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Amazing Hokkaido Snow

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Having grown up in the Midwest, I’ve seen my fair share of bitter cold blizzards. And although the drizzly Seattle life might have made me soft, I still hadn’t been too worried by the stories of Hokkaido’s unrelenting winters. After changing a tire on the side of the highway in Iowa, in January, with no gloves, nothing seems quite so bad. And yet, Hokkaido’s winter still amazed me. It would seem that all the tall tales about Hokkaido and its intense snowy climate were quite accurate…

013My first winter in Hokkaido, the snows started in mid-November, and they never stopped. All the way through March, it snowed—with varying intensity—every day. Often times this was just a light dusting. Occasionally it was several inches. Shoveling snow became a regular afternoon activity for me, my new winter workout regimen. The accumulated snow piled up, forming hefty white blankets on rooftops, sometimes over a meter thick. Mountainous piles of snow collected on the sides of roadways, eventually forming walls boardering all pathways; shining white barricades that wouldn’t exist come summertime.

020The first time I chose to walk to school was a crisp winter day. While frosty cold, the air was still, and it felt peaceful. The snow crunching underfoot was especially satisfying. By the time of my afternoon walk back, the sun had come out and the radiant light bouncing off the snow was initially blinding. Once my eyes adjusted, the brilliant colors adorning buildings and signs really popped out; a marked contrast to the vast white cover. Elementary school kids approached me, asking me to participate in a yukigassen (雪合戦), which I quickly learned meant “snowball fight”. They also taught me the words yukidama (雪玉 – snowball) and tsurara (氷柱 – icicle), and I attempted to teach them the English equivalents.

001My second winter in Hokkaido, the snow and the temperature started out much less consistent. And with this inconsistency came turbulent, harsh weather. Whenever the snow hit, Old Man Winter made up for lost time. After a few days of no precipitation—and possibly above-zero, snow melting conditions—the ensuing blizzard would arrive and bury Shakotan. Afternoons might be rather warm and slushy, but by 5:00pm, it was frigid driving wind and heavy snow. Waking up to a foot and a half of fresh snow in the morning was fairly routine.

022So often was I digging out my car in the morning that I stopped bothering to clear off the collected snow from the top of the vehicle. My little Suzuki Wagon R appeared to be wearing its own white beret, a decorative snow hat. This usually made no impact on in-town driving, so I figured it was a harmless habit. On the open road, however, I learned that it wasn’t very safe at all. In the 30 minutes it would take to drive from Shakotan to Yoichi, the car would warm up considerably, and the snow atop the roof would begin to melt just a bit. Then it would only take a slight touch of the brake to bring the whole lot of it cascading over my windshield. The thick blanket was often so dense and heavy that the windshield wipers weren’t powerful enough to move it and they would be pinned down. Becoming suddenly blinded while driving is never fun, but having to pull over to remedy the situation makes it considerably worse.

005Despite my spotty driving record, I managed to make it through my two years in Japan without getting in any vehicular accidents. In fact, even with the long distances I drove during the wintertime, I never got my car stuck in the snow, not once. I kept a snow shovel in my car at all times, just in case, but I never had the trouble. My little K-Car, or kei-jidōsha (軽自動車), handled exceptionally well on snow and ice. Whether this was due to the vehicle’s lightweight, excellent snow tires, or a combination of the two, I’m not sure. Only three times in two years did my car go into a real skid, of the “life flashing before my eyes” variety. And each time I was able to bring the car back under control, right course, and avoid flying off the road. The worst skid Snow pics 008had me sliding at a 90° angle, going 65kph or so, but even then I managed to correct that one just in time to avoid oncoming traffic.

When winter strikes, the Shakotan locals are well-equipped to handle whatever nature threw at them, and the heavy equipment would come out to clear the roads. The snow would be dealt with via bulldozers, excavators, dump trucks, and even loader-mounted snow blowers—which look like terrifying snow threshers, with gigantic rotating blades at the fore for devouring massive corridors of snow.

012Occasionally, the accumulated snow would slide off a rooftop and come crashing down to the ground. This is honestly my favorite part of the Hokkaido winter. There is something mesmerizing about watching a great sheet of snow cascade off a rooftop, an instant sea of heavy white powder rush forward and plummet like a semi-frozen waterfall. If the avalanche is large enough, you can hear it too. Many times I would hear a massive crash from my apartment, a brief roar and then silence; Hokkaido’s winter thunder.

003The rooftop avalanches can be legitimately dangerous if you’re standing underneath them, claiming a few lives every winter. Tall buildings in Sapporo even have signed displayed on the sidewalks saying, “Beware of falling snow” in Japanese, and often also English. As a result of these conditions, people end up needing to shovel their roofs. If the snow piles up too high, it can cause your home’s roof to cave in, so it needs to be cleared away. People will climb up to the rooftops and shovel away, being very careful where they step. This is straightforward task for people with flat rooftops, but an A-frame home looks quite challenging. I’ve seen lots of people do this, even some elderly folks. You really must remain able-bodied to survive in Hokkaido.

