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Driving in Japan (2010) [Part I] September 21, 2010

Posted by Dru in Chugoku, Japan, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Driving in Japan (2010) [Part I]” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-tq

For those of you who have been reading this blog for a while now, you know that I have had many trips in and around Japan, along with many road trips.  I have been taking road trips almost every year now on either a motorcycle or in a car.  In 2007, I took a trip to Hokkaido by motorcycle.  It was my first road trip, and a terrible one at that.  I was alone, cold and wet.  For my second trip, I rented a car for just a day and drove up to Nikko.  The route brought back a few memories of my trip to Sapporo, but with all the comforts of a car.  It was a pretty easy trip, but it taught me the pain of driving in the city, and trying to return to the city on a Sunday night.  One word can sum up that experience, traffic.  Last year, I had my epic adventure, and the last one on my bike.  I took a trip by ferry and rode my bike around Shikoku for two weeks.  It was a wonderful holiday that restored my faith in driving and riding in Japan.  It helped a lot that I went with a friend from Osaka.  Recently, June 2010, I embarked on my big road adventure of the year.  I headed to the San’in region, along with Hiroshima.  What follows is a recounting of what happened as we conquered the roads that lay ahead of us.

As many of you know by now, I have written about my adventures in San’in already.  I have talked about Tottori and Shimane.  My journey started with a flight from Tokyo to Tottori.  I left in the early morning and had time to spend an entire day in Tottori city.  I visited the Tottori Sand Dunes and that was pretty much it.  The actual adventure didn’t start until the next day.  We got up early again as we had a long day of driving ahead of us.  Thankfully, we had two drivers, one being myself, and the other being my friend from Osaka.  We rented a Mazda Axela, which is a Mazda 3 in North America.  It was a little big for what we needed, but we were expecting a total of 4 people in the car, but one person bailed as she booked the wrong tickets for the trip.  The car itself was big for what we needed.  We could have gotten a compact car instead of this one, but the added size made the trip very comfortable.  When we got the car we spent a few minutes fiddling with the GPS navigation system before we took off.  The GPS was easy for us to understand, but it would take at least 2 more days before it was easy to use.  If you ever rent a car in Japan, be sure to learn a little Japanese, or have a good understanding on how to guess the menu system.  It was difficult to use, but we all had various degrees of Japanese knowledge which helped us a lot.

Our first leg of day 1 was a trip along the coast.  We started with a short drive on the mainland to avoid the traffic and made good time.  We reached our junction, ignoring our GPS all the time.  We had our own route planned and the GPS was guiding us to the “best” route but not the most scenic.  Thankfully, we had enough knowledge of the road to navigate smoothly and soon enough we were pros at navigating.  When we hit the coast, we took our sweet time and stopped at a couple beaches. We got our feet wet and took many pictures.  It was a perfect start to the day.  Driving up and down the coast on the Sea of  Japan is amazing. I have heard from many motorcycle riders that the coast is amazing, and I would have to agree.  I would love to just rent a car, or even bring a bicycle to the area and just enjoy the trip.  I was told by a friend that taking the train is also spectacular, but I tend to get a little antsy on trains after a few hours.  At least with a train, I could drink alcohol and not worry about getting into too much trouble.

My friend from Osaka did the first leg of driving.  He handled the coast very well, which was pretty easy.  There weren’t too many turns and the signs were easy for us to read.  We had one tough section through a small town called Hawai.  The pronunciation is the same as Hawaii, and the town played with that name a lot.  Everywhere you went, you saw Hawaii signs and tourist attractions that were a little tongue in cheek with references to the beautiful island resort.  After the town, we switched drivers as my friend had bad experiences driving on small country side roads.  It was my first time to drive in a few months and over a year since I had last driven on the left side of the road.  It was a little shaky at first, but I got my road legs back very quickly.  Aside from getting used to the car, which happens with almost any new car I drive, things were easy.  We were quickly headed down the road that we chose, but we soon reached what looked like nothing more than an access road.  Being in the countryside of Tottori, some of the main highways between cities are more akin to an access road rather than a true road.  Unlike North American streets where designated highways must meet a certain criteria, in Japan, it just indicates the road.  Our first “moment” came as this access road was about 1.5 lanes wide and we came across a truck.  It was a big truck and a challenge.  I was facing the challenge of passing this oncoming truck with only a few centimetres on both sides of the car.  The truck driver was kind enough to stop on the side and let me do all the work, but considering his side had a wall, and mine a drop into a field, it wasn’t that bad.  Creeping slowly, I passed my first hurdle.  Little did I know, this would only be the beginning of our journey of the day.

