level; beautiful night view of Akashi Kaikyō Bridge and Kobe.
6 Sunagawa Service Area (Hokkaidō Expressway) Connected to local theme park Hokkaidō Kodomo no Kuni; many attractions for children.
7 Maesawa Service Area (Tōhoku Expressway) Upscale dining featuring local specialty Maesawa beef dishes; miniature golf course.
8 Miyajima Service Area (San’yō Expressway) View of Istukushima Shrine; oysters from Seto Inland Sea.
9 Komagatake Service Area (Chūō Expressway) Views of Southern and Central Alps.
10 Igei Service Area (Okinawa Expressway) Okinawa’s only service area; view of nearby islands; famous location for seeing the first sunrise of the year.
Onihei Edodokoro (Hanyū Parking Area) Edo-period historical atmosphere with themed food and souvenirs.
Le Petit Prince Parking Area at Yorii Atmosphere inspired by Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) and Provence in Southern France.

Source: Japan Service Area Ranking website.

(Banner photo: Sugō Parking Area. Courtesy East Nippon Expressway Company.)

travel expressways service areas driving parking lots souvenirs leisure