The Great Western Japan Road Trip 2008 – Planning

Another year, another road trip. As I start winding down what my be my last year in Japan, I decided I very much wished to have one trip through the country in all its stunning, beautiful Autumnal glory (the only season to travel in Japan, my friends).

nigata road trip

From last year’s Great Tohoku Road Trip

The idea is tight, but efficient: 11 days. 2200 kilometers worth of road. $600 in highway tolls (yeah, that’s not a typo). 13+ destinations. Keep it light, keep it simple. Rent a van. Sleep in van. Save money. Take only pictures. Make it memorable. Stick a digital SLR with an intervalometer and wide angle lens on the dash and make a time lapse video of the entire trip.

There’s a mix of destinations – some I’ve never been to before (Awajishima, Onomichi), and some that I go to every Autumn (Kyoto, Himeji, Nara). Part of the trip is about discovering the new, and part of it is about looking at the most beautiful Autumn scenery Japan has to offer (Kiyomizudera’s gorgeous red maples lit up from below at night, for example).

Here’s are some of the tentative destinations:

  1. Ise
  2. Nara
  3. Kyoto
  4. Himeji
  5. Awajishima
  6. Tokushima
  7. Iya Valley
  8. Oboke
  9. Matsuyama
  10. Onomichi
  11. Hiroshima
  12. Okayama
  13. Amanohashidate
  14. Obama
  15. Mikatagoko

It’s a hard schedule, but it’s aided by the fact that Japan is a small country if you plan correctly – while it’s true that driving from Yokohama to Ise technically involves driving nearly a third the length of the country, it’s actually only 291 Kilometers on the Tomei Highway – which at an average speed of 100kph, and if you escape the crowded Kanto area before traffic picks up at dawn, means you can make it in less than 3 hours of dedicated driving. That leaves an entire day to drive the slower scenic back roads and national routes from Ise to Kyoto, plenty of time to stop along the way and enjoy the journey.

route map

A tentative routing. Highways are in blue, local roads in red.

Of course, I considered skipping the bland, featureless concrete expressways all together and just moseying along the national routes and back mountain roads for weeks at a time, taking in the sights and smells of rural Japan in true road trip style. But experience has taught that while this is a romantic image at first, in reality, back roads and national routes (non-expressways) in Japan are taxing on the mind, difficult to drive, filled with traffic jams, and take about 3 times as long as using the expressway (to say nothing of the Cliffs of Death one encounters along the way).

With this in mind – as well as the limitations on my schedule imposed by having to work for a living – I’m planning instead on using the expressways to move the large distances between destinations and reserving the smaller national routes and local roads for smaller hops and sight seeing. We’ll see how it goes.


As mentioned above, inspired by this (original here), I want to try and make a time lapse video of the entire trip. However, this is an enterprise that requires more than a little planning – and more than a little money.

The first thing to consider is the basic setup. Tentatively, my layout looks something like this:

Ironically, while I’m fairly certain the techy-bits of the setup above will work, it’s the mundane question of how best to mount the camera to the dash that I am most unsure about. Part of the problem is that there is no way to tell what kind car you will end up with when you rent a car. I made a reservation for a minivan, but that just guarantees a “minivan” type car, of which there are multitudes, each of which with their own unique dash design.

Tentatively, I am planning on mounting the entire rig on a low tripod base that will then be set on top of non-slip dash silicon mats (like they sell to hold your mobile phone in place when you set it on the dash) which are laid on the dash. Then, adjustable straps with little metal hooks on the end will be run from the AC vents in the middle front of the dash, up over the legs of the tripod (where they will be duct taped into place securely, then up and hooked into the front central “windshield vent” that blows air up onto the inside of the windshield to defrost it.

Hopefully, this will keep the entire rig from shifting even when cornering. Usage of a “click-base” ensures that the camera can be removed for when I’m outside the car and don’t wish to leave an expensive camera mounted to the middle of the dash for all to see, yet replaced securely in essentially the same position as before to prevent “shifts” in the video frames between segments.

What I’m a bit afraid of is showing up at the car rental place to be presented with a minivan with a steeply sloping dash, or one without enough air vents to hook my straps securely into place. I have no idea what I’ll do then.

If anyone has any good ideas of how to mount this rig to the dash, please, please feel share them with me, because I am more than a little worried about this part of the setup.

The calculations involved in making the video are, by comparison, relatively straightforward. Assuming that I set the intervalometer to shoot 1 frame every 6 seconds, this means I’m producing 10 shots a minute, which gives 600 shots per hour. Since tentatively I’m traveling around 2500 kilometers (2200 in the plan, plus 300 kilometers for “leeway” (i.e. “getting lost”)) at a nominal speed on the highway of around 100 kilometers per hour*, the means I’m looking at 25 hours worth of driving. Multiplying 25 hours time 600 shots per hour gives 15,000 shots over the course of the trip. 15,000 shots at a frame rate of 24 frames per second gives 625 seconds worth of video, which equals about 10.5 minutes. And a 10.5 minute video seems fairly reasonable for compressing 11 days worth of driving into (of course a “short” cut can be produced as well for posting on the blog).

The other issue is one of storage. For practical reasons, every shot taken for the time lapse will be taken at the smallest, most compressed JPG setting the camera is capable of. However, even at only 3.8 MB per shot at this setting, 15,000 shots is going to require 57,000MB+ (55.6GB) worth of storage. This means an average of 5GB per day over the course of 11 days – small enough that a single day’s worth of shooting can fit into a single 8GB CF card, but large enough in total that there’s going to have to be some place to offload the images at the end of every day. Since I will have an automotive DC-to-AC adaptor in the car, it will be trivial to bring an old laptop with a large hard drive and dump all the pictures to that (and perhaps burn a few DVDs along the way as backup).

Whew! The final consideration is that, of course, 15,000 shots is a lot to put any camera through – especially one mounted on the dash of a car in motion. For this reason, I am debating renting a digital SLR instead of using my own, so as to save it the wear and tear. Of course, this costs money, and when added to the other costs already incurred above (tolls, car rental, other equipment to buy, food, etc.) drives the price of this excursion even higher than I had intended. Then again, renting a camera will invariably be cheaper than paying to have mine repaired if it breaks along the way, so….well, we’ll see.


kc rocking out

Anyway, that’s where things stand right now. There is still a lot more planning to be done, but I’m very excited about this trip. As mentioned in the outset of this post, Japan’s beauty will truly take your breath away in the Autumn. I can’t wait!

Random previous road trips can be found here:

  1. The Great Tohoku Road Trip (Intro)
  2. The Great Tohoku Road Trip – Part I
  3. The Great Tohoku Road Trip – Interlude
  4. The Great Tohoku Road Trip – Part II
  5. The Great Takayama Road Trip – Part I
  6. The Great Takayama Road Trip – Bryan Adams Intermission (be warned)
  7. The Great Takayama Road Trip – Part II
  8. Kyoto Road Trip
  9. Sunny Road Trip!
  10. Snow Pandas! (Gokayama Road Trip)
  11. The Cliffs of Death (The Great Nagoya Road Trip)
  12. Autumn Thursday (Autumn driving)

Now listening to: Chris Brown – Forever

12 Reactions

  1. Lorelei

    Wow, another road trip! I envy you; I miss Japan during my favorite season.
    And I just had to smirk a little when I saw you put the town of Obama on your itinerary …

  2. momolo

    whoa, sounds exciting! i think having a camera rig on the car will give some excellent photos!

  3. Johnny B

    There’s an Obama Japan? Go figure. Is it opposite of McCain Japan?

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