Sunday, 21 December 2014

Driving in Japan


Japan has by far the best public transport system in the world. Major cities are linked by 200 mph trains, every large town has a frequent rail service, and even the tiniest town has several buses a day to the nearest station. Every city has a dense and frequent bus service, while in Tokyo you're never more than a five minute walk from the train or subway. Japanese trains are a delight to ride, with constantly changing views of the towns and countryside. With the exception of the Tokaido Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka, they are rarely anywhere near full.

So given all that, why would you ever want to drive? The traffic in towns is difficult, parking is expensive and hard to find, while navigation, if you don't read at least some Japanese, is bound to be hard.

But... if you want to see the countryside, to stop at leisure to admire the view, to wander at will - you need a car as much in Japan as you do anywhere else. It's possible to view rural Japan from a bus, I've done it a couple of times. It works, but it is very constraining. When we visited Wakkanai in the far north of Hokkaido, we couldn't rent a car (I'd forgotten my international driving license, which is essential). We did manage to get to Cape Soya, Japan's northernmost point, using the bus, but we had a very tight timetable and didn't have time to see all the various monuments that have been established there.

Practicalities

Car ownership is relatively uncommon in Japan. You can't legally own a car unless you have off-road parking for it. That's why there are so many really tiny cars - often you will see them squeezed into a garage so small that you wonder how the driver gets in and out.

As a consequence, car rental is ubiquitous. Close to the main station in every town, you'll find Toyota Rent-a-Car, Nissan, Nippon, Times, and a couple of others. It's taken for granted that people will use the train for the long journey, and a car only for the very final part.

But you didn't see any of the familiar names there: Avis, Hertz, Enterprise... You can make reservations through them, but they will be fulfilled by Japanese companies with different names. For example, I recently used Expedia, which made me a reservation through Europcar - but I actually had to go to Times Car Rental, and nothing in the reservation told me that, nor gave me their correct address.

It's better to book directly with a Japanese company. If you have a few days in Japan before you need the car, your hotel concierge desk will generally be able to do this. Some companies have english-language sites (e.g. http://www.timescar-rental.com), and there is a site called ToCoo! you can use.

The Japanese drive small cars. This is a good idea, because the roads are narrow, city streets sometimes frighteningly so, and parking spaces are small too. A "mid-size" car in Japan would be one of the smallest cars on the road in the US. Don't try to get a normal-sized car by US standards, it will cost a fortune and you won't be able to park it.

You can not rely on your own driving license. Japan is a country which absolutely requires an International Drivers Permit (IDP). If you don't have one, when you show up they will apologise a lot but they won't give you a car. In most countries these are available through motorist organisations such as AAA (US) and RAC (UK). For some countries, including France, the procedure is different, and you need an official translation of your license instead.

The pick-up procedure is generally painless. You find the office (usually the hardest part), you present your passport and IDP, and they show you to a car. Make a careful note of where you are, because you will have to find it again when you return the car. Drop-off is also painless, apart from finding the place, and assuming you haven't damaged the car. Most places have little experience renting to foreigners, and they are very relieved to see you back again. I once dropped off a car a few minutes before closing in a small town, and the staff were standing at the roadside waiting for me!

If possible, get a map from somewhere (for example, your hotel concierge) showing the exact location of the rental office. Otherwise, you may well spend a miserable half hour wandering up and down the vicinity of the station looking for it. Also, be careful which side of the station it is. Most stations have entrances on either side of the tracks. Often rental places are on the "wrong side of the tracks", away from the main entrance.

Driving

Driving in Japan is easy. Speed limits are low - 50 km/h (30 mph) on most roads, only 80 km/h on highways. People sort-of obey them, as elsewhere - most traffic is doing closer to 60 than 50, but not more. Important signs are easy to understand. There are lots of signs that are only in Japanese, but they're not giving directions. They say things like "sharp curve 200m ahead" - useful but not indispensible.

Roads in Japan can be strange. It's the only country where two-lane divided highways are common. That's right, just one lane in each direction, with no possibility of overtaking. It matters less than you'd think, because the speed limits are so low and everyone is driving at the limit anyway.

The road around the western coast of Shikoku is sometimes barely two lanes wide, then for a few km it's a four-lane highway. It alternates like this for a long way. The giant refrigerated trucks carrying fish to market don't care, they just barrel along at 60 km/h whatever the state of the road.