The route we took to Daisen, our first real destination, was simple enough and only a few points of caution.  My map had a few warnings that the road we were about to embark upon was closed during the winter months due to the weather.  This didn’t worry me too much.  We had a nice car, supplies to keep us fed and hydrated, and lots of time.  By the time we reached the road, things changed very quickly.  The first challenge of a small countryside road was past, but we had another road that was also only 1.5 lanes wide.  Being the countryside, and having seen the last stretch of road, I thought that this would be a short stretch of narrow roads.  I was wrong.  We also had to contend with a few construction signs with which we had no idea what they meant.  After our trip, we reviewed photos of the signs, and the sign said that cars were not allowed in, but when we went, it had a sticker on top saying it was “cancelled”.  Essentially, we got lucky.  We ended up doing most of the trip up and around Daisen on the narrow style road.  I have had experience on these types of roads before in Canada.  In Victoria, there are a few nice places like this.  The road is narrow and the vegetation is abundant.  On this road, it was the same.  The overgrowth from the bushes and trees made it a challenge to drive.  Being a kinder driver, I took a little more time to get around, along with the fact that I was worried about oncoming traffic, whatever it may be.  We spent roughly an hour or so going up, down, and around the north side of the mountain in what was one of my toughest drives ever.  The road was immaculate, and the beauty of the forest was unrivalled.  If I had the chance to skip that area, I would probably say no.  It’s something that has to be seen and experienced.  Before long, we were at Daisen-ji and taking a long deserved break from the car.

Note:  This is part one of a two part series.  Please continue reading in Part II.
For further reading about the San’in region, please follow the links below:

Driving Information:

Chugoku Expressway (Wikipedia – English): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chugoku_Expressway

Chugoku Expressway (Wikipedia – Japanese): http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/中国自動車道

Izumo Orochi Loop (Wikipedia – Japanese): http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/奥出雲おろちループ

Drive Plaza (Information on Expressways in Japan including travel times – JAPANESE): http://www.driveplaza.com/

About Touring in Japan (English): http://www.e-wadachi.com/howto/map_e.html

How to Cycle Around Japan (This is for cycling, but it’s very useful for driving as well): http://www.e-wadachi.com/howto_e.html

Touring Mapple (Official – Japanese): http://touring.mapple.net/

Rental Car How To (Japan Guide) [Note: There are links to major car rental companies towards the bottom of the page]:http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2024.html



Shinkansen – North Routes March 2, 2010

Posted by Dru in Hokkaido, Japan, Kanto, Tohoku.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Shinkansen – North Routes” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-kJ

Heading north, rather than south, provides a very different experience using the Shinkansen.  Unlike the Tokaido/Sanyo/Kyushu Shinkansen, the lines heading north share a main trunk and branch off at various points.  There are three main lines, and two “mini-shinkansen” that start from Tokyo Station.  The longest line is the Tohoku line.  This line started at the same time as the Joetsu line, but the Tohoku line will become more important in the near future.  The Tohoku line currently runs from Tokyo all the way to Hachinohe.  By the end of 2010, this service will be extended to Aomori, which is the larger than Hachinohe.  Ultimately, the line will be extended further from Aomori to Hakodate, and then Sapporo.  Unfortunately, Hakodate won’t be open until 2015, projected, and Sapporo may not open until 2020.  It will be a long time, but when finished, it will cut the time from roughly 12 hours, to just under 4 hours for the most direct services.  This will severely affect air travel as it currently takes 3 hours for most people to reach Sapporo from Tokyo.

The Tohoku line is also connected to the Yamagata and Akita Shinkansen lines.  These services are slightly different compared to regular Shinkansen.  These lines use special trains that are narrower, and run at grade with various level crossings.  They are usually coupled with regular Tohoku trains, but branch out at their respective start points.  For this reason, it’s very important to know which train you are boarding.  It’s very easy to be on the wrong train from Tokyo Station, but the signs are usually clearly marked, and train staffs usually check tickets while the train is between stations.

The Joetsu Shinkansen is far simpler as there is only one line with no connections.  The complex part is that it shares the tracks with the Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo to Omiya.  This is due to costs.  It’s very easy to see trains along the Tokyo portion of the line due to the volume of trains passing.  Recently, it has also become popular for hotels to create “train” suites.  These are rooms with views of the train tracks.  This is popular for “te-chans”, slang for train spotters in Japan.  You could also make it derogatory by saying “densha-otaku”, but that’s a different story.  It has also proved popular for young families with boys who love trains.  What better way to “take a trip” and not spend too much money.  As always, kids love boxes more than the toys that are inside them.  The Joetsu Shinkansen itself was built to service Niigata, but it also serves a small ski resort called Gala-Yuzawa.

