After staying in Tokyo for ten days, the time had come to visit Gujo-Hachiman, a pretty historic small town of around 17,000 people located in the mountainous spine of Honshu island, north of Nagoya. We were fortunate to have been invited to stay with our companion’s friends.
The journey began at Tokyo’s Shinjuku station, used by an average of 3.5 million passengers daily. With typical Japanese efficiency, the train ticket specified the exact spot on the platform to wait, requiring just a few steps to reach our seats through the carriage doors that opened right in front of us.
We took the Shinkansen, Japan’s bullet train, for the first part of the journey to Nagoya, about 520 kilometres and a couple of hours away. A regional train then took us north into the hinterland, to catch the final leg of the journey in a single carriage that slowly ascended the narrow valley to Gujo-Hachiman. This last trip was the highlight of the train journeys of the day.
In the Shinkansen the country-side speeds by in a blur, at speeds of up to 320 kph – there goes Mount Fuji – while the local train to Gujo-Hachiman allows passengers to savour the views at a leisurely pace.
Gujo-Hachiman is a castle town, and sits in a narrow valley straddling the picturesque Yoshida River which is renowned for having some of Japan’s purest water. Traditional wooden buildings and narrow lanes from earlier centuries abound in the old town centre and are flanked by more modern apartments and homes. A deep sense of history pervades the town. The castle dates back to the 1590s, although reconstructed in the 1930s. Whenever you glance up , it is always there, perched on a hill-top overlooking the town, and floodlit at night.
Water is central to Gujo-Hachiman. Numerous streams and waterfalls descend from the hills in untamed forms, or tamed by stone canals that provide water for drinking, through using a bamboo ladle that sits in a small stone pool awaiting a thirsty passer-by. Stone fish traps are channelled off the river, although today they’re used more for leisurely fish feeding than their original purpose of providing food.
Gujo-Hachiman hosts a renowned month-long summer folk dancing festival, the Gujo Odori, which began in the 1590s, where dancing takes place all night long. It also celebrates the river, illustrated by young men diving from the town’s bridges in the warmer months. For us, the town offered superb walks through the old streets and lanes, along the river, visiting Shinto temples, the castle, the hills and forests, as well as workshops and galleries of artists who reside in this neighbourhood. Our April visit coincided with cherry blossom time, and the steeply forested hills were peppered with flowers of cherries and other trees,
My companions and I stayed with friends whose riverside house offered the soothing sounds of the river flowing over the weir. Sleeping in a tatami room, a traditional style room with mats on the floor upon which roll up bedding is placed, and partitioned off by sliding paper screens, was very relaxing, aided by the calming sounds of flowing water below. We also enjoyed assisting Yuka in her English classes in the evening, both with young teenagers and an adult conversation group, as our hosts ran a small private school.
Although sceptically inclined, I recall Gujo-Hachiman by the mysterious events experienced one evening when we three Aussies went out for an enjoyable dinner in the old part of town. On our walk back through the centre of town to our hosts’ home, we came upon a large black rock engraved with Japanese characters, glistening with water from another small waterfall trickling down from the hills. We heard odd noises, like the voices of children, all sounding quite unsettled, softly wailing, keening or lamenting. We walked around to the rear of the rock, but could see no electronic contrivances, no source, no explanation for the apparently human sounds.
We described our experience to our hosts who are very modern, highly educated and rational people. They said that they hadn’t heard of such a thing, but did describe how the rock was a memorial to the victims of the devastating fire of 1652 that destroyed much of the town’s wooden buildings, killing many people. This was the first we visitors had heard of the fire, even though we had noticed red metal buckets hanging from the front of buildings throughout the town. We left the topic there as an interesting and unresolved mystery.
Campervans can be a great way to enjoy holiday travel. Most campervans are a delivery van fitted out to provide self-contained accommodation and cooking facilities. The smaller ones in Australia and New Zealand are usually Toyota Hi Aces, while the larger ones are generally a Mercedes Sprinter or VW Crafter.
Small campervans are quite basic, offering a bed that is converted at night from a table and seats, a few cupboards, a gas 2 burner cooktop, and a fridge. Larger campervans, often called motorhomes, usually have the same configuration, but with more generous dimensions, and have a combined shower/toilet, more storage and internal space, a TV, and a heater. The best equipped one that I’ve hired also had a very handy external fold out barbeque and table.
Campervan hire is like booking a flight with a budget airline. The bargain airfare quickly turns into a bloated deal by the time extras are added: checked luggage, a meal, an allocated seat, credit card surcharges, and the like. With campervan hire, the extras can often more than double the initial appealing quote, and many can be avoided or reduced with planning.
Careful preliminary reading of the documentation allows you to avoid paying for unnecessary extras. It’s unwise to arrive at the hire company’s office tired after a long flight or journey without having properly appreciated in advance all the tricky elements of the deal and their cheaper alternatives.