The building neighboring my apartment had a slick-looking slanted rooftop. Wooden crossbeams were mounted across the roof to allow for people to climb up and clear the snow off. During the first winter, I came home while this shoveling was in progress and chatted with the workers from just outside my second-story door. During the second winter, the snow piled up like usual, but no one ever came to clear it away. I kind of figured that it would probably just melt down and crumble away on its own, but that was a poor assumption.

006One March afternoon, when temperatures were above freezing and the weather had turned rainy, I returned to my apartment to discover that the snow from the building next door had cleared itself away. Apparently the wooden crossbeams had given way under 001the massive weight of the accumulated snow and the whole the lot of it had come down. The resulting avalanche crashed into my building with enough force to bust through the wall, driving snow inside the unit below mine, and presumably ruining my neighbor’s day. The damage was so bad that my neighbor was forced to relocate and a crew was brought in the next day to clear away snow and board up the destroyed wall. My room was just fine.

The structure on the opposite side of the slick-roofed building was also affected by the avalanche. An old wooden warehouse that didn’t look very sturdy to begin with, this building actually had large braces erected on one side to keep it from falling over. Time had taken its toll on the debilitated shack, but it was still standing. Thanks to the heavy snow crashing into its side however, it was now leaning steeply to one side. Amazingly, while the new angle of the house had turned the rectangular window frames into rhomboids, the glass hadn’t broken.

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Getting a Japanese Driver’s License

In late November, I received an email from the company about the process of getting a Japanese driver’s license. It contained a list of documents to procure that was dauntingly long, and also informed me that Americans rarely pass the test on their first attempt. At that time, I was really indecisive about whether or not to renew my contract; in fact, I was thinking that I probably wouldn’t do it. Since I wasn’t planning on staying in Japan for a second year, I certainly wasn’t motivated to jump through the hoops of getting a Japanese license, so I promptly forgot all about it.

Fast-forward to February and I received another email from the company labeled “URGENT”. The rep asked if I had gotten any of those documents ready and reminded me that time was running out. By this time I had decided that one year wasn’t long enough and was now planning to stay in Japan after all. But I had done myself no favors by dragging my feet. Now I needed to act fast and get my documents in order so that they could schedule a test for me, and in the meantime, I was strongly advised to take some driving lessons. The urgency, combined with the looming difficulty that Americans usually have passing the test, freaked me out a bit.

Here’s what it looked like:

  1. A valid foreign driver’s license (US license)
  2. A Japanese translation of the US driver’s license from JAF (Japan Automobile Federation)
  3. An official document identifying the date that the license was first issued (such as a driving record or official state verification of status)
  4. An old Japanese driver’s license (if I had one)
  5. Tōroku Genpyou Kisai Jikou Shōmei-sho (外国人登録原票記載事項証明 – Certificate of Information Recorded on a Foreign Resident) a registration file from city hall
  6. Gaijin Card
  7. Passport
  8. Any additional documents confirming residence of 3 months or more in the country from which the license was obtained (such as school transcripts, old passports, etc). If necessary, apparently the US embassy could issue an entry and departure record.
  9. A photograph (3cm long x 2.4cm wide) taken within the past 6 months, no hat, front-face, no background, and from the shoulder up

Scrambling to collect the documents, I discovered that the seemingly complicated process was actually just as complicated as it had first appeared. Not only were some of the documents difficult track down – A document identifying the date that my license was first issued? Like from when I turned 16…in Iowa? – but some of them were even rather expensive. The JAF issued translation of my Washington State driver’s license cost ¥3000 (plus an additional ¥380 in postage for them to mail it back to me). Once I received this pricy piece of paper, I discovered that it actually had an expiration date. Why would a translation of a driver license have an expiration date, you ask? Beats the hell out of me.

It took me two weeks or so to get everything in order. By my count, the costs for the documents alone totaled ¥4480. (Additionally, I ended up spending $10 on an official Washington State driving record that I didn’t actually need. The Washington State DOL website’s FAQ section was quite clear that I just needed to email them to receive a “verification of status” document, but in my haste, I had already paid for the driving record before I read that bit. And by the way, Iowa’s DOT website, along with its lack of services, was utterly useless and unhelpful.) I was ready to face this test and see just how bad it really was.

On Thursday, March 1st, I was given the day off work so that I could go take a driving test in Sapporo. Since Americans are required to do a paper test and a practical driving exam, I had thought that I was doing both of these on the same day, but it turned out the written portion needed to be done first and actual driving part of the test would have to wait. Hiroko and Shun were kind enough to take me to the Driving Test Center (運転免許試験場) in Teine, and guide me through the process. As it turns out, I certainly could not have managed without their help.

