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Driving in Japan (2010) [Part II] September 28, 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 II]” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-tt

Our final leg of day 1 was a trip to Sakaiminato, Matsue, and Izumo.  The drive to Sakaiminato was a long and boring one, and one that I wouldn’t recommend.  It wasn’t recommended to me by my map, but it was necessary to reach our destination of Sakaiminato.  The stretch between Yonago and Sakaiminato was one long boring straight stretch.  We got fed up looking for the famous street in Sakaiminato and parked in a supermarket just a couple blocks from the station.  It turned out nice as we could just walk over to the famous Mizuki Shigeru Road.  After a tour of Sakaiminato, my friend took over the driving as I was exhausted and we had agreed to do the switch.  The drive on the north side of the lake between Sakaiminato and Matsue was beautiful and allowed us to see some of the countryside towns of Shimane.  We also got to see how they do construction.  Instead of having flag people directing traffic, they used signal lights and timers.  You would see a timer ticking down with a red light.  When the timer reached zero, the light would turn blue and you could go.  They basically set it up so that there was a “flag person” all the time, even when they weren’t working on the road.  It was the first time I had ever seen that, and we saw it a couple times on this journey.  The roads in and around Matsue and Izumo were nice as well, but there was nothing unique about them, especially when comparing it to other cities in Japan.  It was beautiful to drive around Lake Shinji and I would recommend it to anyone and everyone.

After a couple days off in Izumo to relax and see all of the sights, we took off on the second section of our tour. We drove from Izumo all the way to Hiroshima.  The first part was a quick jaunt on the San’in Expressway and the Matsue Expressway.  We headed south to Unnan City and then south along the Tojo Ourai, route 314.  It was a nice two lane road that had little to no traffic on it.  It was a nice winding road that flowed along a river and past many villages.  It was a perfect way to see the farms and forests of Shimane before we got to Hiroshima.  My plan for the route was to reach the Okuizumo Orochi Loop.  It’s a double loop, kind of like a pretzel, that ends roughly 105 metres above the starting point.  The total length is roughly 2300 metres.  It’s a fun little double loop with a nice small pullout at the top. Be sure to stop here and take a bunch of pictures.  Whenever you go, it will be quiet as most people take the major Izumo Ourai instead of this road.  After we completed the loop, we continued south until we reached the Chugoku Expressway.  We had another “moment” in a national park just before we reached the Expressway.  Unlike other moments, this one wasn’t comfortable.  I was doing the majority of driving on this section and I had a small beetle join me in the car.  I think we hit him and he just happened to fall into the car and get stuck near my crotch.  It was a fairly uncomfortable feeling for me to have a bug wedged under my pants, and it didn’t help that it was as we approached a corner.  Thankfully, I kept cool enough to continue driving.  After about 10 minutes or so, we came to an intersection where I could get out and sweep the bug out onto the ground.  Aside from the near heart attack I got from being surprised, all was well.  By the time we reached the Expressway, things were good.

The trip along the Expressway was quite simple.  We decided to switch drivers as I hate driving in the city.  My friend was really kind enough to “volunteer” his services while I navigated.  We got off the Expressway just before the Hiroshima Expressway started.  We took the main roads and got fooled by our GPS again.  All of the signs and all of the cars went one way, and the GPS said to go another way.  We instinctively ignored our GPS and followed the signs to our next “Expressway”, a tunnel that would bypass a lot of the city and drop us off in the centre of the town.  It was very interesting to exit the tunnel as we were on a bridge over a river and then planted in the downtown core of the city.  Imagine entering a tunnel in the suburbs, with only a few strip malls around.  Once you exit the tunnel, you are immediately on a bridge looking at a big bustling city with tons of traffic.  We managed to safely find Hiroshima Station and then to the hotel.  Needless to say, it was a huge challenge to understand the GPS and we did get a little lost along the way.  When you are travelling in a city, GPS is very difficult to read as the signal tends to bounce off of the tall buildings.  A little heated argument did ensue within our car, but cooler heads prevailed and we made it to our hotel, and dropped off our car at the rental shop and said sayonara to our faithful steed.  I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again, driving in major Japanese cities is very stressful and not fun at all.

I learned a few new things on this trip for my future travels.  The GPS is your friend and your foe.  There were many times where I wanted to use the GPS properly, but I couldn’t figure it out.  I’m sure there is a way, but without the necessary Japanese skills, it was more difficult that it should have been.  If you are trying to get from A to B, there is no problem to input it with basic Japanese skills.  Most of the input data is done in Japanese (hiragana), but finding the way to input in Roman characters was difficult.  It took us a few days to figure it out.  You also have to be aware that many places have the same name.  If you search for a place with a name such as “Sakaiminato”, you have to choose by the city.  Searching for something like Hiroshima Station, while it should mean the train station, it actually means anything with Hiroshima Station in the title.  It was a pain in the butt to figure out how to set it up properly, but with a little fiddling, we got it to work.  Navigation input is also set so that you can’t do anything unless you are parked.  Pressing the brake does not equal park.  You must actually set the car in park.  Other than that, the maps were very detailed and it was easy to navigate.  The instructions were great too, but not as good as the car that I used on my trip to Nikko.

