To paraphrase Forest Gump, driving in Japan is like a box of chocolates. There’s a lot of awesomeness awaiting you as you first head out onto the road in our new little car and realize that there’s a whole world of beautiful and captivating sights and places to visit. But there is also the sudden realization that to balance all this awesomeness there is a lot of downsides to driving in Japan.
First off, once you’ve actually managed to jump through enough hoops to satisfy the Japanese DMV that you won’t immediately crash upon being let loose on the streets of Japan you’ll find that the vast majority of the roads winding their way through the cities and countrysides of Japan are so narrow that even in a small kei car you’ll find yourself wincing as each passing car seems to pass within mere millimetres of your side view mirror. It’s probably because of this that one of the main sticking points with the driver’s license test is to learn to hug the left side of the road as though your life depended on it, as it may very well save you from a nasty accident later on!
Next up is the fact that addresses as we’re used to in the West are very much non-existent here in Japan. Most of the time I’ve found that the simplest way is to navigate using a GPS system after putting in the telephone number of the house / shop / restaurant you want to visit. It’s also behind the use of map codes that most GPS machines accept. If you don’t have a GPS system or smartphone then you’re going to have to rely on a series of arcane rituals known as ‘asking for directions’ which usually end up getting you lost as you forget most of the steps about 5 minutes after being told exactly how to arrive at your destination.
Despite Japan’s reputation as a nation of rather polite people you’ll find that many of them take out their frustrations on the road by driving as though the hounds of hell were chasing them. Be it a truck, a car full of kids with their parents at the helm, or even a very old granny driving in her car from years past. They will all try their utmost to tailgate you until you give way or die trying.
A further irritation is that many people have a tendency to stop at the side of the road and throw their emergency lights on. This takes place everywhere, be it a blind corner or right at an intersection. This means that every car has to nimbly pass them by quickly driving into oncoming traffic. Pair this with the aforementioned narrow roads and it’s a recipe for happy times.
Despite this though Japan makes up for every slight irritation by providing some of the most spectacular scenery imaginable as you wind your way through mountain passes that provide amazing vistas of the valleys below you and the mountains that you can see stretching into the distance. Even the different seasons help to make trips something amazing to behold with the acres of forests changing color as their leaves change with the coming of autumn and spring.
After a few years of having to manage driving in Japan I would still never give it up even though there are many things that annoy me driving here. Maybe that’s why I find myself smiling like a loon as I sit behind the wheel of my tiny car as it tries its best to make it up the umpteenth 80° incline.