On Driving in Japan
(Updated: Summer 2012)
In the 1970s, Englishman Alan Booth walked 2,000 miles from Cape Soya, at the northern tip of Hokkaido, to Cape Sata at the southern tip of Kyushu. He was inspired to travel around Japan, like I was, by the poet Bashō.
Yes, Bashō walked; but Bashō lived over three hundred years ago, when roads were made for people on foot or horseback. This was true up to the nineteenth century, as we see in the woodblock prints of Hiroshige and Hokusai depicting travelers on the Tōkaidō and Nakasendō: walking was still the main mode of travel for commoners, though the wealthy had horses and porters, and the lords and ladies were carried in palanquins.)
Tsumago, a wood-block print by Hiroshige, in Sixty-Nine Stations of the Kisokaidō
The Road to Sata, Booth’s account of his journey, certainly doesn't make a case for walking, recounting as he does the body aches; the discomforts and dangers (exhaust fumes, narrow tunnels with no sidewalks, heavy traffic in and around cities); the miseries of walking in foul weather; his irritation at being stared at or jeered at, particularly by children; and his anxieties about not being able to secure lodging without reservations, particularly in the small towns on back roads, where he was sometimes turned away from seemingly empty ryokans.
As much as I enjoy walking (reasonable distances) and can admire his feat, I prefer driving, not just over walking, but other modes of transport. The rail, bus, and subway systems are highly efficient and on-time in Japan, but riding them is more expensive for two people and less convenient and flexible than going by car, especially to get to out-of-the-way places, like Chirihama Beach (Noto Peninsula), where cars can get off the beach and drive on the sand. (We went in the winter, when no one else was driving on the beach, and nearly got stuck in the wet sand trying to get back onto the road.)
Travel by car allowed us to go directly to places on our own schedule: no rushing to stations early (and waiting), so that we wouldn’t miss buses or trains.
Up at 4 or 5 am, we could set out early on long drives, when the roads were less crowded; and we could arrive at popular destinations before tour buses showed up at 9 or 10 am, or after they were gone by 3 pm.
May became a favorite month for travel, as the sun rose before 5 am and set toward 7 pm, good for long days of cruising. While ryokan with their kaiseki and onsen were a treat, we alternated with hotels, since the ryokan breakfast at 7:30 am was a late start for us. When we stayed at ryokan, we went out before breakfast and walked or drove to nearby sights before returning.
The car was also more convenient for transporting luggage, as we rarely stayed in one place for more than two days and usually just one. We didn't have to lug our bags in and out of taxis, on and off of trains. We could drive up to hotels and ryokan and unload near the front desk.
Driving on the left side of the road is not as hard as one might imagine. It’s clear from the traffic pattern which side of the road you should be on. When I lapsed into driving on the right side of the road a couple of times, it was because there was no traffic and so no danger.
In 2004, on our first trip, we drove to Ise and Kumano from Nara and later, from Kyoto around the Tango Peninsula. I plotted out the journeys on a map I bought at a bookstore.
Before our journey to Hokkaidō in 2005, I discovered the Mapion website that allowed me to zoom in on any part of the country and print out road and street maps, in various scales, down to 250 meters per inch.
We navigated with the print outs in combination with the GPS (all rental cars came equipped with one), matching road patterns and route numbers on the GPS to those on the printouts. Using this method, we were able to find sites well-off the beaten track, like the Oyu Stone Circles, an archaeological park in a remote area of Tōhoku; and to get back on track when we got lost, as we did on the way from Matsumoto to Kawaguchi-ko, when we ended up going over the Shoji Blueline Road rather than Misaka Pass.
In 2006, I used Google Maps along with Mapion to plot the routes, and eventually, used only Google Maps, because of its search capability in English and its photographic satellite imagery and later, terrain maps, that showed the topographic features of the routes.
Our 2012 Route on a Google Map. (Click on the map image for the actual map.)
When we traveled into Snow Country in the winter 2008, I was worried about icy or snow-bound mountain roads, so instead of driving, we caught trains across the mountains, from Tōkyō to Kanazawa, and back to Tōkyō via Nagano. At the local stops, I planned to drive if the weather and road conditions permitted it.
As the trip approached, I checked web sites for snow reports and webcams for driving conditions. After viewing the road conditions around Nagano after the first heavy snowfall, I got nervous and decided to cancel the car reservations there, thinking the roads in the mountains would be undrivable. I kept the reservations for a car in Kanazawa to drive along the Kaga coast and around the Noto Peninsula, which were less likely to be snowed-in or icy because of the warm southern ocean current along the coast.
When we got to Nagano, however, the weather was fair, only light snow falling during the two days we were there, so I rented a car and drove from Nagano to Obuse, where a Hokusai Museum is located; then to Jigokudani, the hot spring where snow monkeys sit in the pools to warm up; and finally to Nozawa, for its winter fire festival.