We arrived at the Driving Test Center at 1pm. Documents in hand, we proceeded to window six, the one for foreigners. Hiroko noted that within the Driving Center, the signs were written almost entirely in kanji, making it difficult for a person of novice Japanese skill to read what’s what. The lady at the window took my documents and gave me a short paper to complete; it was basically asking if I have ever had any problems with problems with loss of consciousness, or other medical conditions which would impair my ability to drive.  I quickly read through it, circled “none of the above”, and signed. Then, before giving it back, I quickly corrected a small typo and handed it across the counter. This startled the lady, as she thought I was going to circle one of the other options, but when she saw that I was just correcting the form’s English, she seemed rather pleased.

They took my various documents, as well as my Washington driver license, passport, and alien registration card to be copied. Then they asked us to wait and return to the window in about one hour.  Hiroko, Shun, and I bought some refreshments from the vending machine corner and sat down to wait. An hour later, they called me up to the window again and I got my passport, alien registration card, and Washington license back. Apparently all my documents had checked out. I was given a new form and directed towards the vision screening area. But before I got my eyes checked out, I need to purchase ¥2400 in payment stamps to cover the process. The guy who did my vision test was probably the most cheerful guy I saw all day. He seemed to really enjoy listening to answers of “left”, “right”, “up”, and “down” in English, and his huge smile never faded.

After the vision test, I needed a wait for a little while longer while the staff prepared an English version written test for me. I was a bit worried about this written exam, even though I had actually read the book; I just had bad memories of my written driving test back in Iowa. It turned out that the exam was only ten questions, and it was a maru-batsu test (まるばつテスト – true-false test).  This should have been simple, but I still stressed over the prospect of making too many mistakes and failing. Luckily, I passed just fine.

With the written test passed, we then had to schedule practical driving exam for another day. Hiroko again stepped up and took care of me, speaking with staff and calling Nozomi-san to make sure the times worked for everyone. We scheduled the driving test for the following Monday afternoon, at 1pm. Following my company’s advice, we also scheduled a one-hour driving lesson for that same day, in the morning. This way I got some practice on the driving course, as well as insider info from a professional driving instructor. Use of the driving course costs ¥700 per half hour, so I had to buy ¥1400 worth of payment stamps ahead of time to be able to pay for my lesson’s hour on the course Monday morning.

On Monday March 5th, I got up at 5:30am. I had a driving lesson scheduled at the Teine Driving Test Center, with a driving course reservation at 7am. Hiroko was happy to drive me to the Driving Test Center in Teine again, even though it was very early. My driving instructor turned out to be a slender, athletic-looking gentleman with a military haircut. He seemed quite fit and youthful, so I assumed he was young, but the creases around his eyes indicated he had more years than I had guessed. We would be driving the course in his car, which looked like a taxi cab. The course was smaller than I had expected after looking at its map. Still, it was probably the size of two football fields placed side by side. There was a traffic signal intersection in the center, a couple of tight and narrow side streets, and enough room to accelerate to 50kph on the outside track.

The lesson itself was done completely in Japanese and proved invaluable for passing the practical driving exam. This isn’t because the lesson teaches you the necessary skills for safe driving, but because the driving exam has very specific and rigid expectations for what you are to do. Without a briefing on the esoteric actions one needs to perform during the test, the safest drivers in the world couldn’t pass. There are a lot of little touches, simple things to perform, but if you don’t know what they’re looking for, you’re screwed.

For example, right from the outset of driving, you should look 1) back at the left blind spot, 2) forward towards the front-left corner of the car, 3) at the rearview mirror, 4) towards the front-right corner, and then 5) back at the right blind spot. That’s a 5-point look combo that you’re obligated to do or you’re docked points. Of course during the test, you might not have been aware that you were being judged on few things even before this “initial” step. Did you adjust your seat, adjust the rearview mirror, buckle your seatbelt, and lock the door? Did you physically crouch down and check the ground in front of the car before even getting in? You probably missed points if you didn’t.

After the 5-point look combo, you still have to perform another step before starting to actually drive. Hit the right blinker to indicate you’re going to pull out, and look 1) at the rearview mirror, 2) towards the front-right corner, and 3) back over your shoulder at the right blind spot before starting to drive. In fact, anytime you turn or changes lanes, you are expected to perform this 3-point look.  From there on out the instructor gave me little tips to fine-tune driving. For example, what side of the lane to lean towards and when, when to drive slower or faster, and remembering to look right –then left – at an intersection (not left then right, like I’m used to). With his tutelage, I became more confident that I could pass the test. I paid ¥7000 for the hour lesson and hoped that it was enough.