A relatively less used, yet equally important Shinkansen line is the Nagano line.  This was built in time for the Nagano Olympics.  Currently, it shares over half of its line with both the Tohoku and Joetsu Shinkansen lines.  There are relatively few trains that travel this section due to the limited service range.  It basically follows the Joetsu route from Tokyo to Takasaki, where it branches off on its own to Nagano.  There is a planned extension from Nagano to Kanazawa by 2015.  By this time, the line should be renamed to the Hokuriku Shinkansen, further extensions to Tsuruga Station has been planned and will be built.  The line will ultimately link up with Osaka someday in the future.  The main purpose of this line is to connect the major cities on the Sea of Japan side of Japan to the main cities of Japan.  Whether it will prove popular or profitable will remain to be seen.

All three main lines utilize the same trains, while the Yamagata and Akita Shinkansen use their own specialized trains, for reasons mentioned above.  The trains have a similar styling to the southern route trains.  They used to use similar naming methods as their southern route cousins, but now they use the prefix E before their designation.  Due to this naming convention, you can still ride the 200 series train, which is very similar to the 0 and 100 mentioned in my previous post.  The first “modern” train you can travel on is the E1, a wedge nosed, bi-level, Shinkansen.  In 1997, the E2, E3, and E4 were introduced.  The E2 is similar to a duck billed train, but it isn’t as strongly pronounced.  It’s also one of only two trains that have been exported, the other being the 700 series.  The E2 was exported to China for use on their high speed railway.  The E4 is a bi-level train, like the E1, but with a duck bill nose.  The E3 looks like most European high speed trains, but used only for the Yamagata and Akita lines.  By 2011, there will be a new rain, the E5 entering service.  This is expected to take the system into Sapporo when that line opens.  It will be the fastest train in the entire Shinkansen fleet.

The final impression of this fleet is that it’s great!  Coming from Canada where high speed rail is non-existent, this would go a long way to connecting any country.  Countries such as China have begun their own high speed networks.  President Obama has also pledged to start thinking, and possibly building it soon.  If done right, it can earn money and save a lot of fuel.  Connecting Vancouver to San Diego is a viable option, so is Toronto to Miami.  While we must never forget how we get the electricity to power trains, it’s still probably cleaner overall compared to planes.  Can they replace planes completely?  Conventionally, they cannot replace planes at the moment.  We’ll have to wait for maglev trains before that could happen, but even then we are limited to specific ranges.  If you do travel to Japan, do try to use the Shinkansen.  It’s a fun, if expensive, way to travel.  Be sure to buy a JR Pass if you are only visiting.  It’s worth the cost if you head from Tokyo to Kyoto, even for just a day.

This is the second part of two in the Shinkansen series.  To read more, continue to the Shinkansen – South Routes.


Wikipedia:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinkansen
Japan Guide (Great page for a snapshot of major services): http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2018.html
Japan Railways (Lots of information on what to do in Japan):  http://www.japanrail.com/
Japan Railways (Shinkansen Page):  http://www.japanrail.com/index.php?page=JR-Shinkansen-bullet-train
JR East:  http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/routemaps/shinkansen.html


Twitter/Twitpic January 24, 2010

Posted by Dru in Uncategorized.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Twitter/Twitpic” and other posts.  http://wp.me/s2liAm-twitter

This is a quick post to let you know that I have started a Twitter account.  Sometimes I find interesting things in and around Tokyo, let alone Japan.  I will be posting them up there.  My Twitter account will probably be very different from this blog.  This blog has focused a lot more on my travels in Japan, whereas the Twitter account will probably focus more on things I see.

I have already put up one quick post regarding McDonald’s.  They have the new “Texas Burger”.  It’s the start of their “State” burgers.  Every 15 days, or so, they will release a new burger.  February will see the New York and California burger, followed by the Hawaii burger in March.  I hope you can enjoy my Twitter page as well as this page.

My Twitter page may also provide a few previews into posts that will come in the future.  I will be lucky enough to be heading to the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.  If I have nice pictures, I will post them into my Twitter account before they go live here with a full post.




