Japan, especially the Tokyo and Yokohama areas, is a very crowded country. These two cities have formidable population densities, and from my experience during my high school abroad program, this naturally leads to the small houses, tall buildings, public transportation…and very narrow roads. Sidewalks are a bit of a luxury here. My heart gives a little leap of joy when I find a street lined with them. Many residential roads are literally just the road, with white lines marking the edges and a gutter where pedestrians walk. When a bus or large car decides to plow through, people have to get quite friendly with the fences and stone walls that border the roads. Imagine when there’s a bus going one direction and a car coming from another. I think Japanese cars are magical, like the bus in Harry Potter, and shrink to squeeze through impossibly tights spaces. Many of these roads would be considered ‘one-way streets’ by American standards.
Getting a license in Japan is much harder and more expensive than in the States. You have to be at least 18 years of age, and have taken a solid number of classes and practice courses. I have no doubt that it’s a very good thing, because if just any teenager could get a license, like in America, the streets would likely be a war zone.
When space is so limited, parking is also a hassle. There are very few parking lots that do not charge money to park in. Department stores, supermarkets and restaurants all charge for parking. Parking garages are common, and it’s standard procedure to back into parking spaces, because it makes it easier to get out. People can’t trust themselves to park forward, because it’s questionable whether they’ll have the space to back out.
With all this obvious inconvenience, you might wonder why anyone would ever desire to drive anywhere. There have, however, been instances when I sorely wished we had a car available.
Take, for example, the two-night vacation I took with my host family to Hokkaido. Hokkaido is the northernmost island of Japan, and is famous for its ski resorts, sea food, and general abundance of snow during the winter months.
Now, my entire view of the trip is somewhat twisted thanks to the flu that decided to strike me just days earlier. My mood must have looked something like the trashcan monster from Sesame Street. But that’s another story.
Flu or not, the transportation for this trip wasn’t easy. We did drive to the airport, and parked in a tall parking garage that of course would charge us later. A plane ride that was less than two hours long brought us to Hokkaido. But from there we had to take a bus to the hotel. It was a two-hour drive. By the time we got to the hotel it was eight, and our first dinner in the heaven of seafood was instant dinners from the 7Eleven across the street. The next two days were a flurry of taxis and trains. Midwinter in Hokkaido means walking any significant distance is a bit unreasonable. But finding transportation in an unfamiliar place was so exhausting!
At the very least, I’ve softened a bit toward narrow roads and limited parking. There are harder ways to get around.