Traveling deep into Japan’s Hokkaido Island, snowboarding, exploring, hiking, eating, eating, and more eating, all in a cute-as-a-button micro truck sounds pretty good, right? Henry Johnson, from New Zealand, and the UK’s Charlie Wood thought so.
So they purchased about the sweetest little truck you can imagine and set to building it out for adventuring. They call it Sabi-chan. The platform is built on the Honda Acty Kei Truck, a cabover design normally used for light hauling. The sort of truck you might see puttering around a golf course driven by a groundskeeper.
Or, clapboarded with intricate wood designs, snowboards strapped to the roof, winding through Hokkaido’s snowy backcountry roads. We chatted with Johnson about this one-of-a-kind build over email this week.
Year, Make, Model?
1995 Honda Acty Kei Truck.
Does the vehicle have a name?
Sabi-chan is her name. Sabi in Japanese means rust to reflect the recycled tin roof.
Only 6 months now.
How did you get it?
I found the truck online on a Japanese car listings website. It was in Sapporo, around a two-hour drive from home in Niseko. A large sign that read ‘Silk Road’ greeted us on our arrival and the truck sat below it. After a quick inspection – this had to be the little beast.
How have you modified it?
The truck itself is pretty stock standard. We built the cabin from scratch. There’s a pretty tight-knit community of friendly locals and expats in Niseko. I put the word out, searching for building supplies for a recycle building project. The response was overwhelming. We managed to gather a huge number of the materials for the build this way. We used as many recycled materials as possible. This kept the budget down, and followed the “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” vibe. This meant the final outcome was unpredictable from the beginning. We collected the cladding materials alone from about 5 different locations. From decrepit sheds to rubbish piles in people’s backyards, we searched everywhere. She’s snug inside, but sleeps two, although it’s cold in there with no heating. There is a desk, storage space, and a nice side window to check out the view.
You do all that work yourselves?
Yeah, as we were unorganized we didn’t start the build until winter was well underway. Luckily my shed is large enough that we could work inside. I’ve got a large kerosene powered heater in there, which was great when we remembered to get fuel for it. Charlie admittedly was limited in his carpentry knowledge. Which of course he made up for with his talent behind the camera. This project was for us to share our knowledge and creativity with one another. I would take the reins on the build and Charlie would plan out scenes and shots in his head. Then we could bounce our ideas off of each other, it was cool. We were also joined by our friends Ewan and Elliot on some build days to lend a hand.
What are some of the craziest or most complicated off-road repairs you’ve had to make?
At this stage, Sabi-chan has not required any major repairs — knock on wood. On our first night on the road, we did realize we had forgotten to attach a means of locking the door from the inside. We managed to fashion a small locking system out of things we found lying around.
Were you looking for a van like this in particular? One this small?
This was a key part of the Wabi-Sabi project. The Japanese Kei vehicles (or keijidōsha “light automobile”) are the smallest highway-legal passenger vehicles with an engine displacement no larger than 660cc. They are widely used in agriculture, fisheries, and construction and are a very common sighting on Hokkaido roads. The idea for building this cabin was born after moving to Japan and falling in love with these quirky micro trucks.
Any plans to bring it out of Japan? Or will that be its permanent stomping grounds?
At this stage, Japan is her home. The cabin is removable, and I would love to build an upgraded version. Sabi-chan was my first home-built camper, I see this first build as a prototype of many builds to come. Ironing out the creases and exploring new avenues of creativity with each new build.
Are there issues with sleeping in cars in Japan? Or is it easy to find a place to camp?
I could swear Japan is basically designed around sleeping in vehicles. Unlike other countries I have visited, sleeping in your car seems to almost be encouraged. Most towns have a ‘Michi-no-eki’ which literally translates to ‘road station.’ These roadside pull-ins boast toilets, running water, free wifi, and most even sell the town’s local fruit and vegetables during the daylight hours. Onsens are the Japanese answer to bathing on the road. Volcanic mineral rich hot springs are abundantly dotted all over the country. Many of which are wild and free to use outdoors in open air. It’s also a great way to relax after a long day of hiking.
Yeah, you wanna see more incredible vans and trucks like Sabi-chan. Well, there’s only one Sabi-chan, but Foster Huntington, Pied Piper of the vanlife movement, has a wonderful book that shows off many wild builds. Check out: Van Life: Your Home on the Road.