Converting a License in Japan December 29, 2009

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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Converting a License in Japan” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-iK

In 2007, I had become a legal driver in Japan. It only took 3 hours at the office, and 4 hours of travelling. My journey began almost a month before I actually headed to the Driver’s License Office. I had to go to the Japan Auto Federation to get a translation of my Driver’s License. This is mandatory. The Canadian embassy, which is closer to my home, doesn’t do it, so I had no other choice. I was well prepared. I had my money, my application, my Canadian license, and all the photo copies they required.  All of the information you need on what to bring is available on JAFs website. It only took about 15 minutes to get it and it was very simple and easy. The next week, I was supposed to head over to the licensing centre, but there was one major problem I have a motorcycle license.

Having a motorcycle license or an extra license other than a regular car license is a hassle when converting a foreign license to a Japanese one.  If you have a license without a lot of information, you will have to contact your home licensing centre.  I had to get a statement from my provincial license office stating the dates of when I obtained my car license, and my motorcycle license.  Both dates are different for myself, and can be different for other people, so they must know these dates.  I contacted the licensing office and after a few transfers and a lengthy explanation, I had my request processed. The letter only took two weeks to get to me.

My first trip to the Driver’s License Office was an adventure. There is only one office in Tokyo, located in Samezu, south of Shinagawa Station.  I got onto the right trains, and yet, I didn’t. It takes roughly 3 transfers to get to the License Office from my house. I made my way out, but as I was inexperienced with this particular train line, I made a terrible mistake.  My intention was to take the local train, as only the local train stops at Samezu Station.  I made a mistake and took an express train which went well past the station I wanted to visit.  I ended up adding about 40 minutes to my one way trip.  Once out of the station, I started to wander around until I found the Driver’s License Office. It’s not easy to find the Samezu Office and I got lost several times but I eventually got there. Once inside, I had to ask the front desk where to go, and I headed straight for the counter where I could convert my license. It’s located on the 2nd floor of the office, in the back corner. I got my number and waited. About 10 minutes or so later, I got called and gave all my details. Here’s the biggest problem, my passport is relatively new and after about 20 minutes of them counting how many days I’ve been a valid driver, I wasn’t “experienced” enough based on my passport. Since they couldn’t verify that I was in Canada before my last passport expired, I didn’t qualify for a regular license.  I would have to carry a beginner’s mark for the next 3 years. Since my old passport wasn’t returned to me, I had no way of confirming my residence in Canada before the issuing date of my passport. I was told that I would have to come back AGAIN, just to get my beginner’s mark taken off. I had to bring a copy, and original of my university diploma. This was bureaucracy at its best.

After the hassle of talking with the officer and understanding what I have to do, I finally get approved to get a license. I was told to go downstairs where I have to take an eye test, then come back up and pay for my license. It costs about 8000 Yen for a new license. I have to go to the special cashier’s window where I pay and in return they give me some stamps to prove that I paid. They proceed to place the stamps on the application form to prove that I have paid and I head back to the original window where I started my application.  Back at the first window, I’m told to wait again.  This is the story of the day.  Go here, wait; move here, wait; hold this, wait, and so on. Finally, they call me back and tell me to go downstairs, again, and then I can pick up my license. I go down, get my picture taken in under 2 seconds, and then I head up to the 3rd floor. The final procedure is where I have to wait as they print out my license and verify the information written on it. I get my license and finally, I can go home. I spent about 2 hours waiting and about 10 minutes of doing something. Thankfully, I caught the right train home.

A few days later, I head back. I have a copy of my diploma, my original, my license, my passport, and my Canadian License. I didn’t get lost this time as I knew where to go, and I figured out which train to take. I waited in line, as always, and one worker was kind enough to help me.  He looked at my documents and, gave me a number. I waited until my number was called, and I talk to a different worker, and the same guy. At first, he couldn’t help me as he was working at a “different window”, yet in the same room.  He just sat around doing almost nothing until the other worker was free. The worst part of it all was that he ended up doing my work anyways. They started to look at my documents.  They told me to sit, then they called me, then they told me to sit again, and then they called me.  This happened a couple times, and I had to tell them the date that I started University and the date that I graduated.

Finally, a third guy calls my name, and he brings me to the 4th floor. He takes my documents and license and we head he makes me sit down on a chair in the hallway.  He leaves for about 5 minutes before coming back saying that I should go back down to the 2nd floor. The only reason he brought me up to the 4th floor was so that I knew he had my license, which he was holding.  At least that’s what I thought.  I found it even more confusing for the fact that my passport, Canadian License, and university degree were still on the 2nd floor at that time. When we get back down, it took less than 2 minutes before he called me back and showed me my documents. He told me to check the address on my Japanese License. All okay. I took everything and went home. This trip took 1 hour of waiting, and 3 minutes of exercise.

