01 April 2013

Cars and Driving in Japan

Driving in Japan. Is. Interesting.
I was actually shocked it only took me a couple times driving off base to feel comfortable.  Now, driving on the other side of the road like a lunatic seems completely normal.  Maybe I'm good at crazy driving, who knows.  The drivers don't seem so crazy anymore.  Deep down, I know they still are though.

Having a car here is pretty important.  There's really no way to get around it, even if you plan on staying on base forever (Ew).  Unlike our last few bases, this one is so large that there's no way you'd be able to walk every place you need to go.  Some people might be able to get around with a bike...but it rains and rains HARD here, so you at least need a car for back up.

We sold our cars back home before we left, and once arriving in Japan, we had to bum rides EVERYWHERE for almost a week.  It's something everyone has to do here, and lots of people offer you rides, but it was seriously taking a toll on me.  I hadn't needed to ask for a ride since before I had my license, and I hated having to rely on other people to bring us to required in processing appointments.  It all worked out, and many many "thank yous" were said (and meant) over and over again.

Coming in as a military member and dependent, we had a little process of acquiring our own wheels.  First, we had to take a drivers license test at the newcomers orientation the Wednesday after we arrived (Day 6 of no car).  The test was easy peasy...they showed us some videos to scare us into driving conservatively and went over Japanese rules and laws, and taught us what the signs meant (remember - no English on the road signs!).  Everything on the test was something they went over.

Some interesting highlights include:
  • There is an unofficial "3 car rule" that locals partake in.  Once a light turns red, it's very common for 3 or so cars to continue driving through the intersection.  If you have the green light, and drive through the intersection, and someone hits you because THEY ran the red light...you are still partially at fault because you should have made sure the intersection was clear.
  • SOFAstatus members are considered professional drivers by Japan.  That means you have more responsibility on the road (i.e. steeper fines, and more severe penalties).
  • No left turns on red.
  • The roads are made of corral and are very slippery.  It is common to slide/skid even when the roads are not wet.
After we obtain our drivers license (immediately after you take the test), you are legally allowed to purchase a car.  Most people here buy used cars off of someone who is leaving the island. You just need something that is going to get you around the island, pass inspection, and last 3 years or however long you are stationed here until you sell it to someone moving in.  

There are a few places to find cars.  Online (Okinawa Yard Sales), at a dealership, and 'lemon lots' on base where cars are left with contact information for the owner.  We checked out a bunch at the lot, and ended up finding the silver 2004 Mazda Verisa (pictured above) on there for $4,200.  It was in really great shape and reliable, and the owner took great care of it. It's sort of funny because it's very similar looking to the Mazda we just sold in the states.  We were able to buy it within a week of us getting here, and it was a huge stress relief to finally have our own car.

A few weeks later a friend gave us the heads up on a car for sale advertised on Facebook.  A pink Toyota Vitz asking $500 obo (not a typo).  We called about it, met the girl right away and decided it was the steal of the year.  She was leaving the island just a few days later, so we made arrangements to buy it for $450, let her drive it the rest of the week, and then met for the paperwork/insurance/registration exchange.  The old owner and new owner have to be together to complete the transfer paperwork.  

We've gotten Pinky checked out with no major issues, and I really couldn' t be happier with my little car.  I say mine because I've been driving it more than Aaron has lately, but he has no problem driving it being pink and all.  I bring that up because I think it's funny how many people here are surprised to find out Aaron doesn't mind driving a pink car.  Dude. It was a $450 car. I don't car if it had pink unicorns painted all over it.  It drives great and was cheaper than my cell phone.

Both are 4 door hatchbacks with lots of room and working air conditioning, and it still surprises me every day that I don't have to get out and crank start it or something.  They don't have a lot of power, but not many cars here do.  You really just need enough power to jet in and our of traffic, which ours do fine with...and for 2 cars under $5,000...you really can't complain.  There are a couple of souped-up cars here, and it really just makes you wonder....Why?!?  After all, most roads are only 50kph (31mph) and only the expressway is 80kpm (50mph).

Asides from a fancy car being completely unnecessary here, there are a few reasons why you might NOT want to get something you care deeply about...
  1. The roads here are really narrow and tight.  People park IN the slow lane.  There is a reason the cars here have buttons to fold in your mirrors.  Lots of cars get too close. Smash.
  2. People drive crazy.  When we arrived, people told us, it's not a matter of if you get into an accident, but when.
  3. The salt will eat away at your car.  If you don't wash & wax it on a regular basis, people have had layers of paint strip off within a year.
  4. If the roads are tight, parking is tighter.
  5. Did I mention that the roads were tight?  Those were the main roads I was talking about. Side roads, HA! A steep as hell windy road that barely fits your car is really 2 way road.  It's interesting when a truck comes barreling down.  Standoffs happen.  Backing down roads happens.  It's where a tiny car like Pinky comes in handy.
I was a little nervous driving off base the first time by myself.  It's not so much the driving that is complicated (it's not), but if you don't know where you're going, it can get interesting, especially when crazy drivers are around and motorcyclists are driving in between cars to get ahead.  They don't have street signs here (unless it's a major road).  Not in English, not in Japanese.  So directions are landmarks, which makes it hard to focus on driving and keeping track of where you are going when nothing looks familiar.

Like I said, over the past few weeks, driving off base hasn't been weird or scary.  It's actually become normal.  And just when I think that...I come across a crazy ass intersection and just bust through it hoping I come out on the other end. (Just kidding mom!  Well...kinda...)

1SOFA  (Status of Forces Agreement
An agreement between a host country and a foreign nation stationing military forces in that country that clarify the terms under which the military is allowed to operate.

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  1. There are so many things on your adventure that never crossed my mind - like having to take driving tests. By the way, I got road rage just reading this! Your pink car photo did take away some of the rage but I should probably still scream at someone.

  2. I feel like I'm back in jersey again with the road rage! It's awesome! Also, I'm interested in what else you never thought about? Even though we've only been here a month or so, I feel like the weird stuff is already 'normal' or we are so busy we just need to get something done so we don't question it.