As I've mentioned before, the Japanese expressway is sinfully expensive, however if you have an ETC card (an automatic billing device drilled into your car) it's only ¥1,000 (~$10 USD) to go where ever you want on the weekends. Unfortunately for us, we didn't have an ETC card. So, our main roads of choice became Japan National Routes 1 and 42.
The Japanese National Route system is almost identical to the U.S. route system. These are roads that a generation ago were the best way of getting around on wheels, but now are not much more than typical two lane roads, fully stocked with stop signs and traffic lights. Thankfully making frequent stops anywhere that feels interesting was built into the plan.
Our first stop would be in Iga, in Mie prefecture, over 300 kilometers (186 miles) away and a 7+ hours drive. Formerly the home to legendary samurai and ninja Hatori Hanzo, Iga is now a quaint small town that lies between the Nagoya and Osaka metropolises. Our purpose would be to check out the ninja museum and surrounding areas.
Fortunately there was a ninja show with reenactors doing things that ninjas do. Unfortunately we missed the last showing by a couple of minutes. Apparently Iga's level of tourism isn't high enough to warrant showings past 4:00pm. But the surrounding areas were pleasant with some nice scenery.
From Iga we headed further west towards Nara, where we hoped to find lodging or a place to camp.
From time to time we made stops at roadside convenience stores, which is where I discovered this technological breakthrough.
Arriving in Nara as night fel, we immediately noticed how dead the city was. While it was formerly the capital of Japan 1,600 years ago, and today is a huge tourist destination, almost all of those tourists come on day trips from Kyoto or Osaka. This made our search for a place to stay all the more difficult. We made some phone calls, a friend had stayed with someone in Nara the year before and we tried getting in contact with her, no luck. After considering our options over Vietnamese food we decided we'd go to Osaka, the second biggest city in Japan, only a half hour's drive away, and a place where Ryan knew of a place we could sleep.
Like Tokyo, we knew that Osaka would be impossible to park the car in, and since Nara is a tourist hotspot, its parking is just plain expensive. So we drove to a suburban city between the two, parked in a lot near a station (at the wonderfully low price of ¥500/$5)and made the rest of the journey via train.
Osaka was a bit of a whirlwind, we made friends on with some university students that gave us some recommendations on what to do for the night. Walked into an empty Australian bar on a whim, only to have the owner apologize, close up shop, make some phone calls, and show us to a basement nightclub filled with people and smiles. Our long travels got the better of us at around 3 in the morning, probably much earlier than the rest of the city called it quits.
Around the corner from the nightclub, literally, was where we'd be staying for the night, a lovely little capsule hotel.