Our Car in Nozawa after a Light Snowfall the Night Before
In 2009, we discovered we could input phone numbers to prompt the GPS to give us the route to the destination, so trip preparation involved getting a list of the phone numbers of hotels and places we planned to visit. Also, Nissan began offering a GPS with an English interface (though the map itself still uses kanji and hiragana.)
When we first starting driving, I tried to avoid expressways not just because of the added expense (about 25-35 cents per mile), but because I found the junctions and interchanges confusing. I also thought the roads would be more scenic than the expressways.
Tōmei Expressway and Highway 1 at Satta Pass in Shizuoka Prefecture
Now, I prefer the expressways. Most of the roads and highways between the towns and cities are far from scenic, suburban sprawl having taken over much of the landscape. Truck traffic is heavy, and driving can be slow and tedious. It's better not to see much while whizzing along on an expressway and get quickly to a place where you really want to spend time than to turtle along behind trucks while driving past nondescript buildings.
We also discovered that it's better to have a driver and a navigator than to have one person try to drive and navigate, as I did early on. The person who can read maps, terrain and landmarks the best should navigate.
The early trips were marked by much turning around and circling about. The worst blunder of driving is taking the wrong lane from among two or three choices at an expressway interchange, as it may take you miles before you can get off to turn around. In one case, in Hiroshima prefecture, I had to drive 18 miles in the wrong direction before the next expressway exit—then drive 18 miles back to where I made the error. The GPS units are better now in displaying the lane choices at interchanges and directing you into the correct lane.
The GPS can have glitches as well: in fall 2009 an expressway disappeared from the GPS map, and we ended up exiting at the wrong place and losing an hour or so on a tight schedule. And in summer 2010, the GPS directed us in the opposite direction from which we wanted to go – from Yudono, I ended up in Yamagata rather than Tsuruoka. It could have been operator error (wrong phone number?), though I swear when I looked at the route that the GPS proposed before I agreed to it, it directed us to Tsuruoka. Oh well.
In another case, the phone number we inputted for a hotel guided us to an area several blocks away in a business district, even though the phone number was correct. I carry maps of the places we're going, just in case.
I also discovered that just because a road appears on the Google map and GPS, it doesn't mean that it's a two-lane road:
Route 755: a mountain road in Mie Prefecture, near Aoyama
A note on parking. All the hotels and ryokan we stayed at outside of major cities offered free parking; all the hotels in major cities charged a fee, but usually only a nominal $12 or so a night. But hotel parking is sometimes in a vertical lot, where the car goes into an elevator slot and disappears, making it very inconvenient to get the car out once it is in. When that happened, we walked or caught the subway or buses to sites nearby— in a major cities, public transportation is generally less expensive than driving to a site and parking.
In some of the smaller city and towns, parking is also limited due to the narrow streets. And we found out that people can get very upset when you park where you aren't supposed to park, even in an empty lot with no apparent use. Once, when we left our car in a dirt lot in Takayama to look for a museum, we got a earful when we got back: the housewife from the upper middle-class residence across the street harangued us relentlessly, in a whining, nagging voice unique to middle-aged Japanese women, as we got into the car and proceeded to drive off. I had no idea what she was saying ... perhaps something about our irreparably damaging the dirt in her lot.
People who have lived in Japan later told me (1) you can't buy a car in Japan unless you have a certified parking space for it; and (2) parking tickets are more expensive than speeding tickets.
Car Ferry: Oma, in Northern Honshu, to Hakodate, Hokkaidō
Many of the bridges are works of art. The Akashi Strait Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world, between Honshu and Awaji Island, was particularly exhilirating to drive over.
Driving the Aqua Bridge, across Tōkyō Bay, was another amazing experience: a six-mile long undersea tunnel goes from Kawasaki Ward in Tōkyō and emerges in mid-bay at Umihotaru, an artificial island with parking, restaurants, souvenir shops and viewpoints, then continues on as a two-mile long bridge to Kisarazu on the Boso Peninsula. You can see Mt. Fuji and the Tōkyō Sky Tree from Umihotaru on a clear day. We drove the bridge the morning after a hurricane passed over Tōkyō the night before, heading north, and the winds were still gusting at 20-30 knots. (We planned to take a ferry across the bay, but the ferry was shut-down for the day.)
From Umihotaru, the Aqua Bridge to Kisarazu on the Boso Peninsula
Tunnels are another phenomenon... there are hundreds. Some are single lane roads on remote mountain roads. A couple modern expressway tunnels are almost seven miles long, with jet engine-like fans overhead to blow exhaust fumes out.
One of the memorable tunnel adventures was driving through the Amagi Pass tunnel, off the main highway from Hakone to Shimoda, on a narrow dirt mountain road. It's the longest stone tunnel in Japan, completed in 1905, when rickshaws still provided public transportation along with buses. (The road is blocked after the drive-through, so we had to turn around and go back the way we came.)
The best driving was on remote and winding roads, little traveled but well maintained, in scenic mountain areas or along scenic coasts, some of whlch are documented in Roads and Seacoasts and Coastal Roads. Driving allowed us to see parts of the country that not many people get to see.