Van Life Becoming Popular in Japan as Alternative Lifestyle; Puts Focus on Way of Life Rather Than Material Goods

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Suzuka Nishikawa, second from right, enjoys chatting with her fellow vanlifers in Toba, Mie Prefecture.

An alternative lifestyle where people drive across the country and sleep in their vehicle in between visiting scenic spots or enjoying outdoor activities has become popular as of late. More and more people are embracing “van life” as a sort of modern nomad.

Suzuka Nishikawa, 26, who travels around Japan in a small truck converted into a mobile home, is among such people.

In mid-February, Nishikawa met up with fellow vanlifers in Toba, Mie Prefecture. Sitting in a chair beside the large vehicle of one of her friends, she chatted with them while watching the sunset at the port.

“I can easily meet up with friends when I want to, and I also enjoy spending time with a spectacular view,” she said.

Nishikawa, a native of Osaka, got interested in overseas travel when she was in college and was inspired by people who had traveled around the world. She did not look for a job after graduation as she wanted to do some travel-related work. Nishikawa planned to go abroad on a working holiday, allowing her to work and study overseas.

However, she changed her goal and decided to travel around Japan when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. After learning about van life on a video site, she bought a used van and started traveling from Hokkaido in 2021.

“This lifestyle is fun since it is like going around with my own room,” Nishikawa said.

The term “van life” is thought to have been coined in 2011, when Foster Huntington left his fashion job in New York, moved into a camper van and posted about his new lifestyle on social media.

A wide range of people enjoy living in tiny mobile homes. Some live and sleep in their vans almost every day, while others enjoy the lifestyle only on weekends. Camping vans equipped with beds and kitchens are said to be popular.

Ikuma Nakagawa, 45, is a public relations manager of Yokohama-based Carstay, Inc., which provides information on spots where people can park and sleep in their vans. According to Nakagawa, van life became popular as more people worked remotely and used camping vans during the pandemic.

Some are trying to find their future lifestyle while leading their van life.

Jiro Nakanishi, 25, from Kanagawa Prefecture, and his 25-year-old wife from Vietnam are currently looking for a place to settle down while living out of their van.

The two met in college and had a long-distance relationship after graduation. They decided to get married and have an alternative lifestyle so they could live where they wanted with the people they loved.

The couple purchased a used van, spent about ¥600,000 converting it for their long-term travel and set out on a tentative two-year journey from Hokkaido through Kyushu in April last year. They pay tax and register their vehicle in Kanagawa Prefecture, where they are registered as residents.

“Laid-back rural areas suit us better than cities. By living in various locations, we can find out what they’re like and whether we fit in there,” Nakanishi said.

“Thanks to advances in information technology and changes in lifestyles, more and more people are finding happiness in their way of life and social relationships rather than in material goods and money,” said Ryoko Sachi, 44, an associate professor of cultural anthropology at Toyo University. “It is interesting as they appear to be starting to form a way of thinking similar to that of a hunter-gatherer, rather than a farmer.”