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Driving in Japan

Driving in Japan is an experience. Many of the roads in the city are simply meandering lanes paved over upon the advent of cars. I have been on the passenger side of many cars and watched in amazement as the laws of physics were broken, allowing two cars to pass each other on a road slightly wider than the width of one car. Long time drivers in Japan seem to have a 6th sense of what can fit where. I am not a long time driver.

The basic rule of driving is to get off the side road and onto a main road. Of course this rule is both followed and broken by far too many people. This results in intolerable congestion whether you are sensible and travel a main road or clever and take the side roads. People in the States only think they have bad traffic. On major holidays, it is common to see traffic jams 20 MILES long on the expressway as people return to Tokyo. Less noticed are the smaller roads that are clogged with husbands and boyfriends insisting that they know a “short cut.” The other issue is that, unbelievably, most roads have no names or numbers. I read somewhere that during the Occupation, the US military named and numbered streets in order to figure out where they were but after they left, all the signs mysteriously disappeared. Some people claim the reason for the lack of named streets was to foil invaders. If so then there are surely some lost WWII vets still driving their jeep around some part of the city trying to find the base. In any event, addresses consist of a town/area name followed by three numbers representing progressively smaller areas of the neighborhood. However the numbers aren’t necessarily consecutive and tend to place emphasis on when areas and buildings were designated or built rather than whether those areas and buildings are next to each other. Hence, many “humorous” stories from foreigners living here revolve around getting lost. Ha ha.

And yet we are getting a car.

Although many people happily live without a car - and gleefully watch the traffic jams on TV - owning a car has a few benefits. For one, all roads go to Rome (or trains go to Tokyo as it were). Getting into the city (east/west) is easy but going north/south is painful - requiring a trip towards the center of the city in order to transfer to another train line headed back from whence you came but north or south of your original location. This is a major issue for us since the clinic is a few short kilometers north but taking a train requires a circuitous route traipsing about the area. "You can't get there from here" must have originally been a Japanese slogan. I fear for the day my wife delivers - giving birth in a train doesn't appeal to either of us and I doubt train conductors are as adept as the police on TV.

I have driven exactly twice since getting my license a few months ago. Here are my stories:

“Novice” With fresh license in hand, we rented a car. We got in the vehicle and inched out as the two Nippon Rental Car agents stood and watched us. I could literally feel their waves of anxiety as they watched me tentatively pull out onto the street. I don't know how they knew this was my first time - perhaps it was how eagerly I signed up for all the insurance they could offer. In any event I managed to make it past their eyesight without damage, resisted the impulse to pull into the right hand lane and immediately stopped at the nearest parking lot. This was necessary because although I had a destination in mind I had no clue how to get there. My destination: Costco! No joke - Costco is reason #2 for getting a car in Japan since you can't exactly take a supersize crate of Cheetos on a train.

In any event, I had only a vague sense of where Costco was but I had made sure to get a car with a satellite navigation system (“Navi” in Japanese) - these things are indispensable in Japan for the reasons previously mentioned. After a suitably long time figuring out the operation of an overly complex device with typically obtuse Japanese instructions, I managed to set it and off we went. We managed to survive the trip there and back with only a few minor issues. The rental agent was visibly relieved upon my return.

“Expert” Friday was our wedding anniversary so we went for a trip. I'll leave the details of the actual vacation for another update since that is another story altogether. This was a 2 day excursion to an inn perhaps 150 miles north. Prior to our departure, I carefully studied maps trying to figure out a good route navigating through the city, countryside and finally the mountains. The big day came and off we went in our rental. Having brought the last car back relatively intact, the rental agent seemed happier about handing me the keys this time.

Despite having mapped out the directions I was inclined to follow the Navi since we had so much luck getting to Costco with it. And there is always the coolness factor of having a satellite thousands of miles up in the sky tell you block by block where to go. Big mistake. My first clue of potential problems was when the system got stuck on “turn left” half way to our friends house (where we were dropping off our daughter for the night). I managed to find the address myself using brains and a paper map (so that’s what those things are for).

From there, I had an idea of where we were going (north) and knew that we needed to take the express (an elevated road nearly in sight of where we were) but figured I would leave the details of getting onto the express to the Navi. Mysteriously, over the next 2 HOURS, the thing had me zig when I would have zagged. It seemed determined to keep me on surface streets, completely avoiding the express and the more I followed its direction, the more determined I was to see it through and the harder it became to get to the express. Finally I pulled over, (heeding the desperate pleas of the wife) got my bearings and headed painstakingly to the expressway, ignoring the Navi’s attempts to waylay us. We finally reached the express - after 2.5 hours of driving we had barely gotten out of the city.

The express was mercifully empty and we zipped north quickly. Sure enough, the Navi kept trying to pull us off the express. It would tell us to get off at every exit, remind us when we didn't and then faithfully re-route us to the next exit. The thing was possessed. I kept it on because at the last exit I needed it to finally tell me how to get to the resort. Of course I had forgotten that it was a satellite system and we were headed deep into the mountains. Mountains over here are steep and numerous, effectively blocking out satellite signals at inopportune moments. Once again I was reminded of the benefits of paper maps – especially Japanese maps that are so detailed they specify every 7 Eleven and gas station on the route. There weren’t many 7 Elevens in the mountains but I managed to locate the inn without too much embarrassment. On the return trip I used a conventional map and was much happier with the results. So much for my traditional faith in technology. I suppose there is a lesson here but I haven’t put my finger on it.