We had more reservations about driving in Japan than we've had in any other country, with the possible exception of the first time we drove in London. We're here to tell you that our fears were warrantless. We had no idea what to expect, in terms of road signs, traffic density, or driver behaviors. We didn't know anyone who had driven there, and in our planning stages, when we mentioned that we were renting a car, we'd often get surprised looks or comments. Having done it, we'd wholeheartedly recommend it--we would have missed out on not just sights and areas, but an entire aspect of Japanese culture if we'd stuck to public transit. Don't get us wrong, the public transit was awesome, and we used it extensively, but driving in Japan was also pretty incredible.
We rented a car for three and a half days, and in that time, we drove 438 miles, and spent about 12 hours on the road. To see the same things by train would have taken at least 2 additional days, between circuitous train routes, matching the train schedules up with each other, and getting from train stations to hotels, sight seeing, etc.
Our very first stop was at a grocery store, for lunch fixings, and just because we love visiting grocery stores everywhere we go, and seeing what the local choices are. We noticed one difference as we parked: Japan has uniformly adopted back-in parking. There were no signs, so it's simply cultural. Can you pick out our car? (Hint, it's the smallest one!)
Tunnels! That was a surprise--we had no idea there were so many tunnels in Japan. This one is pretty typical for the mountainous area north of Mt. Fuji. It looks spacious when it's a tiny car in the lane. We saw two large dump trucks pass each other, and that was a nail-biter as they crept past, each driver craning his neck to check for clearance against the curve of the tunnel and against each other. We also saw an intersection in one of the tunnels—the traffic light is not visible here, but the straight, left tunnel had a red light most of the time; the main road curves right (image from Google Streetview).
One of the reasons for all the tunnels is that the mountains are really rugged and steep. You can see the switchbacks on the alternate route on our GPS screen above, as we took the straight-shot tunnel, and a different pair from Google maps below. Also courtesy of Google: Japan has 9,700 tunnels totaling 2,500 miles in length.
While driving the beautiful, winding roads in Fujiyoshida, we discovered how observant and polite other drivers are: as we caught up with another driver on a two-lane road, the driver slowed and pulled over to let us pass when we got about 5 car lengths behind him. We'd read about flashing the hazard lights briefly as a thank you, and remembered to do that--we saw other drivers flash theirs in thank you later. We were amazed by the willingness of that driver to pull over, but also by the fact that he was actually checking his rear-view mirror frequently. Pretty awesome!
As we drove through tunnel after tunnel, we started to notice that every tunnel over a certain length (perhaps 1000 feet?) had a wide section to act as a break-down lane (on the left in the picture below). Longer tunnels had multiples of these, evenly spaced. Emergency telephones and evacuation side-tunnels were in all of the longer tunnels as well. We suspect each tunnel listed how long it was at the entrance, in Japanese, but we're not sure--at the very least, the Nissan’s navigation system helpfully informed us how far the tunnel exit was each time we entered one.
We thought we'd driven through a lot of tunnels in the mountains, but when we drove from Yamanouchi to Kanazawa, along the north-west coast of Honshu, we spent easily half the drive in tunnels. Often, short sections where the tunnel exited one mountain and then immediately entered another would just be covered, but would have windows. We're not sure if this is to keep snow and rain from being a problem, or if it helps with the rapid dim-bright-dim transitions. Some sections of open road were encased in an artificial tunnel for much longer stretches, like this one below (Google Earth image). Oddly, the upper left stretch of road is open--you can see cars on it--but the next two sections are covered. It's not clear from Google's attempted 3D rendering, but the long section is also elevated.
This is a pretty common example of a tunnel briefly opening up before plunging back into another tunnel.
Another car surprise was waiting for us at our hotel in Matsumoto, where they have an automated car elevator.
You back your car in, and park it on a metal tray. You take everything you want with you (we're assuming the sign above asks you to check for sleeping children?), lock the doors, and walk out. A hotel attendant handled the keypad, but you get a number assigned to you, which is what you use to retrieve your car later.
