Monday, January 14, 2008

Out of Tokyo by car

Japan has an excellent public transportation system, and most visitors only use trains, subway or bus. However, driving is often the most convenient way to reach remote areas. Some places are only served by uncomfortable, infrequent and expensive buses. A week-end from Tokyo to the Izu Peninsula (伊豆半島), Mount-Fuji (富士山), the Southern Alps (南アルプス) or Nikko (日光) is more convenient by Car, as is a visit to Okinawa island (沖縄).
A trip for two people is often slightly less expensive by car. Rental is straightforward. French people can drive with a simple translation of their license in Japanese for up to a year. British or US citizens may use an international driving license for a short-stay. Long-term residents will however need a Japanese license. Many rent-a-car companies are available, the biggest networks being probably Nissan Rent-a-Car and Toyota Rent-a-Car. Renting a small car is not that expensive, at around 14000 Yens (85 Euros) for a week-end. Most cars have are fitted with an automatic gearbox and a satellite transportation system (カーナビ). This device is, since more than 5 years ago, an essential device in this country where streets have no names. Just input a phone number, an address, or an hotel name, and you will be guided by the shortest path. You can also try to use a trip calculation site, but you may get in a big trouble if you get lost.
Even if you are a long term resident in a major Japanese city, it is probably advisable to rent a car from time to time than to buy your own. Cars are not that expensive in Japan. A small Toyota, the "Porte" will set you back around 1.4MY 8500 Euros. However, you need to own or rent a garage or a slot in a car park. This can cost up to 40.000 Yens per month (240 Euros) in a residential area of Tokyo like Meguro-Ku (目黒). In a business district like Akasaka (赤坂), prices go up to 60.000 Yens per month (360 Euros). While driving, you cannot just stop your car on the roadside, but you will find parking lots wherever you may need it. The most sophisticated ones will put your car on a giant steel tray, and move it automatically in a giant warehouse. Even in the countryside, you will often have to pay to park, especially in tourist areas. Downtown parks are affordable, with a rate of up to 600 Yens (3.5 Euros) per hour.
You will probably leave Tokyo through the Tomei motorway (東名高速道路) linking Tokyo (東京) to Nagoya (名古屋). It is the gateway to Hakone (箱根) region, Mount Fuji (富士山) and Izu (伊豆). You can drive up to the speed of 100 km.h, the maximum allowed in Japan. Even if the motorway fees are expensive (around 24 Yens - 0.14 Euros per kilometer), it is not a wise idea to save a few yens and drive on the regular road. In urban areas between Tokyo and Osaka, you could litteraly drive hundreds of kilometers on crowded roads with a traffic light every 300 meters. Even when leaving cities, narrow roads and steep curves mean you will rarely drive faster than 40 km.h. The speed limit on trunk roads is anyways 60 km.h. Narrow roads in the cities are sometimes even slower, with no space to pass another car, unless you park in between the phone poles. Do not be surprised if your satellite system says you need 3 hours to reach you goal 100 km away. In the countryside roads, you should beware of "gaijin traps" that line the roads. Those concrete ditches are wide enough for a car tire to fall in.
Driving in Japan is sometimes annoying, but can also be pleasant. Japanese people have excellent driving manners, even if they do not have the reflexes of European drivers. Tokyo elevated motorways (Shuto 首都) pass through the most picturesque areas of Tokyo. Seen from the street, those endless bridges are not always appreciated, even if they are definitely part of the Tokyo experience now. For a 700 Yens (4 Euro) fee, you get a tour of Tokyo seen from above at the exhilarating speed of 60km.h, if you are a law abiding (or speed camera fearing) citizen. Before the deployment of those devices, the motorways were used for illegal races during the night. Those races, and the hashiriya (走り屋) organizing them, are now the stuff of legend, probably embellished to sell the related video-games, action movies and mangas (the famous Wangan midnight, first published en 1992). Even more futuristic, the Tokyo Bay aqualine (東京湾アクアライン) links Kawasaki (川崎) and the Boso peninsula (房総半島) on the other side of Tokyo Bay (東京湾). The motorway first goes through a 10 kilometers tunnel 60 meters under the sea, before reaching the surface on the man-made "Kisarazu" island. From there, you get an impressive view on the Tokyo Bay from Kawasaki Harbor to Chiba factories. This being Japan, you can of course buy the local character (Umi-Hotaru海ほたる) as a stuffed animal or a cake. Before considering moving in Chiba, you should think about the 3000Y fee that puts-off many drivers. Even at this rate, the building costs will only be recouped 50 years from now.
The Japanese countryside also makes for very pleasant drives, especially when trees are in full bloom, or during the autumn. You can discover small mountainside hamlets, terraced rice paddies, temples and endless forests. You will discover pristine beaches and cliffs in the Izu peninsula, sometimes nori drying in the wide, or a small fishing town. You will reach the wildest parts of Japan, precisely the ones not deserved by public transport. But the most pleasant part of driving in Japan is probably the feeling of being, at last, a free and autonomous adult. You do not need anymore someone to tell you that the doors of the train will soon close, or to worry about the schedule of the last train. You should enjoy this feeling while you are in remote areas. When you come back, you may get stuck in the infamous Sunday night traffic jams, especially on the Chuo motorway (中央高速道路). It is common to spend 4 hours to drive the 120 kilometers from Kofu (甲府) to Tokyo (東京).
If the police can sometimes forget minor speeding committed by a foreigner, drunk driving will be severely punished. The alcohol limit is very low, at 0.15 mg against 0.40 mg in France or in the UK. You can reach the limit with a single beer, and get up to a 1MY (6000 Euros) fine and 5 years in prison. The Japanese law punishes the driver and other passengers of the car in the same way when the driver is caught driving drunk, as it considers other passengers are also responsible.

Toyota Rent-a-car (トヨタ レンタカー) http://rent.toyota.co.jp/ (Japanese only)
Nissan Rent-a-car (日産 レンタカー) http://nissan-rentacar.com/ (Japanese only)
Nippon Rent-a-car (ニッポンレンタカー)http://www.rentacartokyu.co.jp/ (Japanese only)
Orix http://car.orix.co.jp/ (Japanese only)
ToCoo! Travel http://www2.tocoo.jp/english/ (English spoken)

Internet maps
Yahoo Map : http://map.yahoo.co.jp/
Mapion : http://www.mapion.co.jp/

Trip calculation
Mapfan http://www.mapfan.com/routemap/routeset.cgi/
Wangan Midnight (湾岸MIDNIGHT): published by Kodansha (講談社), first published in 1993 (ISBN-13: 978-4063233728), episode 25 published on 2007 June 8th.

3 comments:

A reader from Spain said...

hello, i will go to Japan in August, i would like to hire a car with driver from 15th august till 30 august to travel around Japan from Tokyi to Osaka, would you please say me price or if you don´t hire cars with driver, please give me any company for that, thank you from Spain

Uchimizu said...

Hi,

hiring a car with a driver is very atypical in Japan, and is likely to be very costly. If you do not wish to drive in Japan yourself, you may want to consider public transport and taxis as a reasonnable alternative, especially in urban areas.

However, the following company seems to offer "chauffeur" service in Tokyo: Europcar Services:

http://www.europcarservice.com/

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