In Hokkaido, we were following a road along the coast that got narrower and narrower, and eventually turned into a dirt track. We were just thinking about turning round, when in the middle of nowhere it turned into a four-lane highway - better than the main coast road running inland. There was no apparent reason, no factory or houses. I'm sure there's a story behind it.

The hardest part of your journey is likely to be getting out of, and later back into, the town where you rent the car. Signposting in towns is almost non-existent and roads are often not quite as they seem on the map. You should really prepare carefully for this. Print bilingual maps from Google, possibly at several different scales. Even if you don't know the exact location of the rental office, it will be somewhere close to the main train station.

It goes without saying that you should drive carefully and be sure to stay legal. Even if at home you sometimes interpret the rules a bit flexibly, don't do it in Japan. It's said that if ever there is an accident involving a non-Japanese driver, they will always be at fault. I hope I never find out whether it's true - I really don't want to spend a few nights in a Japanese jail. And nor do you.

And of course don't even think about drinking and driving. There's nothing to do and nowhere to go in the evening in rural Japan anyway.

Fuel

You will have to refuel the car at least once, just before you return it, and maybe more if you drive a long way. Fortunately, this is easy. Gas stations ('gasoreen stando') are ubiquitous. In towns they are often hidden in a space under a large building, with only the sign visible from any distance. The most common brand is Eneos, with a distinctive orange sign. Japanese for "fill 'er up" is 'mantan', but gestures work fine too. Most gas stations are fully staffed, you just sit in your car while eager young men run around filling it and cleaning the windshield.

Sometimes there are surprises. We once refuelled in the depths of rural Hokkaido, and were rewarded with not just one but half a dozen large boxes of Kleenex. In our tiny car they took up way too much room, but it seemed churlish to throw them away.

Navigation

Now we get to the hard part. Japan has really excellent maps. Mapple publish road atlases, one for each prefecture, at a scale of 30,000:1, with enlargements for towns. There's also a very useful series of folding maps at 120,000:1 (about 2 miles to the inch). These are all available for the whole country at big bookshops. You can often find the local ones even in convenience stores. But... they are only in Japanese.

The best bilingual map of Japan is "Japan: a bilingual atlas", at a scale of 260,000:1. That's enough to show all towns and significant roads, and it has enlargements for major towns. Used in conjunction with one of the bigger maps as a sort of translation guide, it will get you there.

Google maps is also bilingual. If you have a tablet and a reasonable deal on roaming, you can use that. Even if not, you can use it to prepare your trip and maybe print some of the more critical bits and take them with you.

Directional signs on roads are written in English characters as well as Japanese. As everywhere, they won't necessarily tell you about the place you want to go to, so you need to have an idea of the route and other places that might be in the right direction.

Every rental car has GPS, but not only are the maps all in Japanese, so are all the controls. I do read Japanese, but I've still never managed to get anything very useful out of them. On one occasion the GPS had been programmed to go back home. At every junction and turning, a cute Japanese girl voice would plead with me to make a U-turn. It took me about an hour to find the right place to press to shut it up.

The GPS can be useful in towns. While I really strongly recommend against driving in towns, at some point you'll have to get to and from the rental location. Even though you can't read the map, you can get a general orientation get yourself headed in approximately the right direction. These days, they show gas stations too, which can be handy (look for the tiny Eneos logo).

Conclusion

If you really want to explore the Japanese countryside, a rental car is the only way to do it. It's a bit daunting, but not too hard.

Here is another useful link with some more information: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2022.html

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Japan - the Sunny South

Well, not really the South, but at least not the North. And certainly sunny. Isabelle had another meeting in Sapporo. Wakkanai was interesting but Hokkaido's charms in December have their limits. So we decided to spend a couple of days on the Izu Peninsula, just south of Tokyo. In Japan, it's a famous tourist destination - with justification, since it is beautiful. We drove round it in one day, a few years ago, but this time we would take our time, spending a couple of nights in traditional Japanese ryokans.

Every trip to Japan starts with Tokyo. Using BA miles, the only seat I could get was in Japan Airlines First Class. Poor me. It was very nice. The champagne they served was Salon 2002. I'd heard of it only because, believe it or not, Isabelle sat next to Mr Salon (not his real name of course) on a flight to Paris a few months ago! It sells for about $300. Its main claim to fame seems to be exclusivity - any footballer can buy Dom Perignon or Krug, but you have to know about this stuff. I can report, though, that it is indeed excellent, very complex without the biscuity heaviness of Krug.

