When I first accepted the position that would take me to the other side of the world, driving was the last thing on my mind. Kind of.
I knew I’d have to get rid of my weathered, old faithful of a car. Poor thing had endured enough and shipping it to Japan would not have been ideal. My concern was whether or not I’d be able to afford a car once i got there and on the entire shopping process i would be doing on my own without the help of my dad.
Would I even need a car?
From a conversation I had with my future coworker, it certainly seemed like i would definitely be needing to get a car. I was also assured that getting one would be relatively painless.
Looking back at those initial concerns seems so stupid now! I was so worried about that and other things related to the move that it wasn’t until I arrived that I truly could begin to understand what driving here would entail.
Not only do the Japanese drive on the OTHER SIDE o the road (i.e. left side) but the very dense population also means that there are a ton of vehicles and bikes sharing the road at all times of the day and night.
The particularly unique challenge a (American) foreigner faces is that on top of getting acquainted with the left side of the road, the street signs are also a bit different than what we’re used to.
I should disclose that I have driven in a foreign country…well, in Mexico. hahaha. I grew up on the border so driving in Mexico is a given anyway. The driving there can be pretty ruthless, but I know the language so I didn’t have to worry about reading the signs while trying to dodge cars, zipping in and out of traffic. All of my training in Mexico, however, did not prepare me for the slender, strangely-arranged roads of Japan.
I was relieved to know I’d be taking a driving class in English before getting behind the wheel. Unfortunately, this class was only a 30-45 minute classroom course only meant to go over basic rules and street signs. It was a crash course that ended just as quickly as it had begun. There would also be no driving with an instructor to critique my technique/ability to read signs properly.
I went to a car lot to pick out my new (used) car and didn’t get to test drive the car I ended up buying. My coworker, who was gracious enough to take me care car shopping, test drove it instead.
The first time I drove the car was also the first time in a little over a month since I’d last drove at all and the first time I drove in Japan. The owner of the car dealership was my reluctant first passenger.
After dropping him off back at the dealership, I was on my own. Save for the kids and adults on bikes that couldn’t care any less that my car is bigger than them or that there is a ton of traffic, driving here hasn’t been too bad.
It’s the street names, which are often in Kanji, that are difficult to figure out. Rules regarding parking are tricky and vary between cities, also.
The street signs are weird. The stop signs are triangular; signs that tell you where you can/cannot turn are the opposite of how they are elsewhere. No right-turns are allowed at traffic lights. And most small intersections and alley exits have mirrors to let you see if a car is coming. (see below)
I also have not yet driven anywhere further than the surrounding areas of my home and work. I’ve mostly been avoiding driving out further than 30 minutes away from here for the occasional IKEA trip because i’m not sure how the tolls here work.
Getting places is a whole other mess. My Google Maps app doesn’t work the same here as it does in the States. It won’t call out where I have to turn and so I have to keep staring at my phone for direction. Also, my reliance on what buildings look like (since i don’t know what the street names say or are) to tell me where I am is faulty because some buildings and points of reference look similar to one another. The first week driving I was lost for nearly two hours trying to get home from work. I didn’t freak out and figured i could always call one of my coworkers for help but eventually I figured it out and also made it a priority to to pin the gps coordinates of my apartment building!
There is a lot to be worried about when driving in Japan. Drunk driving laws are taken seriously in many countries but in Japan they take it to a stricter level with a BAC of 0.3% in comparison to the U.S.’s 0.8%.
Drinks in Japan are strooongggg, so i’m really not surprised if one drink is enough for most people. From what I hear, being anywhere near the 0.3% is a serious crime here (punishable with up to 5 years in prison and a fine of 1M yen). Riding around in a vehicle knowing that the driver is intoxicated is also punishable by law (told you they take it to another level!). Public transportation is very reliable here so most do not even bother to drive at all.
I don’t even want to imagine what it would be like to deal with police in a foreign country and IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE.
There also seems to be some rule regarding vehicle collisions that places the responsibility of paying for the damages on both parties. I’m a little unclear on this rule but I hope to never have to deal with it. *knocks on wood*