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Saturday, Feb. 21, 2009


Driving in Japan is not for the gullible

It was Sunday. We were driving. But this was no Sunday drive.

That's because in Japan, unless you're on the highway, you're probably driving on a road that used to be a footpath and even now, after being paved and widened for cars, still looks more like a bicycle path. This is why Japanese cars are so small. And the people too. After all, they have to fit into those cars.

Then there are the Japanese drivers themselves — people who go straight from playing with toy vehicles as kids to the real ones as adults. For the Japanese, there is no in between stage with go-carts, mini bikes, or trail bikes before driving the real thing. No broken bones, hospital visits or head-on collisions for practice. They go straight to "Wee! It's a motor vehicle!" and drive with careless abandon.

But the Japanese are very skilled at driving at high speeds along gullies, ditches, canals and rivers.

I hardly ever meet a first-time tourist to Japan who doesn't bulk at the gaping gullies and dastardly ditches alongside the roads here. "They're so dangerous!" they say. Well, I can assure you, that as long as you don't drive into the gullies, they're not dangerous at all. If you're worried about them, then by gully, don't drive.

Or, as a last-ditch effort, have a friend do your errands for you. Let him drive into the ditch.

The function of these man-made gullies and ditches is to catch and divert gushing rainwater, especially during the rainy season. Without these, every time it poured down rain, it would be like trying to drive through Niagara Falls.

So the gullies are there for a good reason. They are only dangerous to the gullible.

Many of the roads here are only wide enough for one car at a time, which means that every time a car comes from the opposite direction, you both have to slow down to a crawl and inch past one another, possibly opening your window to fold in the outside mirror to gain an extra centimeter.

That's why in Japan you don't really drive, you dart. It's all about accelerating and braking, two opposite functions that too often happen almost simultaneously. You really can't just relax with some jazz music on the CD player. Instead, put on some head-banging music and push the pedal to the heavy metal.

Soon, you'll develop a rhythm with your darting, a back-and-forth movement as you move to the very outside of the lane as the oncoming car approaches and passes, and then swing back into your lane and continue driving. You'll do this move every few hundred meters until soon you'll feel your body start rocking back and forth in anticipation. Turn up the heavy metal music. Who says you can't dance?!

After you've mastered gullies, ditches and narrow roads, you're ready to try the combination, tested by the one-lane roads along canals. Roads through Japanese neighborhoods tend to hug a system of canals built to carry away graywater from houses. Now canals are something to worry about, because if you fall in, you won't come out.

Although canals tend to be on just one side of the road at a time, the narrow roads will test your knowledge of your exact tire width, leaving only millimeters to spare between you and the eerie canal. If you are just learning to drive in Japan, I don't recommend driving these streets in one of those lightweight trucks with no hoods. With nothing but the windshield between you and the edge of the canal, you'll feel like you're riding in the front seat of a roller-coaster, which may prompt you to put your hands up over your head and scream.

Only after you've mastered the canals should you attempt to drive along Japan's many riverbanks. With no guard rails, caution signs or streetlights, it's amazing more people don't drive over the edge and into the river. Then again, for all we know, the river bottoms could be covered with carloads of people who were on their way to the convenience store.

I urge special caution along these riverbanks so you don't inadvertently perform a Thelma and Louise over the edge.

Other than these potentially fatal obstacles encountered in everyday driving in Japan, it's really not that dangerous. It's not exactly a Sunday drive, but hey, there's nothing for the first-time tourist to be too worried about.

As a matter of fact, as someone who hardly ever drives, I don't know what the problem is.

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