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  Are You Keeping The Car Today?

Are you keeping the car today? Chas asked. In most families with only one vehicle, this is a relatively easy question to answer and the response requires little thought. As I ponder my response options, I must also consider the consequences of my selection. He isn’t really asking if I want the use of the car. He is asking if I am ready to; once again, risk my life and sanity on the streets and sidewalks of Koriyama.

Did I say sidewalks? Unfortunately, yes; sidewalks are a big part of Japanese driving. However, I don’t want to get ahead of myself, so I’ll start with the easy stuff.

At first glance, the main challenge for westerners driving in Japan is the fact that the Japanese drive on the left side of the road rather than the right side, and the turn across traffic is a right turn, rather than a left turn. That change requires a minor adjustment in thinking and behavior, and paying close attention to the rest of the traffic. No turns are permitted on red lights; one less thing to worry about. Also, since reading the driving manual, I know that driving on the shoulder is not permitted; nor is driving on sidewalks, driving through red lights, or parking in the driving lane or on sidewalks. Armed with these assumptions, I confidently grab the keys.

Apparently, although all drivers are allegedly familiar with the afore mentioned rules of the road, and most have spent a lot of money for driving lessons, most do not appear to observe them. Even the Japanese are wary of flagrant driving deviations in their fellow drivers. When we first arrived in country Chas, making conversation with a Japanese friend, observed that the Japanese drivers were polite. The Japanese man to whom Chas was speaking looked incredulous at this statement and only grunted a response. We should have known then that something was amiss. Later, while riding with a Japanese friend, I observed her approach each intersection slowly and with caution stating that she must be alert for drivers running the red light. Hmmm…

One harrowing morning, while I was making a right turn across traffic, I learned first hand about local driving habits. The car coming toward me was also making a right turn across traffic. Ordinarily, with permission of the tiny green arrows, those two actions would be compatible, and both of us would make the turn safely and without incident. Not! As I began my turn, I realized that the car behind the one facing me had quickly seized the opportunity to race around the turning car, using the shoulder and against the oncoming red light, and appeared determined to get through the intersection. In order for that to be accomplished, the driver had to hit me. Luckily, operating on orange alert, I slammed on my brakes as the car whizzed past on my right with barely an inch to spare. The driver, briefly glancing my way, appeared surprised to see a car attempting a turn on the green arrow. Over the last two years, I have observed this to happen with such frequency that I automatically assume driving on the shoulder will occur, with drivers displaying various levels of surprise, shock, and awe when encountering other cars in the intersection. In cases where life or death is the issue, I am a one trial learner. My driving strategy has been adjusted to include the expectation that this maneuver will occur at every intersection. So much for the driving manual. I don’t recall a disclaimer in the Rules of the Road book that local customs may differ.

While driving home one evening after dark, I noticed a car making a right turn at the signal ahead. Ordinarily, that maneuver would have taken the car across the intersection and into the driving lane on my right. This car, however, was coming straight toward me, in my driving lane, with no lights on. Not knowing what else to do, I stopped…in the driving lane…with traffic backing up behind me…waiting to see what would happen. The car came toward me for half a block and then, right in front of me, turned sharply into the parking lot of a “combini” (convenience store). Was that a look of surprise on his part that there was a car in the driving lane with which he almost had a head on collision? Hmmm…o.k….he was only going a short distance, so, from his perspective, he did not have to be in the correct lane? After all, at his end of the street my lane was empty, so why not use it? That kind of thinking makes me crazy, so I try not to go there.

Back to Sidewalks. Driving around town, I noticed the entrances to parks, museums, public buildings, walking paths, and most wide sidewalks are blocked with large concrete barriers. So, what’s up with that? Then I noticed, on those areas where no barriers were placed, cars were parked. Hmmm…I began to get it.

While walking with Wendy and Sue on a large sidewalk in the city of Himeji, a car came up behind us and gently tooted its horn. Thinking we had some how strayed into the road, we immediately moved out of the way. Looking around, we noticed we had actually been on the sidewalk. The car continued up the sidewalk, tooting pedestrians out of its way as it went. Hmmm…the sidewalk is more convenient and less crowded than the driving lane, so it makes perfect [Japanese] sense to use it? Of course, it is a total surprise to encounter pedestrians or bicycles on the sidewalk, right?