The rest of the flight was excellent, too. I slept through most of it, thanks to the comfort of the wide, lay-flat seat. The service is everything you'd expect. And there was a quite unexpected bonus. Our flight was nearly an hour early. It's scheduled to be one of the first flights into Haneda (oh, that's another nice thing - it doesn't go to Narita, the world's most inconvenient airport), leaving San Francisco just after midnight and arriving just after 5 am. So we were the first flight into Haneda that day, and since I was in seat 1A, I was the first person off the plane. I was the very first passenger to set foot in Haneda that day! Considering that nearly 200,000 people use it every day (it's the 4th busiest airport in the world), I found that pretty amazing.

Arriving early wasn't without problems, though. Connections from Haneda into Tokyo are excellent. The monorail service finishes within a short walk of our hotel. But it was nearly an hour before the first train. I decided to take a taxi.

Nearly everything in Japan works perfectly. The trains are on time to within seconds, everywhere is safe and clean, the people are friendly and helpful. Taxi drivers, though, don't work quite so well. This one had never heard of my hotel, although it is quite big and has been open for decades (I know, because I stayed there on my first trip to Japan in 1982). He called for directions, but when we stopped it was in completely the wrong place. Eventually, after some discussion and another call, we made it. This was only the first of the trip's taxi adventures.

We'd decided to stay at the Shiba Park Hotel. It's convenient, but it was really a touch of nostalgia - when we used to travel to Japan together in the 1980s for meetings at the Japanese Institute of Standards, just opposite the Tokyo Tower, we stayed there. It is full of memories - the open area on the second floor where we stayed up drinking vending-machine beer until very late, that we called "Lois's Bar" after one of our colleagues; the long disappeared fast-food restaurant on the corner called "Rubbery Pancakes" (well, it could have been "Lovely", it's difficult to be sure in katakana). Nostalgia, though, isn't what it used to be. We found it all rather old and cramped, with a view over the roof of the building across the road, and decided to move to a much more modern place a few hundred yards away, with magnificent views over the Shiba Park, the Tokyo Tower, and Zozoji.

We spent the morning exploring the area. Zozoji is an enormous temple. It was once the personal temple of the Tokugawa family, who ruled much of Japan for a couple of centuries. It's still evidently an important place - in addition to the vast main temple and several smaller ones, there are also administrative office buildings. We also found a wonderful place for breakfast. It's called "Le Pain Quotidien" (Daily Bread) although you'd be broke if you ate there every day. The quality and variety of their bread is really extraordinary.

We went on a shopping trip to Ginza, but were diverted by an enormous antiques market. Isabelle bought far too many porcelain dishes for our limited amount of baggage. For lunch we happened upon a tiny noodle shop in a back street. Ginza is the biggest, chic-est, most expensive shopping area in the world, yet it still has room for places like this. It had maybe six little tables, the husband in the back cooking while his wife served. Pride of place in the entrance was their soba-machine, where long before lunchtime they make their own noodles from buckwheat flour.

After that we were exhausted, and decided to get a taxi back to the hotel. Even though there are two metro stations within a short walk from the hotel, they are both served by lines that seem to go nowhere useful. The Oedo line in particular, constructed at great expense in the 1990s, seems to have been carefully calculated to avoid anywhere at all that might be a useful destination. We found a taxi quickly and jumped in. The driver set off in the right direction but then ran out of zeal. Eventually he pulled off the road and started consulting atlases. I explained to him (in Japanese) exactly where the hotel is, but despite much head-nodding it clearly didn't help. Finally, in desperation, he passed me his Tokyo street atlas. Good job I can at least somewhat read Japanese.


Next morning, after another breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien, we set off for Izu, taking the Shinkansen to Mishima. In the process I accidentally discovered how to save nearly half an hour on the journey by taking a fast train that overtakes the one you have just missed, then changing onto the latter at an intermediate station.

Just as well, because at Mishima we ran into a problem I was fully expecting. I'd booked a rental car through Expedia, with Europcar. The problem is, none of the well-known western rental companies has a presence in Japan, and the reservation didn't give the name of the company that would actually rent us a car. And the address that the it did give, didn't correspond to a rental company. I went to the first place I saw. They sent me somewhere else. That wasn't right either. Luckily, all the rental outlets are always within a short walk of the station - how else would you get there? After walking up and down the street in front of Mishima station for a long while, I finally found the right place. After that it was plain sailing, and we headed for the eastern coast of Izu.

