I recently came back to Japan after a 7-week-long trip to America, in which I watched two of my best friends get married and met another one’s new baby girl, among many other things. I am just now adjusting to my own life here in Okinawa again, and am finally ready to get back to blogging!
The most difficult thing this trip forced me to unlearn and relearn is driving! There are so many differences related to driving in Japan and America. First of all, in Japan, we drive on the left side of the road. When we moved here almost 9 months ago, Casey and I had to take a written test in order to receive our SOFA-status drivers’ licenses. We had to learn the laws of the road, but no one held our hands through learning how to navigate this place. The switch to the left side of the road was difficult because (duh), we had been driving on the right side since we were 15! I was so terrified to drive out here, that Casey had to force me to start driving about 2 weeks in. (We went out with friends and he decided to drink, meaning that I became the de facto designated driver. I wasn’t happy).
Some things to “unlearn and relearn” along with this transition:
1. In Japan, there is no “right on red,” and there are actually different laws out in town and on certain military installations for taking a “left on red.”
2. Fast lane, passing lane, bus lane: all different.
3. Where to look when making a turn at a stop sign: right left right, or left right left? This one still confuses me. 😉
4. Parking lots. Yes, they are backwards, too.
5.The driver sits on the right. Sometimes, I still try to get in on the wrong side. (It’s been 9 months).
6. Most difficult of all: the wiper blades and turn signal are on opposite sides of the wheel. It is common to see new people on Okinawa turning on their wipers when they mean to signal that they are turning. We call this the “Oki wave.”
Fortunately for me, I’ve had an adorable car in which to learn all of this. This is “Turtle car.” She is a 2003 Daihatsu Naked. Yes, Naked. (The Japanese love English words, and often show little regard for the meaning of the word when they choose it. More on that in another post)! She has a whopping 750cc engine, which for you less mechanically intelligent (like myself) out there, means the engine is smaller than the one in Casey’s Harley Sportster. In short: tiny. She has a difficult time making it up hills, or going over 60km per hour, which for you Americans out there is only about 37 miles per hour.
She is like a mini Hummer, complete with golf cart tires, a rubberized interior, removable backseats, retractable side mirrors (very common in Japan because the roads and parking areas are so narrow), and lots of love to spare. You might be able to see Casey’s Toyota Camry Gracia parked next to Turtle car. As you can probably see, the Camry is much larger, which is why we do not often drive it around Okinawa. While not a large car in America, in Okinawa it is like driving a boat. It has a normal-sized engine, but a bad turning radius and we often have a hard time finding a parking space big enough for it! Also, my car is much cheaper to drive because it is awesome on gas and the road taxes are so cheap because the Japanese government subsidizes efficient cars! Small, or “kei” cars with yellow license plates are common in Japan because the road taxes are about 90% less than that of more American-sized vehicles, like the Camry!
Learning to drive here was much easier than I expected. However, a few things will continue to be difficult, no matter how long we stay here. Roads can be so tiny that you will have stop and sometimes back up in order to allow cars to pass in the opposite direction. The Japanese often do not name their roads and highways, so we rely on landmarks when giving directions. Sometimes, highways have the same name. For example, there are two highway 58’s on Okinawa. Sometimes, the signage can be pretty confusing:
Overall, however, it can be a beautiful place to drive.
After spending 6 months in Okinawa, it was time for me to go back to the states for a visit. The idea of driving back in the states was terrifying to me for a few reasons.
1. I would need to relearn to drive on the right, and Americans would be much less forgiving than the Okinawans, who are used to Americans driving on the wrong side when they first arrive on island.
2. Everything moves a good deal faster in America. The fastest speed limit I’ve seen on Okinawa is 80 km, which is about 50 miles per hour!
3. American drivers are significantly less courteous than Okinawan drivers. Okinawans are much better at merging because they actually let people in, and then they often thank each other by flashing their hazard lights quickly in a gesture of thanks. (This is my favorite thing about driving in Japan). 🙂
4. America is much more dangerous than Okinawa. In Japanese culture, it is very uncommon for women to get kidnapped, raped, or mugged. I was going to be driving by myself through some cities which are known for the frequency of these crimes, and could not help but be worried after feeling so safe on my little island.
5. Worst of all, I would need to stop at red lights again. In Okinawa, it is safer to go through a red light than stop short because everyone behind you is already planning to run it. Yeah, sure, you have to wait a few seconds before driving when the light turns green, but it feels so good to run those red lights!
To be fair and balanced, for all you Fox News fans out there, America does a few things better than Japan:
1. Turning lanes. These are important, and Japan should install them.
2. Roads sized large enough to fit cars. It’s easy to forget how nice this is.
3. Fair arbitration of car accidents. In Okinawa, an American involved in an accident will always be at fault. The accident would not have happened if you weren’t on Okinawa, period.
4. Road and highway names make life so much easier.
5. Motorcycles aren’t… terrifying! Out here they drive like maniacs in flip flops with unbuckled helmets! They do wheelies at stop lights, drive in between lanes to speed past traffic, and drive up to the front of the line at stoplights. To deal with them safely, you have to view them as suicidal so that you remember to steer clear of them, literally.
6. Shoulders, bicycle lanes, HOV lanes, parking lots for businesses, and the Jersey Turnpike. (Just kidding, folks. Seriously, it was a joke).
I dealt with all of my concerns, but in end I made it through my travels. I drove over 3000 miles in my parents’ trusty Subaru Forester, only breaking down once. I sent Americans the “Oki wave” a few times, resisted the urge to thank/thoroughly confuse courteous drivers with a flash of my hazards, and kept the doors locked at all times. I dealt with stop-and-go traffic, speed demons, and road rage just like the old days. And then I came back to Okinawa and learned it all over again.
Love always, Amanda
PS. The turn signal makes so much more sense on the right side. That is all!