While leaving the parking lot of the post office, I stopped short of the sidewalk to check for pedestrians and bicycles before proceeding to the street. On my right, a car was racing toward me; on the sidewalk, backing up. The car had to have traveled a half block in this manner, given there was no other way to enter the sidewalk between the post office and the intersection. It proceeded to back into the parking lot of the post office, stopping right beside me. The driver, giving me a surprised and somewhat incredulous look (what? A car in the drive way?), then raced forward into the street. Hmmm… While leaving the parking lot of the mall, I stopped short of the side walk to check for pedestrians and bicycles before proceeding to the street. Sound familiar? Looking to my left, I noticed a car driving down the sidewalk toward me. It was on the wrong side of the street for the direction it was traveling, and the driver appeared determined to enter a driveway that was clearly labeled exit and only big enough for one car. Mine happened to be the one car in the exit space. After looking surprised that a car might actually be occupying the driveway, he politely let me drive out, bowed, and drove right on in. Apparently, he had come from the garage or parking lot of a business located somewhere on the street. So, what was he thinking? It is only a short way to the mall from here; why not use this nice, wide sidewalk instead of going to the trouble of pulling into the correct driving lane and having to make a turn back across traffic in a short distance? Hmmm…now I’m feeling both crazy, and paranoid. They seem to be coming at me from all directions.

Cars park on sidewalks in front of business establishments and leave their lights flashing while they leave the vehicle to shop. If the sidewalk is too narrow to accommodate the whole car, drivers park half on the sidewalk and half in the street, blocking pedestrians, bicycles, and cars. (This maneuver just might rate a 9 out of 10 if scores were given; considering it also forces pedestrians and bicycles into the streets, and it forces cars to cross into the wrong driving lane risking head on collisions with on coming traffic.) Cars park in the driving lane so drivers can use their cell phones, or leave the car to use vending machines I won’t even mention that they somehow chose the blindest curves and tops of hills to do this. Cars also park in driving lanes and on sidewalks for no apparent reason. It is o.k. to do so because the flashers are on? Hmmm…

Having missed their turn, drivers stop in the driving lane and back up, even when traffic behind them is forced to stop to accommodate their maneuver. Cars drive down one-way streets the wrong direction for whatever reason makes sense to the driver at the time. Cars drive on sidewalks for reasons known only to those drivers and unfathomable to my already slightly boggled mind. Interestingly, the drivers always look vaguely surprised that the sidewalks are occupied by bicycles and pedestrians whom they have abruptly scattered and narrowly avoided killing. Then, there is the 70 year old woman pushing a wheel barrow full of daikon and cabbages down the middle of the road trailing a line of traffic behind her. Being a southern boy Chas already respects the elderly women but has found new respect having gotten whacked on the shins by one with her cane when he was unknowingly in her way. Maybe, I should just stop there.

While I have more Hmmm… moments in any one day than I consider healthy. In retrospect, I suppose Hmmm…is a better reaction than the absolute white knuckle, bug eyed, adrenaline pumping terror I used to experience when faced with the little idiosyncrasies of Japanese drivers. Chas says it is an indication of my increased level of driving comfort that I no longer babble half a dozen stories of how I almost didn’t survive a day with the car. I say it is an indication of my ability to habituate to stress. I now consider these predictable attempts on my life as only mildly interesting and no longer worth the adrenaline. Once I realized that craziness and paranoia were life-sustaining states, I relaxed.

My philosophy is a successful trip is one in which I arrive home without injury to me or the machine. I don’t tempt the seven Japanese gods too often. They appear to be working over time keeping drivers out of trouble.

Are there many accidents? That’s a good question. We do not observe many. Our theory is that, either they are cleaned up very quickly; or all drivers expect all other drivers to do something totally unexpected and defying explanation. The thing that continues to amaze me is that no one honks, shouts, flips the finger, pumps a fist, or shoots at anybody else. Drivers, apparently accustomed to the silliness of other drivers, appear to be patient with the silliness without visible objection. Our thoughts stray to the potential life expectancy of drivers engaging in these acts of silliness anywhere in Tucson.

On a rather ironic note; Chas was so excited to end his year as a beginner driver and can now legally remove the ‘Beginner Driver’ emblems from the car. He celebrated by putting a nice little scratch down the left side of the car after being forced far to the left on a very narrow street by an oncoming car. And so it goes.