Izu is really an extraordinarily beautiful place. The coast is a ragged series of inlets in black volcanic rock, dotted with tiny pointed islands topped with clumps of trees. Inland is nothing but tree-covered mountains. It rains a lot, and the vegetation is correspondingly lush, while the ocean keeps temperatures nicely balmy. It's impossible to avoid the comparison with Italy's Amalfi Coast.

After exploring the coast, we arrived at our first ryokan, the Kanaya in Rendaiji, just north of southern Izu's main town, Shimoda. It's a very traditional, rather rustic place, all unpainted timber construction, famous for its bath, the Sennin-furo - literally, the thousand person bath. It is huge - I did the math and concluded that a thousand would be a tight squeeze, though probably doable if they were good friends. I'd sprained my ankle earlier, in a walk along the coast, and the bath made for some very welcome relief. Dinner was the usual delicious kaiseki, served in our room.

At 9, we went to bed (or actually futon). There is absolutely nothing else to do in most ryokans. Once, in Ibusuke, Kyushu - a famous seaside town, comparable to say Carmel or Torquay - we decided to go for a walk, look for the local night life. It took some persuasion to get our shoes back. We walked for about twenty minutes, saw absolutely nothing and nobody. When we returned the owner was still standing anxiously in the porch waiting for us. If we'd been much longer, I suspect he'd have called the police and gone through the "lost gaijin tourist" procedure.

My ankle problem led to an interesting adventure the next day, first to find the pharmacy and then to buy a walking stick and other bits and pieces. Everyone we asked gave different directions, but the village was so tiny that we found it in the end. The people there were extremely helpful, although the only stick they had was more suited to the bent-double old women you see in every Japanese village - a bit on the short side for me.

Shimoda's claim to fame is that it was the landing spot for Commodore Perry in 1853, on his mission to open up Japan to trade with the US. It was an amazingly brave mission - they set out with just seven ships. It's hard to see how they thought they could succeed, but they did. It helped that they had a new design of cannon shell, with which they told the Japanese they would destroy their cities. A taste of things to come, really. When they returned in 1854, Japan had agreed to practically all of their demands. This was the real start of Japan's reopening to the rest of the world. As a result - and odd as it seems - there is a statue and small park dedicated to him on the waterfront. It's a bit as though Calais had a statue of the Duke of Wellington.

From there we drove around the southern cape of Izu and up the western coast. There are no trains on this side, and as a direct consequence there are many fewer tourists, even though the coastline is even more spectacular. There are a handful of onsen hotels along the coast, but nothing like a similar area in Europe or the US - the Amalfi coast, in particular. The sea around Dogashima is dotted with tiny story-book pointy islands covered in little tufts of trees. It would have been good to take a boat trip, but we were running short of time.

The main town on this coast is Matsuzawa - population 5000, plus presumably quite a of of tourists at least in the season. We planned to stop there and get some lunch - a bowl of soba would be ideal. We looked everywhere in the town centre, to no avail. There was what looked a bit like a small restauarant, but it turned out to be an antique store. We asked the proprietor and his wife where we could get some lunch. If we'd asked them for directions to the Lost Treasure of the Incas, the reaction would scarcely have been different. Eventually after much "soo desu ne" they decided that there probably was one somewhere and have gave us directions in some general direction. But there was nowhere in sight. In fact we did eventually find a couple of tiny places, but by then we were fed up. Luckily there was a convenience store - there is no shortage of those even in the smallest places - so we bought some rice snacks and cookies, and ate them overlooking Dogashima.

We had a sudden and completely unexpected view of Fuji-san. Then it was time to head inland to our second ryokan, at Shuzenji. The Kikuya Ryokan is very different from our first night. It has been there a long time but was completely rebuilt a few years ago, so the buildings are modern. It's a truly high class place, with wonderful service. The bath was less spectacular than at Kanaya, but dinner was much more sophisticated. Unusually, it is served in a dining room, with discreet cubicles but (oh thank you!) conventional tables and chairs rather than half-kneeling on tatami.


Early to bed again, and to rise in time for a complicated day of travelling. First return the car in Mishima, a quick shinkansen journey to Shinagawa, the Keikyu line to Haneda, and an ANA flight to Sapporo. By the time we got to our hotel there, it was nearly time for the dinner associated with the meeting Isabelle was there for. Time to jump in a taxi.

