Driving in Japan

Yesterday, I moved most of my things from my old apartment in Kamakura to my new one in Fujisawa.  Instead of getting a moving company, which would have cost over 20,000 yen, I decided renting a car may be a better choice.  Only 6,000 yen!  The distance between my old and new apartments is about 12km.  Not bad.  It shouldn’t take too long, I thought.  I estimated about 3 trips back and forth to transport all of my belongings.  Well, let’s just say I had a bit of an adventure.

My girlfriend and I arrived at the car rental agency at around 11:30 in the morning.  We’d rented a Suzuki Swift, although it turned out to be a Chevrolet (same car, though).  With my driver’s license and a utility bill showing my address, I could rent the car.  We had 8 hours to use the car.  We also rented a car navigation system, which is absolutely essential with the randomly oriented roads in Japan.  Many things are opposite to what I was used to in Canada.  The driver sits on the right side and you drive on the left side in Japan.  The turn signal is on the right side of the steering column, and I had to shift with my left hand (actually, I had an automatic).  The ignition, accelerator and brakes were in their correct places, though.  I’m glad they were the same!

As we pulled out of the car rental agency, I had very little time to get used to the mirror image style of driving.  Luckily, it didn’t take long.  I quickly adjusted and actually felt comfortable within a few minutes.  I drove along Wakamiya Oji, which I’d visited last spring, past Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, then north toward Ofuna.  It wasn’t too bad.  The traffic seemed to be okay, as well.  In very little time, we arrived at my old apartment, where I loaded the car with boxes.  So far, so good.

I had no idea how to use the car navigation system, so my girlfriend programmed it for the new apartment.  The system sp0ke the directions to me, told me when to turn, how long until the next corner to turn at, and so on.  I found it to be relatively easy to understand.  Crossing the tracks near Ofuna station proved to be difficult.  I had a blind corner at an uncontrolled intersection, and it wasn’t easy to turn there.  But I made it, and we were on our way.  Except for one wrong turn, this trip proved to be pretty uneventful.  It took about 35-40 minutes to get to the new apartment.  After unloading everything, we had internet and cable TV hooked up, and I was off again back to my old apartment.

The trip back to my old apartment was mostly uneventful, except that traffic was a bit slower.  It took around 50 minutes to arrive.  I loaded the car again, and was on my way.  Or so I thought.  I ran into a problem.  I didn’t know how to use the car navigation system to get back to the new apartment.  A few calls to my girlfriend and a few pictures taken of the screen, I finally figured out in 15 minutes.  By this time, it was already 5pm.  If I was going to make a third trip, I’d be pushing it for time.  So, I was finally on my way to take the same route back.  Unfortunately, that blind, uncontrolled intersection proved to be completely impassable.  I could not turn, as no one would let me in.  I couldn’t see traffic coming from one direction, so I couldn’t just go out into the intersection and block all traffic.  Not only that, the direction I wanted to go, that traffic was not moving at all!  So, I decided to turn left instead, and the navigation system plotted a new route.  As I travelled along this new route, it was taking me a bit farther south than I’d hoped, but I guess this was the only way.  I then started going north when I was in western Kamakura, and all I had were main roads to drive on now.  No more narrow streets!  Unfortunately, this route took me directly through downtown Fujisawa.  Traffic nightmare!  The traffic was so slow, it took me an hour to travel only 2 km!  Once I was past downtown Fujisawa, the traffic improved drastically, and I had no problems.  But by the time I’d arrived at the new apartment, it was so late that there was no time for a 3rd trip.  Defeated, we decided to return the car to the rental agency.

Our drive back to Kamakura was easier, and we encountered less traffic.  We returned the car at 7:15pm, with only 45 minutes to spare.  I still have things to take to my new apartment.  I’ll have to do that by train and bus or taxi over the next week.

So, what do I think about driving in Japan?  Adjusting to the different side was much easier than I thought.  I got used to it very quickly, and it felt like second nature to me in a very short period of time.  Driving is not a problem!  The traffic is something I don’t like in Japan.  It’s slow!  No wonder people prefer to take the train.  The narrow roads are a bit nerve-wracking at first, with people riding bicycles (one of them was swerving so much, I thought he would hit the car), cars parked along the side of the road and blocking half of the traffic, and all the blind corners.  The route was a zigzagging course through the two cities, and sometimes it was difficult to know where I was.  North American cities have road systems that are grids.  Easy to navigate, and easy to find an address.  Japanese cities are not made for cars, so there are a lot of narrow, winding roads with no sense of order.  It’s like a cobweb.  I don’t envy the people who have to drive every day to get to work.  Their commute is incredibly long.  That’s why I’m going to stick to trains for my everyday commute.  I will drive on occasion, when I need to, though.  It’s just the traffic that’s too much, especially in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

Have you experienced driving in Japan?

6 Comments

Filed under Daily Life, Fujisawa, Japan, Kamakura, Kanagawa

6 responses to “Driving in Japan

  1. Nope, I never drove during our 2 1/2 year stay in Japan. And based on your experience, I am glad I didn’t … 12 km in 45-50 minutes … I won’t complain about traffic in Toronto anymore, although snowy roads like today make it more challenging!

  2. Mon

    I’m glad you made it. I don’t think I would ever drive there. Chat tonight.

  3. We live in the “countryside”, or what passes for the countryside in Japan, so having a car is essential. The nearest train station is a 30 minute walk, there’s no bus going in that direction, and the only bus around here comes about once every hour.
    You can’t do anything if you don’t have a car here.

    I don’t find the traffic so bad, even in Tokyo it’s still manageable. Osaka, on the other hand is a nightmare, the people there are nuts and drive like maniacs!

  4. I have never driven in Tokyo, but it sometimes takes an hour to drive the 10 km from my apartment to downtown Sendai. It’s no fun.

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