A few months ago, I hired a campervan in Queensland for 28 days. I saved about $1,000, paying around $57 per day instead of $90 per day, mainly by taking out my own insurance cover for damage or an accident, rather than following the hire company’s preferred procedure. Incidentally, if I had used the hire company’s cover I would have still been liable for an additional excess of $250 instead of nil with my own insurance.
The information below is quite detailed because hiring arrangements are made complex by the dense nature of the contracts used by hire companies. Ultimately that detail will only be of interest to someone seriously thinking of adopting some gypsy freedom. If you’re not so inclined, Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon may convert you.
The next photo is of the virtually brand new camper I hired in May 2014 in New Zealand. The daily hire rate was AU$30.33 per day. There were extras, but as outlined below, there are ways to reduce them.
Another picnic spot by the sea in New Zealand
Our small campervan (a Toyota Hi Ace) on the ferry from Townsville to Magnetic Island in north Queensland
Seaside camping at beautiful Cape Hillsborough National Park, near Mackay, North Queensland.
The photo below shows the beach a few metres in front of the camp site at Cape Hillsborough.
Details of Main Savings and Issues
1. Know the contract terms
Each hire company uses its own detailed contract. While there is no standard form, most share common features that often parallel car rental contracts. When a booking is made in advance, the hire company supplies a summary of contract to be signed on collection of the vehicle. I treat this document as an important and lucrative (or loss-making) issue. The one finally presented usually adds some additional onerous terms.
The hire contract will contain many restrictions. For example, most campervan contracts prohibit the hirer from driving on unsealed roads (or off-road), unless it’s a short defined distance on a well maintained road to a recognised camping ground. I hire a 4wd camper if I want to explore on dirt roads or go off road.
2. When to hire
Prices are highest at peak holiday times, particularly around Christmas, Easter, school holidays, and at seasonal times when demand is likely to be high. In Australia, winter holiday-makers flock north (to northern New South Wales and Queensland, northern Western Australia and the Northern Territory) to escape the cold or cooler weather further south. The reverse migration pattern applies in summer.
Camper hire companies cut hire rates drastically out of season. For example:
(a) In New Zealand and Tasmania, May to September rates are relatively cheap.
Factor in the weather if choosing to hire within these dates. My own experience is that the North Island in NZ is fine to visit in May (as is Tasmania) with sunny days, little or no wind, days that are around the high teens to low 20s (celsius) in temperature, and cool nights. Nice for camping. Higher altitudes will be colder, of course. A larger campervan should have a gas or diesel heater for warmth if required. (Check the contract).
Hire companies regularly offer specials. For example, Britz in November 2015 offered a 25% discount on hire charges for Tasmania over March and April.
(b) Relocating a camper can be very cheap, sometimes for nil to $1 a day.
A relocation may also include reimbursement of fuel costs, and if relevant, a sea crossing (in New Zealand between the North and South Islands, and in Australia, the Bass Straight crossing between Melbourne and Tasmania).
There could be major savings involved. I recently read a quote of AU$750 for a return crossing of Bass Strait – Melbourne to Tasmania – for a 7 metre long motorhome. As a reference, a Mercedes Sprinter motorhome is about 7.6 metres long.
However, watch the insurance issue as noted below. It also applies to a relocation.
The main negative of a relocation is that the hirer is only given a limited time to complete the journey.
3. Liability and Insurance
Essentially, the hire contract provides that the hirer (renter) is responsible for any damage to the vehicle or its fittings (usually including tyres and windscreen) or for damage to another vehicle or other property. The liability is regardless of fault.
Here, major savings can be made.
(a) Use an appropriate credit card to pay for your campervan hire, one that includes travel insurance cover, specifically covering your hire vehicle accident liability. Read your credit card contract carefully, as the terms differ from issuer to issuer. Examples of some differences and issues:
Some cards only cover passenger vehicles.
All have limits on the maximum accident liability cover. The ones I’ve checked have an upper limit of $5,000. Some hire companies impose a higher sum for liability, for example, $7,500 for a Britz motorhome and some of Apollo’s larger motorhomes.
Some cards, like my ANZ Visa Platinum Frequent Flyer card, apply to passenger vehicles only in Australia, but also apply to passenger vehicles and campervans overseas.
If you rely on your credit card for cover, ensure that you have activated the cover. For example, the credit card contract may require a minimum amount to be spent on travel costs using the card before the cover applies.
If you do rely on your credit card for cover, hire companies generally require a payment of the full amount of your accident liability under the hire contract. With my last hire, I was required to pay $5,000 (the accident liability amount) to the hire company (Apollo) – only by credit card – for the amount to be refunded within 28 working days of the completion of the hire. Plus their 2% surcharge. In fact, the refund was made after about 3 weeks.
This practice seems to be designed to strongly discourage people from opting out of the hire company’s insurance scheme. If you have a lazy $5,000 of credit with your card, you will incur fees – cash advance interest – before receiving a refund.
