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Driving in Japan

Road to Mt. Fuji. It was tough to find a parking spot of this reveal of the mountain, but finding one was a must. This is the route from Heda Port to Numazu. (Daryl L. Hunter/© Daryl L. Hunter)

Road to Mt. Fuji. It was tough to find a parking spot of this reveal of the mountain, but finding one was a must. This is the route from Heda Port to Numazu.

By Daryl L. Hunter

Driving in Japan? It’s a piece of cake! Well it’s a piece of cake if you’re a dyslectic and adapt well to backward things. Or maybe more like a piece of cake acquired at a Christian bakery for a gay wedding. Or? Piece of cake metaphors never seem to be a piece of cake.

I had been contracted to do a speaking gig about photography in Yokosuka, and the contractor urged me not to drive, I guess he was worried whether I’d live to make it to my speaking engagement. As a matter of fact “everyone” urged me not to drive because Japan has such a magnificent mass transit system. And for good reason, they drive on the wrong side of the road in Japan. The problem is; mass transit systems can’t get a photographer and his gear where they need to be when the light is right. Not driving is not an option for the landscape photographer.

My biggest trepidation about driving in a foreign land is negotiating major cities where I can’t read the signs. Although this conundrum has shown me some interesting places it is a time–consuming and angst filled endeavor. Well for that matter, I have the same trepidation in cities where I can read the signs – driving in any city is a complicated endeavor when you hail from an Idaho town of 108.

On a previous traveling adventure Hertz in Rome wanted to charge me $300.00 for a GPS, with some difficulty, I lived through my roundabout Italy trip alive without it, so I decided to roll the dice again and not get one for Japan. As my trip approached I grew more nervous, I figured I’d try to buy a personal GPS, that way I would still have one after spending $300.00.   After buying one, I found that Garmin doesn’t have the Japanese proprietary software to program Japan mapping into it. I didn’t have time to jump through the hoops to acquire the Japanese mapping system. I returned the GPS.

Monkeys on the side of the road, Izu Peninsula, Japan

The three wise monkeys look on aghast as another American threatens their side of the road temporarily rudely disrupting their wisdom metaphor of “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.” I bet they had a few choice words for me.

I found though that if you rent a car from Hertz in Japan, they come with GPS units in them, for a few dollars more you can get one that speaks English, but what’s the fun in that? Actually, I assumed Hertz in Japan would be as cost prohibitive as the GPS as the Roman Hertz. Maybe I should have asked! It was now too late to get the English version so the Japanese language GPS it was.

After showing up at Hertz in Narita Japan the counter gal was kind enough to give me a brief lesson on using the Japanese language GPS, a very lesson brief in broken English. She also programmed my hotel’s address into it. Very helpful!

My destination was the Winery Hills Hotel on the Izu Peninsula, of course on the opposite side of Tokyo, a metropolitan area four times the size of Los Angeles. Oh joy! I know Los Angeles well, and I find it difficult every time I get close to it; I could only imagine the nightmare that awaited me in Tokyo.

Left side driving traffic rules, Japan

Left side driving traffic rules, Japan

Yep, British driving style in Japan, the silly blokes from England, got Japan set up to drive on the wrong side of the road. Britain has had some good ideas like the Magna Carta and the Beatles; however, left side driving and right side steering aren’t among them, these less than brilliant ideas rank down there with the Brit’s blood pudding and kidney pie.

Although I’m not great at learning my lessons, I did learn on a previous foreign excursion to never go straight from baggage claim to the, oh so handy, car rental counter while in a foreign land. I now get a hotel and get some sleep first. This time because of doing so; I was more prepared of the challenges of negotiating Tokyo.

The Japanese GPS was fantastic for a while; the graphical intersection arrows were awesome. Augmented with my I-phone’s Google map English narration I was feeling more confident until Murphy’s Law interceded and operator error overrode the best efforts of technology. I was soon dumped out in the side streets of Tokyo – it was great.

