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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.


Motorcycle Adventure March 3, 2009

Posted by Dru in Hokkaido, Japan, Kanto, Tohoku, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Motorcycle Adventure” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-7H

This is Part VII, the final part, of a multi-part series chronicling my motorcycle adventure from Tokyo to Sapporo and back again.

Background:  In 2007, I had finally gotten my Japanese driver’s license and a motorcycle.  I had been an avid motorcycle rider in Canada before I came to Japan, so after 2 years of no riding, I finally bought a motorcycle and decided to go on a big adventure.  I went from Tokyo to Sapporo by motorcycle and ferry.  It was an adventure to say the least.

Leg 7 (Return home)

My last day of the trip was fairly uneventful.  I woke up early to the stress of a cold damp morning.  It was misting outside, but not too bad.  I thought I’d be okay.  I spent the better part of an hour looking for a bank in the morning before giving up and looking for a gas station that I could use.  In Tokyo, getting gas is very easy.  It’s almost always full service, however, when you are out in small towns, it’s very hard to find.  Using a self serve gas station in Japan is actually quite difficult.  You have to be able to read Japanese, and even then, you might have trouble understanding the instructions.  Unlike Canadian gas stations where you either pay with a credit card, or go inside to pay first, I have no idea how it works in Japan.  Sometimes they give you a card which is essentially a member’s card.  You use it to “login” to the pump and after you pay at the pump, you take the card to a money machine to get your change.  I’m not too sure if this is the same at every station, but it’s very confusing and hard to understand, at least for me and my limited Japanese.  Either way, I ended up taking a chance and jumping onto the Expressway.

On my return trip, I had nothing to do except “race” back home.  It started off with me wearing a long sleeve cotton shirt, a T-shirt, my jacket, and a neck warmer.  Every two hours, I had to take off at least one layer of clothing.  By the time I reached the Tokyo area, I was starting to sweat, so I changed from a cotton T-shirt to a sports shirt.  I couldn’t believe how different things can be, and how fast you can experience is on a motorcycle.  If I was in a car, I wouldn’t notice anything until I stopped and got out to rest.  I also noticed a noticeable jump in traffic as I got closer and closer to Tokyo.  Every hour or so, the number of cars would at least double.  In Hachinohe, I saw maybe one or two cars on the road with me.  By the time I reached Tokyo, it was bumper to bumper traffic and 6 lanes wide.  This day, I still got a little lost, but not too much.  I kept thinking my final turn would be much earlier, but I kept going and sooner or later I reached my destination.  Traffic was very heavy when I reached Tokyo and going between the cars saved me at least one hour.

My final impression of this visit is to never do it again, or at least be better prepared.  I truly enjoyed many aspects of this trip, but there were many other points that I hated.  It’s something that I had to do, and something that I recommend people to try.  Maybe not doing the same distances that I did, but to enjoy the open roads of Japan.  Getting to the back country is something that many people never see.  It’s a different way of life, and getting lost is a scary event, but it can make you stronger.  If you can understand Japanese, especially location kanji, you can always rent a navigator system, or bring your own from home.  It’s very useful, and a necessary thing for traveling by road in Japan.  I do recommend renting a car with navigation as they may provide the best one for you.  Knowing which lane to be in is very important as you could get into trouble if you don’t.  Just be safe and have fun.


Tohoku Expressway and the Shimokita Peninsula January 5, 2009

Posted by Dru in Japan, Tohoku, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Tohoku Expressway and the Shimokita Peninsula” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-67

This is Part I of a multi-part series chronicling my motorcycle adventure from Tokyo to Sapporo and back again.

Background:  In 2007, I had finally gotten my Japanese driver’s license and a motorcycle.  I had been an avid motorcycle rider in Canada before I came to Japan, so after 2 years of no riding, I finally bought a motorcycle and decided to go on a big adventure.  I went from Tokyo to Sapporo by motorcycle and ferry.  It was an adventure to say the least.

Leg 1:  (Tokyo to Mutsu)

On a crisp June morning, I left Tokyo and headed for the Tohoku Expressway.  I would head north as far as I could go in a day.  I started by racing to the Tohoku Expressway which was about 30 minutes away in the city.  In Japan, each expressway is owned by a different company, rather than the government, so taking the regular roads in the city is cheaper and sometimes faster.  Within Tokyo, it can be faster to take the regular roads, but often it’s faster to take the Shuto Expressway (the only expressway in central Tokyo).  I saved a little money, but in general, once I got close to the Tohoku Expressway, traffic was backed up and my plan to save money and time went out the window.  I only saved money.

Once I was on the highway, it would be a short 9 hour trip to Hachinohe, about 700km.  I took many stops along the way.  Along the expressways in Japan, every 50 km or so, there is a Service Area or Parking/Pit Area (SA or PA).  These are very convenient.  They often have local foods during the day, gas stations, and sometimes kid parks and dog parks.  It’s a great way to stretch your legs and relax on long road trips.  Making use of these SAs and PAs are essential.  All expressways in Japan are private roads, and thus, you have to pay to use them.  Because of this, you cannot enter and exit any expressway without paying.  You can also save money if you travel farther in a day, or if you travel at certain times.  Because of this, I decided to go all the way from Tokyo to Hachinohe.  Hachinohe is actually one of two end points for the Tohoku Expressway.  The main branch goes to Aomori, the biggest city in the Northern region of Honshu, while a Hachinohe branch expressway runs to Hachinohe.  The Tohoku Expressway itself is not a very interesting expressway.  It’s pretty straight and boring. Once you are on the Hachinohe branch, things look nicer and more natural.  Being on a motorcycle, you will also experience the changes of traveling 700 km North of Tokyo.  Every 100 km felt like I lost about 2C.

Hahinohe was a nice little town, the first time I passed through.  It’s relatively small, but unfortunately, all of the roads are curved.  This made me disoriented and I always got lost.  It took about 20 minutes before I found a police station and got directions.  I wanted to head north to a small city called Mutsu, and the highway was impossible to find.  Once the police pointed me in the right direction, everything went smoothly.

Along the way, I stopped at a park near the town of Misawa.  Misawa is a very small town with absolutely nothing.  It’s mainly a town for the Japanese Self Defense Force and American military.  The park I visited was very little small, but I was able to see and enjoy the Pacific Ocean a little.  The park was completely devoid of life.  I took this opportunity to relax a little and to start enjoying my trip.  This was also my first encounter with Japan’s infamous “tetrapod”.  They are 4-8 legged concrete “jacks” that are placed in the water to absorb the force of the waves.  The purpose of them is to save the coast from eroding and protect any wharfs from typhoons and such.  While I feel this is necessary in some places, Japan seems to go overboard with them.  They are placed in the oddest places and excessively so.  Once I was finished with the park, I continued north in the Shimokita Peninsula.  It’s a very beautiful place.  There are many windmills collecting energy for the area.  It provides a very unique look at technology and nature trying to interact with each other.

By nightfall, I had reached the town of Mutsu.  It is a small city that few Japanese people even know of.  It’s a quaint little town, but in reality, there is nothing special about it.  The area is known for its sciences, but little else.  While I don’t really recommend this place, if you need a base to get out and about in the area, it’s a nice central place.  This was also the destination of leg one.  It took me one full day, and I was completely exhausted.


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