If it’s an international transaction, an overseas visitor hiring a vehicle in New Zealand for example, then the credit card payment to the hire company attracts currency conversion fees from the hirer’s bank, and the hire company’s bank initially, then the same again when the refund is made.
(b) Take out your own insurance cover. If you have travel insurance, it may cover you. On my recent 28 day campervan hire, I paid $125.80 for my own insurance cover that simply covered hire vehicle excess liability instead of paying $1,232 to the hire company.
I used RACV, one of Australia’s motorists’ organisations. See:
Apollo is representative of hire companies in only accepting payment by credit card. It charges a non-refundable fee of 2% on Visa and Mastercard and 4.5% for American Express or Diners Club.
This means that you cannot take advantage of saving by paying by direct deposit or in cash.
4. Other extras and issues to watch out for
It’s convenient to hire various extras along with the vehicle to make your holiday more comfortable. On the other hand, some can be easily obtained elsewhere at better prices.
GPS – Hire companies charge around $10 per day (usually with a maximum of $100). Bring your own if possible. Most smart phones now have a GPS, although you may need an app or map if visiting a foreign country. Paper maps still work.
Outdoor table and chairs. Rather than pay the hire fee of $17 per chair and $24 for the table (total $58), I buy them from a shop like KMart or Bunnings for around $7 per chair and $19 per table (total $33). Donate them to a charity (Opp Shop) or give them away at the end of the holiday.
Don’t assume that the daily hire rate is cheaper the longer the hire period. This is true up to a point, but with my most recent hire the daily rate increased after 28 days.
5. Cooking for yourself
Buying meals constantly can be both expensive and unattractive, depending on your food preferences. Travelling provides opportunities to buy fresh produce at markets and farmers’ outlets, and seafood along the coast.
I prefer a picnic or meal in the open air with fresh local ingredients, together with a cheeky local wine, rather than a deep fried generic meal in a pub or cafe that offers nothing notable about its taste, location or origin.
Of course, eating out is important when it’s notable for the food, view, ambiance, or cultural experience, laziness….
As one whose culinary skills are most advanced in the fields of kitchen hand and washing up, I am acutely aware of the importance of observing the views of the chief cook on the issue of eating in or out.
6. Check the state of the vehicle at the time of hire, and at the end
Make sure that the vehicle report you sign when collecting the vehicle accurately states any pre-exisiting damage. I’ve found Britz and Apollo good on this issue of vehicle condition, but have experienced the opposite elsewhere. Take similar care on the vehicle’s return.
7. Where to camp – expensive, cheap or free?
Camping fees can be a major part of holiday costs.
In Australia, the nightly fee for a campervan with on-site power at a commercial camping ground/caravan park/holiday park will generally be about $35 to $45 for 2 persons. Extra fees are charged for additional guests.
As an illustration, my daughter recently paid $66 nightly for a powered beach front camping site at Tathra on NSW’s south coast for 2 adults and 2 children.
Higher fees are usually charged for peak periods, popular locations, and where there are more facilities (swimming pools, water slides, entertainment centres and so on). My experience of New Zealand is that the fees are at least as high.
Cheaper paid camping is available, although not necessarily in the most popular or well known destinations. National parks, and campgrounds in less frequented locations generally offer lower fees or none, usually for fewer facilities, or none.
Most hire campervans and motorhomes have a dual battery system that allows camping using 12 volt power from the auxiliary battery for lighting, while the cook top and refrigerator use gas. Therefore, it’s feasible to camp away from mains elecricity for a few days.
One potentially relevant issue is whether your campervan has an onboard toilet, as many municipalities require free camper vehicles to be self-contained in terms of toilet and waste water facilities. On the other hand, experienced Australian campers know that in the bush, a short walk with a shovel can solve those issues.
New Zealand is generally more accommodating than Australia towards free camping, and doing so at beautiful coastal locations is much easier than on Australia’s east coast. On the other hand, Australia has great free camping opportunities away from the coast. One of my favourites is to camp on the Murray River, our longest river, where there are numerous free camp sites stretching over hundreds of kilometres where you can enjoy Australia’s unique timelessness, most often without anyone else around.
7. The exchange rate
If you are visiting from another country, the exchange rate is an important cost factor.
Only a couple of years ago, the Australian dollar was above parity with the US dollar. Now (December 2015), US$.73 = AU$1, so an American who wants to holiday in Australia and hire a campervan is getting a 30%+ discount from the Aussie dollar’s recent high point. The Euro exchange rate is also better for a visitor to Australia than several years ago.
8. High season hire costs with no savings
In early November 2015, an Apollo Euro Tourer just like the one in the first photo above – a 2 berth motorhome with shower and toilet – would cost $226 per day to hire for 2 weeks over the Christmas period (15-28 December) from Melbourne + extras:
$44 per day to reduce the accident liability to $250 ($616)