City street, Shimoda Japan

City street, Shimoda Japan

I got to briefly see some of residential, high-rise Tokyo and the many small businesses along the boulevards on the floor level of the apartment high rises, when I dared tear my eyes away from my GPS graphical interface. Of course, I couldn’t see upward much because I was often on the bottom level of double decker roadways. Just as well because I did have my hands full containing operator error in an alien land.

The pleasant GPS voice lady constantly prompted me to do something; however, the arrows and great graphics were much more helpful. Some brilliant engineer figured that since the steering wheel was to be on the right side of the car, the turn signal ought to also be on the right side of the steering column.   I wore out the windshield wipers because my 45 years of muscle memory automatically reaching for turn signals on the left side of the steering column. My excursion through residential high-rise Tokyo was over in less than an hour. I achieved the Tomei Expressway, Japans main highway south, and I knew I was good until I reached my exit city Numazu.

Japanese toll roads are wonderful, the Japanese are very proud of them and if you want to see them from your car, fill your wallet first with thousands of yen as the tolls of Japanese expressways make the New Jersey turnpike pikers seem like a ride in the parkway. They are signed well with numbers and a few cities you can recognize “IF” someone has done their homework!

On my first day of driving to Izu I was perfectly happy to poke along behind the semis in the far left lane where the rumble strip was a great reminder that I drifted farther left than I ever have before.

Screaming face, horrified, rear view mirror

Screaming face, horrified, rear view mirror

When there were lots of cars to follow it is rather easy to fall in behind them, although when you enter an empty road or make a turn, old habits become big danger. Without a stream of traffic, it was really easy to fall into the traditional side of the road. I soon found that a wonderful memory queue for moving left was when the oncoming traffic had eyes as big as saucers and a matching orifice below the nose with tonsils flying out of their mouth, there was danger ahead; an indicator I was in the wrong lane. This memory queue didn’t work as well at night.

Driving on the Izu Peninsula was an adventure. It is very mountainous with mostly very windy roads; some of the valley bottom roads were straighter. They all had many villages along the way.

windy Japanese road, Izu Peninsula

Windy Japanese road, Izu Peninsula

The gas stations were a throwback to the ones in the USA in the 1960s. As soon as you pulled up to a pump, an eager attendant was right there to pump the gas and wash every window on the car. After the transaction was complete they would stop oncoming traffic so you could enter the road, despite the fact these roads were rarely busy. Did I say throwback to the 1960s? Their pumps weren’t equipped to take credit cards after the closing of the gas station. One evening in the fishing village of Heda Port I found the gas station closed, I was quite relieved to find another or else I wouldn’t have had the fuel to return to my hotel.

Many roads connecting villages had nearly enough room for two cars to pass side by side, but often they narrowed at the villages as most villages were built before cars, and only needed a two-lane people path. Considering the width of the village roads everyone usually took the middle until it was time to move to your side of the road and make room for oncoming traffic to squeeze by, there was usually a moment of panic in both cars when I reflexively pulled to the right.

City traffic, Kamakura Japan

City traffic, Kamakura Japan

Although I was in a country thousands of miles from home, I never felt as if I was alone. I always had the nice GPS lady telling me in a pleasant tone something. The car rental gal in Narita programmed the GPS for my hotel, but most of the time I was driving away from the hotel on a photo search, so as GPSs do, I had a constant reminder to correct my direction at the next right or left, all described in Japanese of course. I came to feel my wife Sharon was with me backseat driving the whole way.   I am sure there was an off button on the GPS somewhere, but try as I might, I couldn’t find it. I can’t find the off button my wife either. I don’t know what it means, but one of the phrases that repeated often was “u kan do dat,” it was rather encouraging.

Japanese GPS

Japanese GPS

After a week on the rural Izu Peninsula on my way to return the car I was once again on the Tomai Expressway, but now I was zipping in and our of traffic as comfortably as if I were on an American city three lane freeway. After about a week and 1,600 hundred kilometers (1,000 miles) of negotiating busy freeways, windy country lanes, and impossibly tight little villages I’m pretty comfortable driving on the wrong side of the road.   That will come in handy when I get back home.

My Japan Photo Gallery, click through to see better or to buy photos


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