The dinner was at the Sapporo Beer Garden, by far the biggest tourist site in the city. After the station it is probably the single most common destination for a taxi. And - yep, you guessed - our taxi driver couldn't find it. Our journey petered out in a dubious industrial area on the wrong side of the railroad tracks (literally). Then, after some discussion, he suddenly said "Ah, Sapporo Beer Garden, desu ne!" and off we shot to the right place, which was in the opposite direction.

To a first approximation, there is only one meal you can get in Sapporo: "Gengis Khan". It consists of thin slices of lamb, grilled at the table along with some chopped vegetables. It owes absolutely nothing to Japanese cuisine, being rather of Mongolian inspiration. Why Sapporo has adopted this as its city dish, I have no idea. It's kind of OK the first time, but after a while you can't help hankering for a nice plate of sashimi.

The next day was cold, grey, and alternately rainy and snowy, and gave absolutely no reason to go outdoors. Isabelle had her meeting, and I stayed in the hotel room and worked. Afterwards, back to the airport and another ANA 777 took us back to Haneda, and to our next hotel, in a brand new tower in Shimbashi.

Our room was on the 33rd floor, with magnificent views over Tokyo (including our previous hotel). Best yet, it was right over the railway tracks, with a fantastic view of no less than 12 parallel (or almost) tracks, including the Shinkansen to Osaka (ten high speed trains per direction every hour), the Yamanote line (Tokyo's equivalent of London's Circle Line, with a train every 90 seconds or so) and the monorail line to Haneda.  I don't think I ever looked out of the window and saw all of the tracks empty. It was common to see six or seven trains at the same time.

It's a five minute walk from Shimbashi station to the hotel. What's amazing is the number of different ways you can do it. The obvious way, at street level, is by far the least convenient, with long waits for traffic lights to cross the busy streets. There's an underground shopping mall which goes most of the way, and there's a series of elevated walkways. I don't think we found  them all. Or if you're feeling lazy, you can take a train - the little Yurikamome line has two stations barely a train-length apart, one at Shimbashi and one beside the hotel.

Japan, including Tokyo, is not a place you can "do". Apart from the magnificent temples of Kyoto, there are no real must-see tourist sights. Rather, it's a place to experience. And that's exactly what we did for the next two days. We had lunch at our favourite rotating sushi place in Shimbashi, we visited Tokyu Hands in Shibuya, the very best craft and hobby store in the whole world, by a long way. On Friday night we had a very enjoyable dinner with some of my old friends from Cisco. On Saturday we visited one of Tokyo's several samurai-era gardens, the Rikugi-en, and drank traditional tea-ceremony tea with traditional Japanese sweet rice-paste cakes. These days, that's as exotic to the Japanese as it is to us. In Tokyo now there is a western-style patisserie about every ten yards. Some are better than others - some are truly excellent, the best in the world - but one things they all have in common is calories. And sadly, this shows in the people you see around Tokyo. Twenty years ago, overweight Japanese were practically impossible to find. Now, especially women, they are quite commonplace. It isn't Mississippi, yet, but it's certainly heading in the wrong direction.

Before that, though, we had another huge surprise. Our old friend Fuji-san was clearly visible on the horizon, over 100 km away.

We also went back to Harajuku. A few years ago, this was famous for all the "cosplay" kids - girls (mostly) in all sorts of fancy dress. This time, though, the craze seems to have almost died out - a shame, because it was really colourful. The teenage shopping street, Takeshita Dori, is as crammed with people as ever, but they're all dressed in boringly normal clothes. I couldn't help thinking of Carnaby Street in London. Briefly, in 1968, this was the epicentre of the youth movement, the in place to be seen and to buy the latest fashions. By 1969 it had turned into a tourist trap, selling cheap imitations of 1968 fashion - and still, nearly 50 years later, it is exactly the same thing. Probably every first-time visitor to London goes there, and it absolutely isn't worth it.

Our flights home left after midnight, so we still had time for one more dinner. This time it was a reunion with some former colleagues of Isabelle's, another delightful meeting with old friends, in a little place near Shimbashi. And then, back to the hotel, and a short wait for the bus to Haneda. Once on the bus, I realised I'd left my Shimoda walking stick in the hotel - impossible not to see that as somehow symbolic.

And then, back home.