As for maps, I still recommend the Touring Mapple.  It’s a brand that is geared towards motorcyclists.  The routes that are recommended are highlighted, and there is a ton of information on the maps themselves.  In British Columbia, we have Destination Highways, which is a great book, but it can’t compare to Touring Mapple.  Touring Mapple has information on tight corners which are dangerous, information on closed roads, and even information on restaurants and hostels where you can stay.  While it’s a terrible city map, it’s great for travelling between cities.  Do note that Destination Highways does have descriptions on the roads themselves, which is better than Touring Mapple, but Touring Mapple is more complete as you can get information on roads to access the great roads.  It even featured onsen which are great to relax in.  If you are driving a car, I still highly recommend this map as it’s perfect for any adventure that requires the open road.  Choose any route that includes as many highlighted sections as possible, otherwise keep to the Expressways.  If you drive on anything that isn’t highlighted, you can expect to see nothing but traffic and the view wouldn’t be as nice either.  Surprisingly, the rural Expressways are very scenic.  Stopping at the rest stops are wonderful as you can sample some of the local food and there are various activities that you can do.  Most of all just take your time and always venture off the beaten path.  You never know what you might encounter.

Note:  This is part two of a two part series.  If you haven’t read part one, please head over to Driving in Japan (2010) [Part I].
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

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

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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

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。


The Tohoku Expressway – Driving in Japan June 9, 2009

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kanto, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “The Tohoku Expressway – Driving in Japan” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-bi

In February 2009, I had my second experience on the Tohoku Expressway, and my first driving experience in Japan.  It was a vastly different experience compared to the first time I was on this expressway.  This time, I was in a temperature controlled car with navigation and ETC.  Words cannot describe the differences in my experience.

For this trip, I went from Shinjuku, in Tokyo, to Nikko.  It’s about a 160km drive.  I decided to rent a car from a rental company near my apartment.  In front of the rental company, I tried to set the navigation system to take me to Nikko.  Unfortunately, they showed me five different routes and none of them were quick, or the best route.  I ended up heading to the Shuto Expressway, Tokyo’s Expressway system, on my own as I knew how to get there.  The nearest Shuto entrance was for the Yamate Tunnel, which is the fastest way to get to the Tohoku Expressway.  It is a brand new section of the Shuto, so the tunnel itself is still very clean, and very bright.  Once the tunnel ended, I had to face my first challenge in navigating the Shuto’s confusing system, a small junction to head a little east.  To give you a better idea, the Shuto is a series of “C” roads that run around Tokyo.  There are various connecting highways to go from the inner circle to the outer circles.  This was also my first experience to test the car’s navigation system.  Thankfully, the system knew the roads in this area and helped me find my way to reach the Tohoku Expressway.  The rest of my journey to Nikko was very simple and easy.  I made a side trip to Utsunomiya as well, and the navigation system worked flawlessly to get me to my destination.  However, navigating the streets can be nerve wrecking as you have to consider your actions as others on the road may or may not be patient with you.

Using the navigation system in Japan is both a blessing and a curse.  If you can’t read, write, or understand Japanese to some extent, you will be in a lot of trouble.  Obviously, in Japan, they don’t need English navigation systems as most foreigners take the train.  However, driving is sometimes fun and very enjoyable.  It is very important to at least have a Japanese native, who is capable of using the navigation system to help you.  Along the way, the system would give audible warnings of where to go, what lane to be in, and about toll booths that were coming up.  It made driving very simple and the audio prompts weren’t too intrusive.  With the navigation screen being in the dashboard, it wasn’t blocking my view as other portable systems do.  The only problem that occurred was passing through city limits, as the system would update me to tell me when I reached a new area.  This was okay, but sometimes the highway would cross in and out of an area and I’d get a few prompts.  Definitely not something I would care to hear often, but it was a nice addition.

The other important thing to have in Japan is an ETC card.  It is essential when driving on the expressways.  The first reason to get it is for convenience.  When driving up to a toll booth, all you have to do is enter the ETC lane.  When you enter the ETC lane, you just slow down to about 20kph and wait for the system to tell you, via a chime, that it recognizes your car and you can go.  The second reason is for the discounts.  As of this posting, weekends and national holidays are now 1000 Yen per trip, regardless of the distance.  Do note that some expressways are cheaper and each expressway is owned by a different company.  Travelling would probably end up being more than 1000 Yen.  If you are travelling late at night, you can also save a little money.  If you enter or exit the expressway after midnight, you will receive a discount.  If you use the roads via the regular method, you must pay the full cost.  Almost all car rental shops have ETC systems installed within their cars.  The only problem is getting a card on your own.  If you are a resident, this should be as difficult as getting a credit card.  However, if you are only visiting, you will be out of luck as an ETC card is used like a visa card.  If you are living in Japan, do your best to get one if you plan to do any driving.  If you are given the option to get one with your credit card, I’d apply at the same time as you never know if you’ll be driving in the future.  In the end, good luck and safe driving.

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

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