Just as Japanese society is more intricate, if less varied, than U.S. society, the topography of settled Japan is more intricate than the U.S. Where we would say “this area is too broken up by mountains and inlets so we’ll build towns elsewhere” the Japanese don’t have that option. The result is an amazing number of bridges and tunnels. I have driven through more tunnels in three weeks and 4000 km. here than in my previous 24 years of driving cars. If you’re a fan of civil engineering you’ll giggle with childlike wonder every 20 miles or so as you come across a new suspension bridge, elevated road, or new tunnel.
Being illiterate is a serious impediment to navigation when you know where you want to go and robs you of the opportunity to decide whether or not a previously unknown roadside attraction is worth the stop. Even with limited Japanese, however, asking directions is very effective. One hundred percent of the time the person whom I stopped either knew where the place was or was able to figure it out after consulting a map. Not once was I given bad directions. Twenty five percent of the time the person asked would take a detour and lead me to the destination. Twenty five percent of the time the person asked would produce a map or atlas, mark it up and give it to me (scored a complete 100-page detailed street atlas for the island of Hokkaido in this manner–sadly all in Kanji except for a few route numbers but subsequently very useful).
Gas costs 2X as much as in the U.S. but the rental car is nearly 2X as efficient as my minivan so the cost of a fill-up is about the same. The price in Japan includes two attendants who pump the gas, clean the windows, walk into the street to stop traffic as you’re leaving, and bow from the waist as you drive away.
Japan essentially has no highways–imagine California with only I-5 and a few spurs. This is one of the world’s most densely populated countries with approximately 335 people per square kilometer, about the same as Israel, and more than India’s 320 per square km. For an American, coming from a country with 31 people per square kilometer, it is hard to understand how these folks get by with a network of 2-lane roads and a couple of arterial 4-lane expressways. Even when a local highway goes through a town that is mile after mile of fast food, supermarkets, Vegas-sized pachinko parlors, etc. it won’t get widened beyond 1 lane in each direction. This plus the heavy traffic results in ridiculously low average speeds, much lower than the 40, 50, and 60 kilometer per hour limits that prevail on most roads.
Such roads as the Japanese have are the apotheosis of that type of road. It might be a shoulderless 2-lane road but it is the best damn shoulderless 2-lane road in the world. Despite winter freezes you will never drive over a pothole. Overhanging poles with arrows point to the edge of the travel lane so that the snowplows can be exact. Solar panels in those poles charge up batteries all day so that they can flash with LEDs at night, reminding drivers of where the curves lead so that you don’t have to watch the white lines in your headlights as carefully. Every curve is signalled with strange white patterns painted on the pavement as you approach the curve. If a curve is sharp there will be a sign telling you exactly how sharp, e.g., “R=100m”. If a brief section goes uphill you will be told exactly how steep, e.g., “grade=3.6%”.
Given the excellence of the roads, the heavy traffic, and the low speeds one can’t help wondering how the Japanese became the world’s best engineers and builders of high-performance cars. A 1935 Hudson Terraplane would be more than adequate for getting around Japan. Even in Hokkaido there would be no way to stretch the legs of a Mazda RX-8 or Honda/Acura NSX.
Drivers here are highly skilled (number of accidents or fender-benders observed: 0) but not especially observant of the official rules. The speed limit on the mostly empty toll expressways is 80 kph but plenty of folks go 120 or faster. People try not to be the third car through a red light. Parking is simple. You stop the car wherever you feel like, turn on the hazard lights, and walk away.
And the last thing that I learned about driving in Japan… When the policeman waves you over to the side of the road and says “Speedo” he is not interested in seeing you change into your latest European-style swimwear.