Seeing the Sights of Japan From the Slow Lane

Irwin is a copy editor on the Times Metro desk.

"A piece of cake," I reassured Beth as I wheeled the car onto the expressway bound for this seaside shrine town. "After all, the people here have been driving for years."

"Yes, but they all speak Japanese and can read the signs," my wife reminded me.

I eased over confidently from the left into the expressway lanes for Yokohama. "All we have to do is watch for the Kamakura turn. If we miss that, the expressway ends in the Yokohama dock area."

Twenty minutes later, in the middle of the Yokohama dock area I made a U-turn, cautiously remembering to "drive to the left, look to the right," and retraced our way to the expressway entrance. To my shouted question of "Kamakura, wah doh koh des kah?" the toll booth attendant pointed up the expressway and said "Hidari, " gesturing left. We were on our way again, to more wrong turns, to be sure, but also to some memorable adventures.

Not for Everybody

Driving in Japan clearly is not for all tourists. Indeed, in a Travel Section article Jan. 19 ("Japan--A Land of Raw Fish, Cleanliness, Safety") Dr. Karl Neumann wrote: "Unless you are very daring, leave the driving to others." That advice also comes from the Japanese National Tourist Organization.

Employees there advised us of the problems we would face: heavy and slow traffic even on the national highways; high toll fees on the expressway; expensive gasoline; parking problems, and most especially, signs in Japanese.

"Even the Japanese sometimes have trouble finding their way around," the smiling attendant at JNTO's office in Los Angeles warned us.

The three-week, 1,900-mile trip we had outlined called for several one-night stops, and we felt that ruled out the train. We also wanted to immerse ourselves as much as possible in the culture of the country and decided that riding the bus with other tourists, as convenient as that might be, was not the way to do it.

My inherent independence also resisted the regimentation that involves, even if it meant more effort on our part. (I resented a tour escort ordering "7 a.m. at the bus, bags on the curb." It was totally different for Beth to agree with: "7 a.m. makeup on, ready to go out the door.")

Besides allowing you to set your own timetable, there are other advantages to travel by car. If you're a photographer you can stop for those scenes too good to pass up. Or you can eat on your own schedule and in restaurants too small to handle a busload. You can be a little sloppy in your packing, until, of course, the dreadful day of reckoning when it is time to pack for the flight home.

Price to Pay

There is a price to pay--you're your own tour guide and if something goes wrong there's no one to complain to. And it takes a lot of planning.

So for us a car seemed to be the way to go. We talked with friends who had traveled to Japan ("You're not going to drive!") to get their impressions.

We picked up brochures from travel agents on bus trips to see what the "must" stops were. JNTO provided us with illustrated folders on the various prefectures we expected to visit and sheets on towns with local maps.

From a bookstore in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles we bought detailed highway maps with the names in both Roman and Japanese characters (also available in Tokyo's Jena bookstore and Imperial Hotel), as well as a Japanese phrase book with accompanying cassette tape. We arranged for an international driver's license, passport and visa. Then we got to work.

Poring Over Folders

We pored over our folders and maps, measured distances, jotted lists of sights to be seen. We listened to our tape, gave up on becoming anywhere near fluent, and concentrated on half a dozen survival questions and answers, such as "To-uh-rye, wah doh koh des kah " (Where's the john?))

Although we normally like to travel without the constraint of reservations, we figured we would have enough trouble finding our way around without having to look up two or three places before finding a vacancy. So we found a sympathetic travel agent willing to make the reservations in return for a 10% fee (the rates for business hotels and minshuku are so low that they do not pay a commission).

In Under Budget

We hoped to spend no more than $50 a night for accommodations. The agent incredibly was able to fill the bill by juggling the inexpensive minshuku (about $44 with two meals) with the expensive ryokan ($100) and filling in the rest with business hotels ($43) and a very acceptable range of hotels ($49) belonging to the Pass Hotel Assn. We were disappointed only once.

Our first four days were spent on foot in Tokyo, where we became accustomed to the traffic moving on the left. Then we had the car delivered to our hotel and we were off.

Happily, the expressways have signs in both Japanese and English. Depending on the expressway, almost all of them toll roads, you may be handed a ticket to be turned in when you exit the expressway or hand over change on a booth-to-booth basis. The fee for your car will be flashed on a screen at the toll booth. The attendant also will hand you a receipt with the amount on it.

Once off the expressways, no more English signs. Each night we would check our map and Beth would write out on a 3x5 card in large characters the Japanese symbols for important points on our next day's trip--an expressway exit, a junction, the destination.

Only two or three characters per point were required and of these there was always one character that stood out so we could watch just for that. "It looks like a telephone," Beth would say, or "It's like a window."

But it's more than likely you'll be traveling on a numbered highway, either national or prefectural, and that makes the route easier to follow.

Fortunately for motorists in Japan, the people are very helpful. If more is required than simply pointing the direction to go, they will draw a small map, and sometimes go even farther than that. On foot in Tokyo we asked a woman for directions to a specific address and she led us a block to the right place, and even she had to ask directions. A driver in Nagoya drove about five miles out of his way to lead us to an expressway that was still under construction and didn't match our map.

Slow and Easy

Speed limits can seem aggravatingly slow to California drivers. Although the expressways permits a speed of 100 kilometers per hour (about 60 m.p.h.), national highways have a limit of 40, and the people obey it.

Most of the trains carry passengers instead of freight; this makes for many large trucks on the narrow two-lane roads and that can be intimidating. This is especially true in small towns where no parking is provided. A motorist will simply pull to the edge of the lane and park, requiring traffic to wait for an opening to get around.

Gasoline stations are frequent and a simple gesture gets across the idea of "fill it up." You will be handed a receipt with the amount written on it. Gasoline cost us about $3 for an imperial gallon, but our car, a Nissan Skyliner with automatic transmission, got about 40 miles to the gallon at those slow speeds.

We were intrigued by the vending machines each station had. They held both cold and hot beverages and the coffee came in a can just like the soft drinks. A half-milk, half-coffee blend was available and delicious.

Aside from the minshuku or ryokan, which included dinner and breakfast, we seldom ate in the hotels except perhaps for breakfast.

Easy to Order

Not reading Japanese, we would have been at a loss to know what to order except for one helpful custom: The restaurants at their entrances have either plastic models of what they offer, sometimes identified by number and with price shown, or pictures in a menu (kondate).

Expressways have service areas perhaps every 50 miles, with coffee shops. Indicate to the cashier what you want, pay and find a table. A waiter will pick up the tickets you have been given and bring you what was indicated. The chopsticks you have to learn to use on your own.

Lest this all sound too easy, when looking for one road we asked directions at a service station. Thinking we missed the turn, we asked another man. Still confused, we asked a third. When we passed the same service station again going the other way, we knew we were in trouble. But when we found the road, it took us through some rugged scenery and tiny fishing villages for an adventure we could have had only by car.

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