Driving in Japan, part 1

…or at least where I live, is a bit like being on safari.  You have a constant stream of random obstacles being thrown in your path, leaving you no choice but to drive everywhere as you would only navigate a preschool parking lot at 8 AM in the US.  Not that you should do this anywhere, but shutting off 90% of your brain and devoting most of the remaining 10% to fiddling with the audio as many do on California highways is a recipe for quik-bake disaster here.

Statistics provided by the WHO show that Japan has less than half of the traffic fatalities of the US, although of course this is per capita, not per mile driven (Japan comes out higher by that standard) or obasan encountered.   Anecdotally I can say that driving safely in Japan demands a lot more concentration than in California, and we and many other people drive through conditions every day here that would only occur in a post-apocalyptic situation there.

Below is a partial list of said conditions.

1. Semi truck on sidewalk

Just kidding – there is no sidewalk, of course.  Semi trucks take almost all the same streets regular cars do, and as I will detail below, most of these streets are barely wide enough for a retinue of samurai to pass by the bowing peasantry single file.  You will often encounter trucks hauling soil, lumber, or construction equipment in residential neighborhoods that, like that city in The Truman Show, have front doors right up against the street, meaning that many truck drivers could clear people’s rain gutters by sticking their hands out the window.


This truck slowed down and passed us with about 2 feet to spare.  (Just kidding again – it didn’t slow down.)

2. Construction

Again, because the streets are rather narrow, construction anywhere on or along the road, including renovating the buildings along it or doing electrical work, requires closing one of the 1.5 lanes and funnelling traffic through it one direction at a time for as long as the work is being done.  Usually this brings with it two retirees (side note: coordinating traffic is a job almost entirely reserved for retired men) at the ends of the construction area, waving glowing batons to indicate which side of traffic is allowed to proceed.  This wouldn’t be a danger except that the retirees, being retirees, sometimes don’t notice when traffic is approaching their side and forget to wave them through or stop them; and also every retired man has different ideas of what the universal gestures for “stop” and “go” are.  Some twirl their batons for “go”, some do an underhand scooping motion, some hold their baton overhead pointing toward the area you are allowed to drive on, and others do all of those but mean “stop”.


“Stop”, or maybe “go”, or maybe “exits at aft”


3. Reluctant own-side drivers

Streets are generally narrow here, following the same paths and dimensions as you can imagine woodcutters with their days’ hauls trudging down 200 years ago.  This wouldn’t be as much of a shock if I’d grown up on the East Coast, and is apparently normal in much of the world.  In modern Japan, many people respond to the general difficulty of driving on one side of these roads by doing away with with the concept of “sides” altogether and plowing straight down the middle, only hurriedly moving to one side when you turn a blind corner and find a car heading your direction about 5 meters away.  Or just continuing on in the middle and hoping for the best.


“I sure hope there’s no oncoming traffic on the other side of that delivery truck blocking our lane”


More to come.

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