Think Left: Driving in Japan

Driving in Japan: Sometimes one lane roads go two ways!

*Note: All price conversions are current as of Fall 2014. If you are reading this after the fact, know that conversion rates change all the time and you may want to recheck them. This is the website I use to convert USD (and others) to JPY. Thank you!

I remember writing about driving in Japan before I came here. I didn’t want a car, I wanted to glamorously ride the train to work like you see in movies. But the trains here are anything but glamorous (the shinkansen being an exception, I think); they’re kind of expensive and very crowded. They also don’t get you all the way there; with a train there’s always some walking involved, and while that’s nice on a perfect sunny day, what about those typhoons blowing through or the stifling humidity in the summer? No fun! I thought having a car would be a bother, I thought it would be expensive. And I certainly didn’t want to drive on the wrong side of the road!

Alternatives: Few and Far Between

As it turns out, having a car is the greatest thing ever in Japan (I said so before in this post on what I’ve learned here). The train station in my small, rural town is very limited in where I can go and when. Many ALT’s I know at least have a direct train to Tokyo so they can stay out later and have a few drinks in the evening before heading back but with a train I’d have to go north to Mito, then south to Tokyo. A round trip to Tokyo by train for me would be about ¥9,860 (~US$85, 2hr 8min) for the express, or about ¥6,140 (~US$53, 2hr 50 min) for the regular train. With a car, I can drive to the Ibaraki Airport and take a bus for ¥2,000 (~US$18) round trip and it only takes about 1hr 45min. Trains can take you to most cities, big and small, but they can’t take you around them. There is no bus to get around my town, and being an agriculture center, everything is pretty spread out. I’m also able to hike as much as I do because I have a car; Google Maps and a post-it will eventually (like I said, I have a nonexistent sense of direction) get me to the trail-head and adventures await!

Try not to drive in the mountains on a holiday... That's where everyone goes!
Try not to drive in the mountains on a holiday… That’s where everyone goes! (P.S. All those cars on the right are parked… illegally.

Why Drive?

I also just like to drive. Japan is beautiful in every season I’ve seen and if I’m feeling down, or just unmotivated, a drive around the area or to another city along country roads with tractor traffic while blasting music to sing along to (because you can’t play it loud at home, the walls are waaaaay too thin for that luxury!) just gives me a thrill and that giddy, kind of overwhelming feeling I get inside when I’m incredibly happy! Like you’re just going to burst from it! That happens a lot when I drive in Japan and sing at the top of my lungs, it’s too gorgeous here not to and finding random swap meets and festivals is a definite perk!

Costs Involved

As fun as it is, there are some drawbacks to having one of the driving positions in Interac. For example, about ¥37,850 (~US$325) is taken out of my paycheck monthly for my car lease, a ¥37,850 that people with no car get to have fun with. You also have to pay for gas. Yes, I get a gas allowance every month from the company but guess what? It’s a whopping ¥1,100 (~US$9.50). They calculate it by distance to your work and yeah, my schools aren’t terribly far…  Oh, well. The price of gas here is about ¥151/Liter or about $4.85/gallon (U.S.) (and it hasn’t changed significantly since I’ve been here, just small ups and downs every once in awhile). While my car got fantastic gas mileage at the beginning of the year and still gets pretty darn good mileage, it adds up fast when you drive everywhere. There is no hiking in Ibaraki other than Mt. Tsukuba really; we’re the northern part of the Kanto plain (one of the very very few parts of Japan that isn’t actually mountains, just flat) so hiking trips can put a dent in the wallet. And while it’s not a huge inconvenience you do have to remember to take your car in for the bi-annual check-ups required by law also.

Driving: Anything Goes

The rules of the road here are pretty similar to America, except they do seem to be more like guidelines than actual rules. The first thing you learn when you observe a Japanese road is that the rules are what you make them, and I’ve yet to see a cop in a car to stop them (though my fellow Hokota ALT got a speeding ticket not too long ago, go figure!). The red lights actually pause for about 3 seconds before turning green on the next side because so many people keep going through them! Stopping in the middle of the road, parking on sidewalks, driving over sidewalks to go around a car stopped in the middle of the road (almost every road around me is one lane each way), blowing through stop signs in a way that puts the “California roll” in the same category as “came to a complete stop”. And we all laugh at the answer to a question someone asked during training in Tokyo. They asked if people here abide by the speed limit [usually 40km/hr (25mph) on the street and 50-60km/hr (~31-37mph) on the highway] or if it’s like America where up to ~10mph over the limit is generally acceptable.

