Japanese Survival Guide Point 5 – On the Road

Hello! Yes it’s not quite Saturday but this week’s Survival point is out a little early as tomorrow I will be in the skies and heading, via Kuala Lumpur, back to my home of Australia. Look out for a post on the new KLIA terminal should I get the chance to post such a thing on my layover – I had such a strong dislike for the old LCCT that I am actually excited about seeing the new terminal, which opened on May the 9th! We will be one of the first passengers through!

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Driving in Japan can be a challenge. If you are in a position teaching English like I was, you may find yourself in a position which requires you to drive. For example, I was 25 kilometres away from one of my schools and so I had a bit of a drive four days a week to get there. It’s pretty standard that your company will organise a lease car for you, and if they are kind they will contribute towards the lease. Companies in Japan usually compensate people for travel too, which helps, even if they don’t cover 100% of it.

Most with my company didn’t deal directly with the lease company at all, that was left to the office in Morioka. I would have to take my car to get serviced (which in Japan I little more than an oil change) and twice a year to get the tyres changed. We used different tyres for winter and summer because of the ice and snow that comes with winter.

Now. Driving is on the left, with cars being right-hand drive. Good news for folks like myself, who come from Australia where it’s the same system, but not so much for those from North America where it’s the right hand side. You can use your international driver’s licence for the first twelve months then you need to get a Japanese driver’s licence. This has varying degrees of difficulty depending on your nationality.

For Australians, Canadians and British folks, it’s a matter of proving you’ve been driving continuously for at least twelve months and that your licence is genuine. As per usual they do require a lot of documentation, and for me I was missing one little thing and I had to come back. Wouldn’t have been so bad but the offices for registration and licences are not found in every city, and I had to go to Morioka, a couple of hours away, on a weekday.

For Americans and some others, well, it gets worse. On top of the paper work, you are going to need to sit a driving test. It’s something to do with the reciprocal arrangements in America for Japanese. Depending on where you take the test, you could be taking it a few times. I am told it is policy to fail everyone at least once or twice. Three times to pass the test is kinda standard, I know a poor guy who had to take it 7 times. You can’t take it the same day and you have to pay a fee each time.

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Once on the road, well, you’ll find the roads are pretty slow going. Despite a straight road through rice fields, the speed limit will probably say 50 km/h. And you don’t want to get pulled over, I have heard some stories! Although I was advised on my first day in the car that going up to 60 km/h would be fine in a 50 zone! I was never pulled over, so maybe it was a fair comment. The roads are often one lane each way, and narrow. Big cars are not really the go, which is good because it’s standard for companies to source small cars only, and leave you with no choice.

For example, the Suzuki Wagon R. It’s not even legal in Australia due to the ‘crumple’ factor! The good news is the cars are usually no more than five years old. They are made to be replaced which is why no SERIOUS servicing appears to happen. The car is ok I guess, it didn’t like hills much and wasn’t that economical on the fuel despite claims to the contrary.

So. Dealing with conditions on the road. Firstly, every foreigner driving in Japan complains about the other drivers. EVERYONE. It’s out favourite whinge topic! Are we being unfair? Almost certainly. And definitely a little racist. But the fact is that it pays to not tail gate and expect the unexpected. I’ve had to brake hard to cars coming from the left lane and u-turning in front of me. There doesn’t seem to be a great awareness of other cars on the road. I’ve also heard theories that as people have to be so polite in life, driving is the one time that people can just be, well, arseholes.

Blinkers get turned on at the very last minute, if ever, people will slam on the breaks to let others in showing extreme politeness, and the idea that the rules are in place to make the traffic flow and work better seem to be forgotten. You don’t want to be in accident. You may find something that was not your fault at all suddenly is, because you are a foreigner. If you are in an accident, technically even if it’s a small one, you are supposed to wait for the police come and make a report.

Then there’s bicycles. They adhere to pretty much no rules at all. There are a lot of bicycles on the road and footpaths, and I have never, in more than two years, seen a cyclist signal when turning. Not once! They go from footpath to road and back at will, and 99% do not wear helmets, and those that do appear to be wearing horse-riding helmets with the buckle undone which is no help to anyone. They frequently ride down the right-hand side of the street as well – I was nearly involved in an accident when one bike was going on the left hand side one way, another coming towards him on the right hand side the wrong way, and because I was more or less in the middle of the road they were headed for each other with little chance to swerve. No harm done in the end, they avoided each other, but I would have been blamed, because in Japan the car is always in the wrong when a pedestrian or bike is concerned. The smaller vehicle is considered to be in the right usually.

Then there’s winter. Not such a big deal in Tokyo or further south, there isn’t a lot of snow, but Iwate gets a fair deal. Ichinoseki had more than enough for me, and driving on it is not much fun. Chains in Iwate are a rarity, and so the winter tyres are supposed to do the trick, but you do need to slow right down. The trickiest thing is ice though, black ice. It’s hard to see and you will lose all traction – incredibly dangerous going downhill.

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Some drive at 10 km/h in the snow. Others with gay abandon. One night I was driving home from school at about 6.45 pm. It was dark, we’d had the biggest snowfall in Ichinoseki I’d seen in my time there on the weekend. It was minus five or something outside. I was going 35 km/h, the road conditions were changing. Snow to ice to slush to mush. No, I can’t tell the difference between the last two! The car behind me in the right lane (I was in the left) was going the same speed as I, if not a little faster.

Suddenly I had no control over the steering. The car slid left, then right, then left and right again. Then it kept going right, without moving the steering wheel, I had turned right just over 90 degrees and hit the snow on the median strip. I waited for the car to impact the tail of my car – the car in the right hand lane – but it was gone. Completely. Must have turned right when I was swerving left and right. The snow had brought my car to a halt. Down the road, there was another car coming the opposite way in exactly the same position. The concrete was about an inch or two at the most high. I needed help to push the car back onto the icy road, terrified that when in reverse I would lose control. But it was fine. There was not a scratch on my car. A policeman and passing motorist helped. I drove home at a very slow speed indeed.

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And you know, this is not rare. As I said, another car 200 metres up the road had done the same thing. He didn’t get out so easily though. I was truly watched over by something or someone at that point in time. Sometimes when I travel, I feel that someone is watching over me.

Japanese roads are frustrating at times, slow, dangerous, very slow and extremely slow. But there are rev-heads in Japan too. The expressways are tollways but you move on them – just don’t miss your exit. They are much better but slow cars rarely go to the left hand lane as they should, and there are a lot of trucks. If you see a flashing sign saying ‘80’ then that’s how fast you are meant to go. The top speed is a little unclear, maybe 100-120?

Another post I hoped would be short has ended up long. Such is life I guess. Next Saturday I will be chatting about the Japanese language, useful phrases, pronunciation hints and the like, and how if affects the learning of Japanese people when they try to learn English. Tonight I am off, flying home, hoping to check in with you tomorrow from the new terminal at Kuala Lumpur airport – I have quite the layover going back to Australia. Sunday Spotlight this week will take us to Cameroon! Keep your eyes peeled!

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