When I accepted my placement in the rural town of Shakotan, there was one aspect of the position that really bothered me. It wasn’t the relative isolation in the country, or the fact that almost no one spoke any English (or so I’d been told). Even the promise of an epic winter with massive snowfalls the likes of which I had never seen wasn’t a worry for me. It was the driving. You see, one simply cannot work outside of major cities without needing a car.
Personally, I don’t have much love for automobiles. It may be un-American to say, but I think the way people fetishize cars is absurd. Some people may see owning a car as liberating, but I see the opposite. I hate being confided to a car seat, obligated to focus on the task of driving for long periods of time. (It’s boring and my legs start to cramp up after a while.) I hate being in – nay, a part of – traffic. I hate all the maintenance that owning a car entails. I hate all the trouble one has to go through with car registration and insurance. I hate the expense of gasoline and the social implications its use. In general, I just hate driving – but I hate parking even more.
One of things I had loved about Seattle was that I had been able to get around the city without needing a car. Sure, Seattle’s public transportation isn’t the best in the world, but it got the job done. Only on rare occasions did I need to borrow my brother’s car for something specific. I didn’t particularly mind riding the bus, and anytime I could get to a destination on foot, I felt especially gratified. But in rural Hokkaido, I needed a car, if for nothing else, just to drive to my more distant schools.
So the day before I left for Japan, I had made a trip to AAA and picked up an International Driving permit. This was a surprisingly quick and easy process, and only cost about $26. The International Driving permit was good for one year, and along with my valid Washington State driver’s license, officially allowed me to drive in something like 150 countries. This seemed far too easy…
The company leased a car for me. I was given a “location allowance” on my paycheck that made my net income look bigger, but it really just covered the cost of the car lease and a little gas. They handled the lease, insurance, registration and the like; they would even cover routine maintenance appointments for me at a nearby autoclub. This made the whole car thing rather foolproof on my end; just don’t get in an accident. (And I’ve been in my fair share of fender benders.) Once my car arrived, it was time to get the hang of driving again, this time on the left side of the road.
Driving on the left is, of course, the biggest difference between roads in the States and roads in Japan, and the one that’s hardest to acclimate to. The first time I drove my car, Yamazaki-san was in the passenger seat as we took a leisurely drive around Bikuni so that he could remind me where the schools were. I absentmindedly turned into the right lane twice with him in car, making him alternately laugh and freak out. While I was awfully careful driving on my own initially, I still ended up turning into oncoming traffic on at least five separate occasions. Parking lots are especially confusing when you’re used to using the wrong side of the road.
But eventually I got the hang of it. The 30-minute drive to Yoichi became routine. I even started making the long drive to Sapporo. This greatly impressed Nozomi-san, as I made the journey on my own, without dashboard navigation or even a map. (The road signs are in both Japanese and English, so I just followed them. It was really pretty easy.) When I had a free day and the weather was nice, I’d explore the coast and the mountain roadways of the Shiribeshi area, driving through Niki, Iwanai, Tomari, Kamoenai, and the like. During the summer break, I drove across central Hokkaido to the town of Obihiro for a massive fireworks display. I brought three passengers along who had naively put faith in my total lack of Japan driving experience. With such practice, driving in Japan became second nature, and I got used to the little nuances that make Japan’s roadways unique. There were a few things that stood out for me.
For instance, at least in Hokkaido, people will quite often run a red light if it has just turned red. Occasionally, I’d fly through an intersection when the light was yellow – just barely making it legally, I thought – only to have three cars follow behind me. The first driver could maybe have facetiously claimed that the light was still yellow when he entered the intersection, but the second and third drivers definitely ran on red. At first, this slightly amused me as a blatant violation, but then I saw it happen over and over, and I started to wonder if maybe Japanese traffic laws were flexible on the whole “red means stop” thing. I eventually learned what is common knowledge in these parts, that when the traffic signal turns red, there are exactly three seconds before the cross traffic gets their green light. With this three-second gap in mind, drivers will often run red lights, slipping by without interfering with the flow of traffic. So when it comes down to it, green means ‘go’, red means ‘stop’, and yellow means ‘go really fast’. But for a fresh red, see yellow.
Another thing that startled me early on was that the police almost always drive around with their emergency lights flashing. The sirens aren’t on but the reds lights spin around, apparently without communicating any sense of emergency. I wasn’t sure if I should pull over when I first encountered this, but it turns out that the cops just generally cruise the highway like that. In fact, they often leave a squad car parked outside of the police station with its red lights flashing, as if just to remind you that they are there. If I ever do get pulled over in Japan, the cops will really have to use the siren or else I’ll have no idea that they want me to stop.
On the highway and especially in Sapporo, I learned quickly that the lanes are really just mere suggestions. Especially on four lane roads, drivers don’t really hesitate to swerve into the neighboring lane without so much as a turn signal, whether to avoid a park car on the left, or a car waiting to turn on the right. While this sounds dangerous, everyone is usually driving pretty defensively and looking out for what the other cars are doing, so it seems to work out pretty well.
Generally speaking, the speed limits in Japan are slow. REALLY freaking slow. Driving on the highway, I usually see 50kph as the posted speed limit. This is about 31 miles per hour. The fastest speed I’ve ever seen posted was 80kph on the expressway, which is almost – but not quite – 50mph. Yamazaki-san once told me that everyone gets speeding tickets, and with the snail’s pace regulations, I can see why. Still, I suppose it is safer that way.
Through observation and imitation I have learned that you’re supposed to stop and look both ways before proceeding through a train crossing. This is true when the barriers are up, no lights are flashing, and there’s not sign of activity whatsoever; you always have to stop at the train crossing. Also, you are supposed to turn on your headlights whenever you enter a tunnel. During the day, most drivers flip on their lights when they enter the tunnel and switch them off again when they come out the other end. Since there are tons of tunnels in my area (the road from Yoichi to Shakotan is probably more subterranean than open-air) I generally just leave my lights all the time. I hope that doesn’t make me look weird…
There is a lot of road construction in Hokkaido, year-round. Whether they are filling potholes, repairing the damage of the latest landslide, clearing away many tons of snow that necessitates the use of heavy equipment, or even boring huge new tunnels into the side of a mountain, the construction crews in Hokkaido never stop working. They are also incredibly polite. The kanji for construction work is read kouji (工事), not that you’ll ever need to know it, because you’re sure to recognize their symbol; a stick man in a hardhat and safety vest bowing. Their signal gestures to you, whether delivered with illuminated wands or hand flags, are intuitively clear and don’t require any explanation. Although, generally speaking, it helps to know that red means ‘stop’.