Travel Within Japan: Taxies, Trains and Driving in Japan
The White Knuckle Thrill of Japanese Roads
For a country that seems to be so obsessed with safety, Japan has some very odd road building practices. In general Japanese roads are narrow. It's not uncommon to find roads so tight that two cars cannot pass simultaneously, forcing one to pull off slightly to the side to allow the other to go on.
I've seen several roads like this in the city. These I can understand to an extent. After all, many Japanese cities have existed for centuries and moving old buildings around isn't a common practice. The baffling thing is, I've encountered several exceedingly narrow roads in the Japanese countryside, where there is plenty of space and plenty of commuter traffic. There's a particularly narrow road, dropping off on either side, that we must traverse in order to get to my sister-in-law's home in Sanda. That road gets me jittery every time. It's only a five foot drop or so, not likely to kill anyone, but well enough to ruin your day.... and struts, gas tank, insurance rate and whatever farm crops you happen to land on (I believe it's cabbage in that particular field).
To make things worse, a lot of roads, even the insanely narrow ones, will have what is known as mizu. That's a drainage trench molded into concrete that makes up the side of the road. These mizu almost never have any type of grating covering them and are just about as wide as a tire on a small Japanese Kei car, leaving one to wonder what would happen if a tire were to cross over into the mizu.
A third, and perhaps the most daunting, issue is the fact that mountain roads in Japan (and most roads here are mountain roads) frequently have areas where there is no guard rail. These lead straight to sheer drop offs of ten feet or more. Those are especially fun when a log truck is passing you on a hairpin turn.
Fuel Up When You Can
If you're driving in Japan, keep an eye on your fuel and the clock. Most Japanese gas stations are not 24/7 operations and finding fuel late at night can be a difficult task, especially if you are even slightly outside of urban Japan.
Japanese convenience stores (called convini) are plentiful and open around the clock, but they don't sell fuel. In Japan, a gas station is a gas station and a convenience store is a convenience store. You will not get fuel at the Circle K and you will not usually be able to get a Coke or a bag of chips at the Shell station (Yes, we have Circle K and Shell in Japan, along with Seven Eleven).
The Japanese Taxi Cab
Taxis are common in the cities and can be a good, albeit slightly expensive, way of getting around town. A taxi ride in Japan will likely be a more pleasant experience than it's counterpart back in the states. All the cab drivers that I have encountered have worn suits and white Bugs Bunny gloves (in fact, the Japanese seem to have an affinity for white gloves as they are common attire for security guards, train station attendants, parking lot attendants, etc). Another point of differentiation is the presence of some type of lace doily thing covering the seats in all Japanese taxis. I have no idea how or why this got it's start, but it's a firmly entrenched practice now and it's a nice change of pace from the cracked vinyl seats with crumbling foam padding that I'm accustomed to back home.
It is often mentioned in other lists of Japanese travel tips that the taxi doors in Japan will open automatically. I can attest that this is indeed true, so when you enter or exit a cab, don't reach for the door handle. The driver will open the door for you remotely.
The price for a cab ride in Japan will change depending on the time of day. After midnight, when the trains and buses are shut down, the price for cab fare will be higher. Don't feel like they are trying to pull one over on the traveling gaijin, it's just standard practice in Japan and goes along with the laws of supply and demand.
Near the taxi line you may see a small truck or two hanging out chochin-moji adorned red paper lanterns. These lanterns indicate that they are open for business, selling some late night variety of Japanese food. Ramen, yakitori and takoyaki are frequent finds here. Consider taking advantage of this downtime to sample whatever Japanese treats happen to be available.
If you decide to partake in the local offerings, eat your food near the truck or have it packed up and take it back to your hotel. Do not eat or drink while standing in line for your cab. Japanese etiquette dictates that you do not do so. That's not to say that you will never see a Japanese person doing just that. Japan has its fair share of ill-mannered citizens just as any other country on this planet does. Do not follow suit however.
Japanese Toll Roads Cost Real Money
Traveling on toll roads in Japan will cost you a pretty yen. I was hit with this for the first time during a trip from my home in Najio, Hyogoken prefecture to my brother-in-law's home in Shiga prefecture. The drive only took about an hour, but upon arriving at the toll booth, I nearly fell out of my car when the attendant asked for the equivalent of $29.00 USD. Keep in mind that that fee was for the one way trip only. So our grand total was roughly $60.00 USD to travel and hour away and make our return.
You can lessen this expense by traveling during the late or very early hours, like 4:AM, but even the off hour tolls are still expensive compared to those in the US.
Yet another example: My wife's parents live about 25 minutes away in Takarazuka Japan. We can knock about four minutes off of that trip if we pay a $2.50 toll. So with the round trip, that works out costing $5.00 to shave about eight minutes off our time. Now five bucks isn't that much, but eight minutes isn't that long either.
You may be wondering about automated toll systems in Japan, similar to Sunpass in Florida or E-Z Pass in New Jersey. The Japanese system actually goes by the name ETC (acronym for Electronic Toll Collection). It's fairly easy to sign up for assuming that you have a Japanese bank account or some other way to transfer funds into the ETC account. It's a popular choice in Japan and as you might expect, there are times when having it can speed up your trip significantly.
Toll Update 2009:The new prime minister has recently enacted a limit on tolls. Currently, no single toll will be more than ¥1000 (approximately $10.00 USD), but this is only in effect during the weekends or on national holidays. Additionally, this is per toll not per trip, so you can still rack up quite a bill, just less so than before.
Toll Update 2011: The $10 deal mentioned above has now been canceled by the Japanese government, so we are back to paying through the nose. I'd rather they just not do crap like that to begin with than to do it and then a couple years down the road take it all back.
Toll Update 2012: At some point recently the standard ¥500 toll that would take me about a half hour away to Akashi (where my DMV is located) has now jumped up to ¥900! That's around $11.23 as early May 2012 and that's one damn way. When i went to get my new Japanese driver's license it ended up costing $22.46 in tolls just to go about 35 minutes away and then come back home. Actually, it cost $67.38 because we had to go three times, they would not let me take the written test on the same day as the driving test.
Apparently the truckers are very happy about this because at the same time the average person's toll fees went up theirs when down. So it would seem that we the public are now subsidizing the shipping industry in Japan.