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Driving for a Song on a Wing and a Prayer in Japan

Our reflections in the silver ball at Hyoshi Station.

This is a page about driving the byways of rural Japan in a small commercial van, sleeping out in secluded spots en route, and the rigors of negotiating the traffic systems on cities and the countryside.

We have managed to arrange a rental Kei van - a 660cc box van designed for confined Japanese conditions - supposedly a Daihatsu Hijet to pick up tomorrow, which is only about half the cost of a town ace or other small van we could use as a spontaneous camper. We plan to drive this into the mountains and north to Hokkaido.

But there is an acquaintance here at Yoshida House who knows how to contact a small auto shop that hires out vehicles destined for export because their insurance and warranty is a month short of expiry who may be able to get us a deal for only a fraction of the rental cost. This is part of the advantage of finding the funkiest place to stay in Tokyo, but we have to wait until tomorrow morning to see if this is a realizable option because the 70 year old proprietor is away today!

Christine with Kashiwa San at Hiyoshi

Well the van is great. We had to rendezvous at a silver ball at Hyoshi station Kawasaki where an elderly but sprightly Japanese man appeared and took us to his little auto shop where we agreed to make a down payment for 87,000 yen and take the vehicle purely on a gentleman's agreement, shaking hands, with no rental contract on the basis that we would confirm we had purchased the vehicle, if we were stopped.

Kashiwa spoke no English and we spoke no Japanese, so all this was conveyed indirectly through our Italian friend by cell phone. Kashiwa politely explained that he had our Italian friend's bank account as a guarantee if we disappeared.

The exceedingly compact motor under the driver's seat.

Although Japan is developed few international travelers make it outside the standard tourist destinations. Traveling by vehicle takes you from the cliche of tourism in Japan's great cultural cities such as Kyoto where there are many tourists to genuine frontier intrepid travel where you will go places where there are few or no foreign tourists, and people are intrigued and curious to meet a gaijin or foreigner.

World's longest suspension bridge on the toll motor-way
linking Awaji Island and Shikoku with Honshu

We traveled very cheaply through rural Japan by managing to make an arrangement with a small Japanese auto firm to informally lease a Kei van - a Mitsubishi "Town Box" for Y2,500 a day on a 35 day lease, only about 40% of the usual rental cost. As already noted, this was a special gentleman's agreement negotiated by a friend we met in Tokyo, but gives an indication of possibilities if you can speak Japanese.

Bridged highway in the Gorges dividing Shikoku.

Fuel added about 1500 on average for about 120 kms of travel a day. Many types of kei van, although very small and having only a 660cc motor, have enough room for two people to lie out comfortably. This proved a god-send because we could travel anywhere, without having to worry about how to find lodging at the soaring Japanese accommodation costs and could spend the night in often idyllic natural settings by the sea or a lake or river, or in the forest. We could also explore remote places inaccessible by public transport and choose where we wanted to go freely as we went.

Highway road sign showing national and local roads in Japanese and English.

Japanese roads are well sign-posted, with all, but the very minor ones, written also in English, but the convoluted numbering system, with national highway shields and local road hexagons as well as numbered toll roads, often multiple numbers for the same road, multiple adjacent roads flagging the same number, arbitrary changes, and the totally inconsistent way a road which starts out sign-posted for one destination will subsequently only give a more minor local one that doesn't appear on the map, and the sheer number of toll ways, expressways, major and minor roads, tortuous local lanes and alleyways connecting in tortuous and unexpected ways makes navigating through the countryside and exercise in extreme navigation.

A park in the forest beside the cemetery above Tono.

Generally if we kept a lookout towards the end of each day we could find a good place to park and sleep the night, sometimes on a track off the road in a forest, sometimes off on a small side road with a parking bay, sometimes in a park or forest on the outskirts of town. Very few people in Japan are gypsy van campers, just the occasional recreational fishermean , so there is almost no defensiveness against someone pulling in i a quiet spot for the night. We were never hassled anywhere and were approached by police only twice, once when staying the night in a park above Kakunodate for the matsuri, when he looked at our papers and left and once in Kotohira when we parked up a side road and a couple in a nearby house reported we were illegal immigrants and three cars with flashing lights arrived at sunset with police and immigration officials who then checked our passport by phoning Narita airport and asked us politely to park a little further to one side of where we were t make it easier for people to turn around.

Steep narrow secondary roads with endless hairpins
and mirrors cover mountainous Japan.

Only a few cities like Kyoto are designed on an open grid pattern. Other places many side turnings may be cul-de-sacs, and a road which looks like its leading one place may snake off and go down a valley with no side roads to compensate even in large cities.

