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The following is the story of Joe Lovejoy, falling in love with a van in Japan, and saying “yes” to opportunities that unexpectedly find their way into your life.

“Dad, do you think I should do it? I’m not sure if it makes sense to buy a van like this in Japan.”

“Go for it, Joe. You don’t get many opportunities like this. What do you have to lose?”

“Okay, I’m gonna send it!”

That’s about how easy it was. I knew that the voice of my dad (and the voice in my head) was right—I needed to get that van and hit the open road. So, within 15 seconds of asking for some fatherly advice, my future took an AWESOME turn as I bought the most “sugoi” (Japanese for sweeeeeeeet) Japanese camping car I had ever seen!  

Over the following months, I learned that the awesome turn I rounded when I bought my van was only the first in a sequence of many.

The southern islands of Japan are not your standard vacation destination but that’s what has made the adventure so unique for me.  Most people have never even heard of Sasebo, let alone traveled there. Setting out from my apartment on every long weekend or day off became my default. What began as local trips to beaches and trailheads soon turned into a cultural experience that I couldn’t have asked for or ever experienced by other means of transportation. The road evolved as I did. It was no longer a simple avenue but an authentic Japanese experience. 

I remember fearing Japanese highways and road signs in the early days. It didn’t take long to learn that I had two options for dealing with those challenges:

  1. Figure out how to read them
  2. Avoid the big roads with signs and get lost on the little windy ones with locals staring at me as if I were driving a huge vehicle with lightning bolts through rural Japan. 

I chose the latter almost every time. Once I realized that I would always make it home or at least to a quiet place to camp for the night, I became more confident in my travels. I began taking exclusively backroads and made a rule to eat at locally owned restaurants only.  That’s when I started to find the really good stuff.

Japan’s culture oozes tradition!

As time went on and I realized how many interesting places lay within reach I started bringing friends with me to show them the incredible communities that were right in our backyards. Before coming to Japan my expectation was that everything would be like the Tokyo we see in the movies—giant neon lighted buildings, robots serving food, Vin Diesel drifting through Shibuya crossing and sushi left and right. Although Hollywood’s Tokyo does exist and is its own adventure, the vast majority of Japan is very traditional, family oriented and simple. 

I have spent hours rolling through semi-tropical mountain passes, cruising down sandy beaches and testing my top speed on straights through endless farmland. I found that even the smallest towns each had a Buddhist and or Shinto temple and traditional cemetery, at least. Torii gates grace the entrance to these sacred places as well as many natural waterways. All along my travels I stopped at anything interesting and did my best to converse with the local people, even if that meant taking a guess at a menu I couldn’t read and sharing a smile with locals who always marveled at my outrageous whip. I became enchanted by the fact that language is so unimportant when you can speak with a smile.

Wonderful, caring people exist across Japan and that is one of many reasons why this country will always hold a warm spot in my heart as the birthplace of my van adventures.

The point is that no matter where we are there is an unedited experience waiting on the open road. Travel by air, train, and sea each have their own majesty but none are as enveloping as rolling the windows down as you cruise a coastal highway in a foreign country. You might even be listening to a $.50 Japanese CD you bought at the second-hand store because the cover art was cool. All this can happen while you head away from the most delicious homemade ramen bowl or local fish.

Perhaps the greatest part of travel by van is the experience you share with others.

Between your own friends that you lug along with you, new friends made at campsites or surf spots and the unknown adventurer waving at you from the opposite lane, there are not too many pleasures in life that are so simply satisfying. Quality time can last two seconds or two weeks, just as long as there is sincerity in your eyes and smile as you go.  

I find it funny that we spend so much of our lives thinking and preparing for “our moment”, that time when everything is aligned and it’s time to set our future on fire. I believe more and more every day that “our moment” really should be “our moments” and they can happen whenever we make time for them. A leap of faith and an adventurous attitude are the only tools you need to make them happen. Go on out and make it real!

-Joe Lovejoy