Overall, converting a foreign license into a Japanese license is a great exercise in patience.  You will definitely learn the meaning of bureaucracy.  Hopefully those who need to convert their license can learn a little about it here, and avoid any and all of my mistakes.  It’s very hard to say what will happen, of if things have changed in the last two years, as of writing this.  If there is any tip I can recommend, bring a magazine to read, or a nice book.  You’ll need it to survive all the waiting you’ll have to do.  iPods would be good as well, but you might need to be aware in case they call your name or number.


JAF Information:  http://www.jaf.or.jp/e/switch.htm
JAF Application Form (English):  http://www.jaf.or.jp/inter/image/english_apli.pdf
JAF Rules of the Road (Guide to driving basics in Japan):  http://www.jaf.or.jp/e/road.htm


1 year later August 14, 2009

Posted by Dru in Uncategorized.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “1 Year Later” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-fm

Today marks this blog’s birthday.  Dru’s Misadventures is now one year old.  This blog was originally supposed to be a blog about my life.  However, I soon realized that no one would be very interested in my life, per se.  My passion for travelling around Japan would be far more interesting, so I decided to start writing about the places I have visited.  My first real post was about Beijing.  This was quickly followed by a post about Matsushima, which I visited the month before.  From there, I talked about baseball, football, and other cities in Japan.  I have also touched a little on culture, but I have mainly talked about travelling.

This blog now holds two purposes in my life.  One is to write an account of the places I have been and to hopefully share it with others.  It can be difficult to remember things that we have done in the past, and this is one of the best ways I can think of to remind myself of the sights, sounds, and smells of each place.  I can only hope that my writing has helped others, and hopefully yourself to understand the places I’ve been, and to hopefully get an idea of what things can be like if you ever visit those cities.  If you ever have questions about different places, always feel free to ask.  The other reason I’m writing this blog is to help my students learn English.  I am an English teacher in Japan and I use this blog as a way to help students learn English.  I hope that my own personal writing provides a nice variety of English words and phrases for them to learn, as well as to hopefully get a better understanding of my own personality.  I always encourage people to ask me questions, especially if they don’t understand something that I write.  While I am better at teaching face to face, I can always type an answer to any questions you may have.

It has been about one year since I first started this blog, and I’m very happy to hear from people around the world.  I haven’t done much to promote my blog.  As I have mentioned, this is more of a hobby than anything else.  While it is simple to write about Tokyo and get lots of people to my site, hopefully my journeys to the less traveled places in Japan will encourage people, especially expats living in Japan, to travel within Japan even more.  Since the first year I was in Japan, my view of Japan has changed dramatically.  I have been able to learn a lot about the people, its history, and its culture.  I do have to say that my first year of travels within Japan has been very doe eyed, compared to the way I see things now.  Now, I can look at Japan in a more understanding way, and be capable to finding new things easily.  The first time you ever visit a city should never be the last.  It can take two or even three times to visit a city completely.  While I have touched on many places in Japan, I always find new adventures on the second or even third time.  I hope that you will also be able to venture to these beautiful cities someday.

Ending this post, I would like to share a few stats with you:

In the first 4 months, this blog averaged 125 hits.  From December until February of 2009, I averaged 185 hits a month.  That was my first big jump in hits.  Since March of this year, the average has been 308 hits a month, and last month was the biggest yet, with 404.  It’s only halfway into August and there are over 200 hits.  It’s possible that this blog has reached an average of 400 hits a month, but only time will tell.  In terms of per day hits, things started well in the first month, but got worse towards the end of 2008.  By March, 2009, the average per day hit count has been over 10.  Hopefully that will continue to rise for the foreseeable future.  The busiest day, ever, was when I first started this blog.  I received 39 hits on August 24th, 2008, but on August 11th, 2009, I received 32.  That’s pretty close to the record.  Hopefully that will be broken within the next year.  It seems that most people are interested in the Azabu Juban Festival, as it has the most searches.  In terms of what people find interesting, by far, my post on Kabukicho is the most popular, followed by the Azabu Juban post.  Football comes in third.  Finally, I must thank IHC Way, as without their link, most of you wouldn’t even know about me.  I hope you can all put a link and tell others about this blog as I don’t do any advertising.


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