Complex spaghetti toll motor-way interchanges.

Each of these kinds roads has unique and extreme forms of potential jeopardy, which you need to become accustomed to, to get through Japan unscathed.

Highway meets toll motorway in Spaghetti.

Firstly the toll roads cost a small fortune, and you can inadvertently find you have entered one unless you watch the signs very carefully and avoid anything green that doesn't have a shield or hexagon number.

Back roads are narrow winding and often very beautiful.

Frequently major highways interlace under over and around the toll motor-ways, so you have to be careful not to accidentally find you are on a toll road.

Small cameras tracking a red light.

Major highways are bristling with speed, surveillance and red-light cameras of many different shapes and sizes and located in all manner of different deceptive positions. All roads have an excessive number of traffic lights, sometimes with very complex lane signaling. I feared the whole trip that we had incurred hefty instant camera fines, although this proved unfounded at the time we returned the van. All roads have very few easy places to pull in and there are always other cars and big trucks on your tail so you can't easily stop when you are uncertain. Furthermore many roads are very narrow and smaller ones often don't have room for two vehicles to pass.

Mitsubishi Kei Town Box van with large box drain.
Most box drains are narrower but deep, partially obscured and uncovered.

This is made worse by the diabolical deep uncovered box drains running partly obscured along the edge of most roads, posing a death trap for any inattentive driver pulling over, in paradoxical contrast to the safety obsessed Japanese drive to cover all escarpments with concrete spray and wire netting to avoid any risk of falling rocks, so that the idyllic forested landscape begins to look more like a giant toy train set. This is partly why kei vehicles exist, as well as to cater for the fact that most roads, except the toll motor-ways, have a speed limit of 40 or 50 kph.

Road Spiral of tunnels and bridges Northern Honshu.

In fact virtually all vehicles travel at 10 to 20 kph over the limit. Now take into account that, except in remote country areas, most highways are continuous no-passing zones and you can see it can be hard not to run a speed, or red light camera, unless you brake so heavily the vehicles behind are liable to pile into you in a nose to tail. Sometimes the orange phase is so short its almost impossible not to break the law and you have to scan the structures ahead to see if its a camera crossing. Locals know these quirks, but traveling across country requires uncanny foresight.

Multiple convex mirrors, a hairpin
and a sheer drop of hundred of metres.

Smaller roads can be both very narrow vary suddenly in size from two lane highway to a lane which can barely pass a small vehicle. Because Japan is exceedingly hilly and mountainous, major roads are liable to either tunnel and viaduct literally through the landscape and minor roads can become wound in amazing numbers of very tight hairpin bends with precipitous drops, ornamented with convex mirrors at every turn, so you have a reasonable chance of seeing the large truck coming towards you from round the corner if you don't go cross-eyed looking in two places at once on a blind corner.

Mountian roads have sheer edges
often dropping away for hundreds of metres.

More expensive rentals and many Japanese cars have digital navigation systems. We had no navigation and it may not work in isolated areas anyway. We found carrying a compass for direction and using as many map sources as possible essential to keep reasonably on course on minor roads. If you are traveling with a wireless capable laptop you can download series of Google Map or Google Earth blow ups of regions from the environs of many large and small towns by picking up a free wireless connection. This makes it possible to navigate to exact spots in large city regions like Tokyo-Yokohama, although these Japan Google maps are all in Japanese, so we needed an English map as well to make full sense of where we were.

Road with hairpins cut into the hillside in the Alps.

There is no guarantee that a national highway will not be closed, either for the season or for major repairs, so in a couple of cases we were forced to make major diversions having to retrace miles twice over.

Tunnels cutting through the hilly landscape
are universal in all but minor roads.

Sometimes, when we were following a highway, it would suddenly turn into a tiny local road between farming communities and the local hexagon numbers would change nearly every intersection and then cease altogether, so that we had to navigate by compass and back out when the initial direction proved to be entirely deceptive and we found we were winding down an endless valley South West when the initial direction was North East.

The roughest road we traversed was the hexagon 20 in the Minami Alps.

On these smaller roads it is imperative to write down the Kanji for some local destinations before you leave the main highways, because you won't find signs in both Japanese and English on these roads and there are heaps of intersections fanning out all over.

A couple of weeks into our journey, we realized that we had no hope of returning to Kashiwa with the van so at Kakunodate, we managed to get a message in English translated to Japanese and faxed him a message to say we would be two weeks late. At the end of the journey, Kashiwa was so pleased to see us that he shouted us a noodle lunch in the little restaurant opposite his firm.

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