Hiroko and Shun again accompanied to the driving center to help with any communication issues and to generally root me on. The time sensitive nature of the whole thing had made me anxious and I genuinely appreciated their support. As instructed, we were there at the window, five minutes before 1pm, ready for the physical driving test. However, we ended up having to wait because I was testing with two other foreigners and they hadn’t showed up yet. I joked to Shun that my fellow foreigners were probably Russian mafia and so they didn’t show up on time for anything. To my surprise, twenty minutes later, five or six young Russian men appeared.

The Russian guys lazily strutted up to the counter, standing out more from their swagger than from their height or whiteness. Since we had to wait for them to show up late, Shun was a bit offended by their lack of decorum. He quite audibly talked about how they were idiots in Japanese. I too was a little put off by them at first, as groups of rowdy young dudes generally make my spider-sense tingle, and I didn’t particularly want to attract their attention. Luckily, these guys could barely understand a word of Japanese so they probably didn’t catch the cracks Shun made about them.

My two fellow test participants and I were led into a little room where they explained how the test was going to go – in Japanese. Most of this time was spent trying to clarify if the Russian guys understood the directions, which they quite clearly did not. I tried to help translate a little, but one guy understood only a bit of Japanese and a bit of English and not much of either.  The other guy knew only migi (右) and hidari (左), right and left. During this briefing, I discovered that Japan has separate licenses for manual and automatic transmission vehicles. I was getting an automatic transmission license, so I would only be legally allowed to drive automatics and any car with a stick was off-limits.  My new Russian friends were doing the manual transmission test, and I had a feeling that their chances of passing that day were really slim. It was too bad too; they actually seemed quite friendly after I got a chance to talk to them.

To start our test, the three of us jumped in the car with an older gentleman, and he drove the course to demonstrate what we were going to do. After the run through, I got to drive in that same car – an automatic transmission – with the man, while the Russian guys got into a second car – a manual transmission – with a female test administrator. Since I was in the lead car, I couldn’t see how my Russian friends were doing, but I needed to focus on my own test anyway. The fate of the whole endeavor came down to my performance of the rehearsed, arbitrary, esoteric, superfluous driving actions to I had learned that morning.

Throughout my driving test, the test administrator made little ticks on his clipboard; I assumed he was checking the boxes of all the things I was doing right. I felt pretty confident during my drive. I followed all the tips I had received, made it painfully obvious that I was looking at all the right places, and never hit anything. The actually driving took less than five minutes. Finishing up back at the starting point, the man casually asked me a couple questions; what kind of work I did, where I lived, if I had taken driving lessons. His friendly demeanor gave me the impression that I had passed. Ten or 15 minutes later I got the official word: I did indeed pass. No problems. The Russian guys both failed. There was one more fee to pay via the payment stamps, another ¥2100, and then I had my photograph taken. It was about 2:15pm, and they told me that I could pick up my brand new license at 4:00.

Since we had some time to kill, Hiroko, Shun, and I drove to a nearby used book store to do some shopping. Like many bookstores in Japan, this store sold all kinds of media; books, manga (漫画 – Japanese comic books, which are produced in a variety genres for pretty much all possible audiences), music, movies, and even a variety of video games. I entertained myself for an embarrassing long time simply perusing the Famicom, Super Famicom, and Nintendo64 titles. Eventually (and with Hiroko’s help) I located the store’s inventory of a boxing manga called Hajime no Ippo (はじめの一歩); I’m a fan of the anime. I purchase book #4 and decided to challenge myself to read it.

At 4pm, we returned to the driving test center and picked up my new license. I had succeeded, and just in time too. To have the card in my hand was a great relief. It was also a further endorsement from the Japanese government that I was welcome to live and work in Japan.

In the end, the cumulative expenses to get my license totaled ¥17380 (that’s about $208 USD). The process of converting a foreign driver’s license to a Japanese one did honestly seem to be intentionally complicated. While one might guess that this is in an effort to keep foreigners excluded, I don’t think that’s the case. I believe the process is actually made difficult to prevent Japanese citizens from getting a driver’s licenses in foreign countries and converting them over at home. A Japanese citizen could easily get a driver’s license while on vacation, in say Hawaii, and then return to Japan and convert this license to the Japanese equivalent. If successful, you would circumvent the normal driving school method of obtaining a license and save yourself a lot of money.

You see, Japanese driving schools are quite expensive. Enrolling in a driving school in Japan can run you somewhere between ¥300,000 and ¥400,000 (approximately $3,600 to $4,400). Clearly, it’s big business. The boatload of documents, the esoteric driving test rituals, and even the driving course itself, are all designed to maintain the necessity for driving schools. From the outside this looks like quite a scam. But then again, I’m just an American, so what do I know?

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Driving in Japan

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.

Well, that's informative.

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’.

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