Driving in Japan (part 2)

Before I get into today’s post I would just like to mention that it started snowing from a sunny blue sky yesterday, and proceeded to dump two inches on us. So. Not. Fair. But where were we? Oh, yes. The police.

Cop ahead!

As you can see, even though it’s a bit different, it’s easily recognizable as a patrol car. Here’s another shot for a better view:

What a shiny paint job!

Pretty! Of course, there are a few differences. First of all, I’ve seen them slap that paint job on any vehicle they please and use it for patrol. Once I saw a black-and-white minivan. Another time it was a black-and-white compact car. It’s kind of funny, actually. Really, the most important thing to know about the patrols here involves the lights – if the car’s lights are off, the cop is off-duty and won’t do a darn thing about it even if you go speeding by at double the speed limit. (Although really, it’s not difficult to double a 30 klick limit.) If the car is on-duty they’ll drive around with their lights on (no siren) and that’s when you need to watch it. Greg likes to say that only idiots get speeding tickets around here, because that means you were speeding right next to a police car with its lights flashing. Who does that? Really, the traffic laws here are quite reasonable. For instance, it’s illegal to drive unbuckled.

Hey! It's - swan...man? And he wants you to be safe.

Here’s your friendly neighborhood…swan…man? reminding you to BUCKLE UP! You can just see the buckle beginning to come down from the upper left corner of the sign. Remember, guys: Swanman wants you to drive safely.

It’s also  illegal to talk on a cell phone while driving. However, they know that sometimes you’ve just got to take that call, so there is a place prepared!


That’s right. They’ve created regular pull-offs on the side of the road where you can pause your car, make a call, and pull right back onto the road. (If you look, you can see that the first four kana under the little car say “moshi moshi,” which is the standard phone greeting in Japan! “Mo” is the little fishhook and equal sign, and “shi” is the plain fishhook.) Of course, they only have these on the highways – probably to stop people from just flipping on their hazard lights and stopping on the side of the road! Don’t laugh. That’s standard here. If you want to stop somewhere, all you have to do is park your car (as far to the side of the lane as you can) and flip on your hazard lights. Or, if your car is small enough, pull it up onto the sidewalk. This is most commonly seen on small streets with low traffic, but drivers have no problem navigating around cars sticking out into the street wherever they appear.

I’m not sure that I’m conveying the insanity of this very well. Seriously, people will just stop, flip on their lights, and wander into a store to pick up a few things while their car is out on the street. It’s nuts, and it’s made worse by streets that look like this:

Holy cow.

Believe it or not, this is a full-fledged bi-directional two-lane road. The general rule of thumb is that roads can take one more car than you think they can. If a road looks like you could barely squeeze two cars down it, then it’s for two lanes of traffic and one lane of parking. If it looks like it can barely accomodate one miniature car (like above), then it’s two-lane, and if it looks like it couldn’t take anything wider than a bicycle, then it’s a one-lane road. Here’s another shining example:

This looks better...sort of...

As you can see, this looks like you could squeeze two cars down it, which means that this road is one that you could expect to see cars parked on. You know. If it wasn’t deserted.

To be fair, the only reason that these roads are so narrow is because they are old roads. When they build new roads, they are  very wide and very nice, with wide sidewalks and high curbs and crosswalks all over. It’s a great symbol of the Japan we find ourselves in – somewhere between cramped and crumbling side streets and sleek new asphalt, where you’ll see an old woman in a kimono walk across the street right in front of a luxury car decked out with neon lights and LEDs. It’s a really interesting experience that we get to have.

Next time: They’re just so nice!

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