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Driving - An Adventure In Japan

Author:Author Unknown, Issue: May 1998, Topic: Colin Read

Long-term foreign residents of Japan frequently hear horror stories from newcomers (and occasionally old-timers as well) of getting lost on Japan's road system, with its windy roads and notable paucity of clear highway signs. Ten years ago, in the April 1988 issue of The Alien Times, the following 'classic example' appeared. As the number of present readers who would remember that article could likely be counted on one hand, it will be fresh to the vast majority of you. Things have not changed very much from those days, as you will see.

'Just get on the Shuto Expressway and go straight out to Tsukuba...'

By Colin Read (Driver Emeritus)

Only two weeks in Japan, I had come into Tokyo on an April day in 1986 to pick up a car that my friend at the Canadian Embassy arranged to purchase for me. The '81 Isuzu was now in the embassy parking lot. I had found the train ride into Tokyo unnerving enough, with the huge stations, the crush of people, the signs in a language I could not understand. Was I ready for the road?

My friend was reassuring. The drive would be a breeze, said he. Not to worry. Upon setting off, however, I encountered my first setback. The car dealer had put an eye dropper's worth of gasoline in the tank. I crawled along in the Tokyo traffic, desperately seeking a gas station. I found one and discovered myself almost 60 Canadian dollars poorer. Fill-ups in Japan are not cheap!

Tank full, I headed off toward the Diet, knowing that the entrance to the Shuto was around there somewhere. I was dismayed to discover not one, but two entrances. Fortunately (?) the streets were full of policemen, in Tokyo for the summit. Stopping, I asked one, in English, which entrance would get me on the Joban and on to Tsukuba. He did not know, nor did any of his comrades who quickly clustered around. Time for a strategic retreat!

Back to the embassy I went, but not before being hauled out of a long line of traffic by other police who checked my car for bombs, and intimidating experience.

At the embassy, my friend gave me more detailed instructions, and a group of well-wishers followed me out to my car, most urging me not to set off. I might never be seen again, lost in the wilds of Tokyo forever.

Daunted, back to the Shuto I went. Choosing my entrance carefully, I plunged into the traffic, only to find that truck and taxi drivers, seemingly maddened by my cautious search for signs to the Joban, vied for the honor of running me off the road. I put on my flashers, hoping for mercy. It didn't work. Nor did the hoped-for signs appear. A steady rain added to my increasing misery. I sought help from an emergency phone on the expressway. Stony silence greeted the anguished cries that I was lost. And the swaying of the expressway convinced me that the second 'great Kanto quake' was on. Back to the safety of the embassy!

I got turned around okay, but an hour later missed a crucial turn inside a tunnel. I saw it, but too late. It was now dark and raining harder than ever. The dire predictions about my endlessly driving the Shuto seemed only too likely to come true, provided, of course, that the 900 yen I had left allowed me to do even that!

Leaving the expressway once more, I found a phone and called my friend at home. 'Sit tight.' He'd come to the rescue. I plopped myself down in the car, and, watching some policemen huddle in the rain, furtively stole a few much needed slugs from a bottle of Chivas Regal I'd been given to speed me on my way to Tsukuba.

An hour and a half later, my friend arrived with the good news that an entrance to the Shuto leading to the Joban was nearby. He would take me there. We immediately got lost, driving around for some time before finding any entrance at all. My friend left me with the assurance that I was now on the right track and with 30,000 yen in case I wasn't.

Half an hour's driving convinced me that I would need all of that 30,000 yen. Lost again! In a tunnel, I came across a road crew cleaning up after an accident. I spoke to the policeman in charge, asking for directions to the Joban. Rolling his eyes upward, he pointed to the direction I had just come from. A workman drew a map (an enormously complex one). Follow it (which seemed unlikely), and the Joban would appear. I contemplated staying in the comparative safety of the tunnel, but disoriented and dispirited, off I went.

Half an hour's driving saw me at a critical split in the road, with the sign indicating which way I wanted hung almost in the middle of the diverging lanes. Only one thing to do. Straddling the divider with my car, I got out (very carefully) and studied the sign, deciding that it was hung a few centimeters to the left. That was probably the way I should go. Despite an understandable lack of confidence in this decision, I found the Joban and salvation down that road.

After 9 hours in the labyrinth of Tokyo, the drive up the Joban was a breeze, just as I'd been promised. The succeeding 50 weeks showed that my Tokyo Odyssey was a suitable introduction to life in Japan, bewildering, exciting, sometimes frightening, and rarely dull!

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