The elevator lifts your car up, and when it reaches an empty bay, it slides the metal tray, with your car still on it, off onto a shelf. It looks like there are 10 shelves on either side, so it's a 20 car lot in a fairly compact volume (the top of the car elevator was at the same height as the 8th floor of the hotel, and is 3 cars wide). Here's a very short video of our car being returned to us when we checked out, which gives a better feel for how small compact the space is:
It wasn't the only car elevator we saw--just the only one we used. In several cities, we saw circular car elevators like the one below. We didn't get to see one in action, but we assume you drive on, stay in the car, and it drops you to the garage level(s), rotates to an open slot, and you drive off into that slot.
Wherever there was construction on the road there would be some person facsimile with an arm that moved (the yellow flashing lighted arm) back and forth as a caution. It was very effective. Sometimes it was a wooden cutout as pictured above, but a few times we saw a full blown mannequin with an articulated arm, dressed up in the same jumpsuit that the road workers wore. We thought this was so interesting because it was indicative of a sort of Japanese zeitgeist. Automated, engineered, efficient, and safe.
We like to nickname any GPS based on their voice (notably Daniel, the male British voice of our first Garmin and Maude, the sulky British teenage voice of our free Android GPS app). The English voice in our Nissan Moco, which was thoughtfully turned on by the kind gentleman who gesture demonstrated the functions of our car, had a calm and serene but upbeat voice, and Kiki was the name that came to mind, whether from the Miyazaki movie Kiki's Delivery Service or some other embodiment of that name. Kiki was very courteous, reminding us "Attention to the merge on the left" and "tunnel exit in 300 meters." We had some challenging moments with navigation, but they were usually due to GPS signal loss or conflicts between Google Maps or Maude, and Kiki. Invariably, Kiki was always more correct, and she managed to keep working when both our phones failed to get an accurate GPS lock in remote, mountainous areas. She knew more about what roads would be closed for the winter which neither Google nor Maude were aware of. The GPS devices in Japan work with telephone numbers, so when we had a phone number we could give it to Kiki and she'd take us directly to that business. Brilliant Kiki.
When we started to drive on multi-lane, divided highways, we were not surprised, but still pleased to find that drivers do not just hang out in the passing lane (which is on the right). They drive in the left lane, merge into the passing lane to pass, and immediately merge back to the left. We have only seen that level of reflexive consideration for everyone else on the road in Britain. We were not driving in areas of Japan that had the same volume of traffic as we saw outside of London, but it's astonishing how much more traffic a road can sustain at high speeds when everyone behaves as if there are other people who need to get somewhere too. We never saw a vehicle weaving or drifting in its lane, or any indication of smartphone use by other drives.
While we were walking around Kyoto , we were passed by a string of sports cars, mostly old, but some new, that were on a organized tour, La Festa Primavera 2016, which apparently started in Nagoya and took a circuitous route to Kyoto, so we were watching the finish.
There were some very pretty cars, and among the very few old cars we saw in Japan. Japan requires passenger cars to undergo a rigorous equipment inspection every 3 years (other types of vehicles are inspected every 1 or 2 years) to ensure they are safe, and have not been modified in any way. The inspection is somewhat expensive, and as cars age, the cost to make repairs to keep them compliant, alongside the the inspection fees mounts, and people tend to simply replace them with new cars. Cars that fail the inspection must be destroyed or exported, so there isn't a glut of old vehicles in Japan (the engines are often removed, and exported to other countries where they are used for repairs/replacements).
Riding in a Japanese taxi was almost as fascinating as driving. The taxi drivers wear white gloves and a crisp uniform, and the headrests were often covered in white doilies. They drove carefully, which was to be expected. The cabs themselves were interesting--each cab company has a different icon on the top of the car, and they all have a similar body style, with the side view mirrors on the hood, as you can see in the photo below.
In retrospect we're so glad we decided to rent a car and get some time on the road in Japan. Driving in a country shows you an entirely different side of the country and culture that you don't experience the same way from a bus or a train. Whether it's how the gas station works or what sort of roadside attractions there are, it's a different way to learn about a place. You see what a suburban supermarket looks like. That everyone backs their cars into parking spots. You go slower and closer to the ground (literally and figuratively) and there's a certain amount of romance to the road trip experience. You also have a lot more flexibility in being able to choose when and where to stop and smell the roses (or the incredible, hunger-inducing smell of coal-roasted sweet potatoes in the rural grocery stores). Next time you're in a different country think about renting a car and hitting the road for a couple of days!