They told us to go the speed limit.

HA! If you go the speed limit in Japan (at least in Ibaraki) there will be a line behind you a mile long and every last one of them will be throwing you a curious look, and then a really dirty one once they see nothing is physically wrong with you, you’re just making them late. Japan doesn’t DO late. Five minutes early is late. So please, do us all a favor and speed! (Follow traffic speed people, following my unprofessional advice here is done at your own risk.)

Here’s what a stop sign looks like:

Be aware that most aren't anywhere near where you need to stop. Look for the line on the ground also!
Be aware that most aren’t anywhere near where you need to stop. Look for the line on the ground also!

And here are the great Japanese construction barriers, slow down around workers as always:

Bunnies, duckies, monkey's oh my!
Bunnies, duckies, monkey’s oh my!

Don’t pass on a solid line, wear a seatbelt, know that most streets look like they should be one way because of the narrowness but in all likelihood, they go both ways. And don’t turn on red. In America, we drive on the right and can turn right on a red light because we aren’t crossing traffic. In Japan, you drive on the left and can’t turn either way on red. Red actually does mean stop here, and while a lot of cars go through the red, it’s usually because they’re watching the lights and due to that 3-second delay the light will be green when they’re about 3/4 of the way through the intersection. Dashed (white!) lines are okay for passing, and thank goodness for that because again, most streets are only 2-lanes. It took me about 3 months to see my first 4-lane stretch of road and it actually freaked me out a bit at first having cars drive with me again!

Driving on the Left and Backing In

Learning to drive on the left is seriously scary at first! When I picked up my car it was dark and I had to drive home, alone, in the dark, on the wrong side of the road. It was my first day in Hokota and I wasn’t exactly sure how to get back to my apartment from anywhere. And I created a mantra: “Left. Left. Left. Think left.” I got home alright but put a nice long scratch on the side of my car trying to park. Americans generally don’t back into parking spaces, but that’s all they do here! My first time backing in anywhere was between a mini-van and a block wall with a fence in front of the spot so I had to just back in from a perpendicular-ish position. Let’s just say, it didn’t go well… But all has been dandy since then and insurance paid for the scratch to be fixed (Yay! It was a handy way to figure out which car was mine though.) It took a few days, but a week of running errands around town and driving on the left became more natural; now I watch American movies and freak out when they turn because I think they’re going to crash!

Just be aware that your windshield wipers and your turn signals switch sides too, it took a long time before I stopped turning on my wipers when I was trying to turn! Even when you’re used to it, when you need to turn on your signal for a panicked last minute turn it’s automatic to go for the left, and there go the wipers again!

Beautiful Japan!
Beautiful Japan!

IDP’s and Japanese Driver’s Licenses

International Driver’s Permit’s only last a year from the day you enter the country so be sure to have yours delayed until you actually get here! If you plan to stay longer a Japanese Driver’s License is your only bet and if you’re from America that’s a whole new headache! I’ll have a post about the process and my experience here soon, but yes, I finally got one! If you’re from Canada, Australia, the U.K., New Zealand and the like you’re golden. You don’t have to take the driving test, just a written one. But making contracts with all 50 states is too much paperwork so us Americans take the written in the morning and the driving portion on a set course in the afternoon.

But It’s So Worth It!

I hope I haven’t scared anyone off driving as I really think it’s beyond worth it to have a car, most ALT’s I know without one really wish they had one, so if you’re offered a driving position with Interac snatch it up! Most of my adventures wouldn’t have happened without a car and I’ve also been able to help people with various emergencies because of it. Sometimes you just need to go help someone out in the middle of the night and no train will take you there in the strange early-morning hours. Buying more groceries than can fit in your bike basket, taking home a cheap but fabulous second-hand kotatsu from another town, going to my students speech competition an hour away, not being confined to a set schedule, air conditioning in the summer, heat in the winter, karaoke practice, hidden shrines, early morning Saturday farmer’s markets in the next town, beach picnics, Indiana Jones-style mountain road navigation with friends, sunset drives surrounded by rice fields, random festivals. All of these experiences are thanks to my car, and thank goodness for it!

If you want to read the English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese or Korean-versions of the Japanese “Rules of the Road” you can find it here and this is a site that helped me a ton when I was trying to get my Japanese license. As always if you have any questions, never hesitate to ask! Have a fabulous day all of you fabulous people!

You May Also Like:

2 thoughts on “Think Left: Driving in Japan

Leave a Reply