We’ve lived in Japan for just over five months now, and have experienced almost every mode of transportation on offer here: planes, trains, automobiles, bikes, go-karts!, and my personal new favorite… the Shinkansen (bullet trains). Adapting to getting around here was far easier than I expected… although there were some (literal & figurative) bumps along the way!
Driving in Japan
When we first arrived, we were put through a week of cultural orientation, which ended with a ‘driving in Japan’ class and a test for our driver’s license. Don’t worry, they told us. Everyone always passes.
The day of the test, I flew through the questions, confident in my answers and understanding of Japanese street signs. The proctor graded the tests as we stood there, handing paperwork off for our next stop after we’d passed. My turn came up. After the first few X’s she marked through the answers, she frowned.
I began to worry. So did the proctor, who began to emit a nervous moan as she fretted over whether or not I might pass. ‘Ohhhhh…. AHHHHHHHH!!!!’ I had passed. Barely! But a Japanese drivers’ license was mine!
Driving in Japan – and thus, on the left side of the road – was far easier to get used to than I expected. It’s exactly the same as American driving, just reversed, once you’ve gotten started. Far harder has been the tiny streets, which make my husband a nervous, flinching wreck whenever he sits passenger side. The real difficulty for me is once those tiny streets – which in America would be a one-way only – start filling with pedestrians, bicycles, and two-way traffic. Then it becomes something like a game! Can you make it to the end of the street without hitting anyone or anything? We’ll see!
Biking in Japan
One of the first things we noticed about Japan is how often everyone bikes around – rain or shine. After we’d passed the 100th or so woman cycling along with two kids in bike seats and a basket full of groceries – in heels! – I knew I wanted a Japanese mama chari all my own. We researched and researched, and finally settled upon a Hydee II, which had the oh-so-necessary (for me) electric assist to help with the Japanese hills, and the ability to carry two little kids and a sack of groceries of my own. The day it arrived, my husband and I took turns riding it around our neighborhood. I would be so Japanese! I would bike everywhere!
Then I realized the game that is driving in a car on a narrow street in Japan is far, far less fun as a bicyclist. I’m not the most coordinated of bikers generally, and need a wide open bike lane preferably all to myself to feel truly confident on two wheels. After my first fall from the bike – with my son, into traffic, which thankfully could have been much worse but wasn’t – I also lost any semblance of the scrap of confidence I’d had. Dreams of cycling across towns and exploring off-the-beaten path side streets were put on hold until I could ensure my balance and my sanity returned to normal, and I could manage to pedal outside our neighborhood without gripping the handlebars in terror.
My husband, however, takes his road bike out often. We’re not far from Yokohama, and while it takes thirty minutes to reach it by train, he managed a day trip there in a far shorter time frame – there and back with time for exploring in a couple of hours. Someday I hope my confidence – and skill levels – reach a level where we can go exploring together.
Riding the Japanese Trains
Most places we go, we go by train. These were daunting at first, especially with a toddler, but practice has been our friend, along with the amazing, incredible Hyperdia app, which I don’t know if I could live without.
Our son has taken quickly to life on the trains, by which I mean one where he has a captive audience of adoring Japanese women who find him adorable and hilarious, especially when he’s disobeying my
frantic polite requests to sit down and stay silent. Silence is golden on the trains – they can be fully packed during rush hour and you’d still have it hushed enough to hear any and all of your own thoughts. It’s incredibly peaceful, in a way, though we often forget this rule the later it gets and the more drinks that have been consumed.
The best train experience by far, however, has been the Shinkansen. I’d been dying to ride on a Japanese bullet train, and we finally took our chance during a long weekend trip to Kyoto. It’s possible (and less expensive) to drive to Kyoto, but I trekked down to my closest JR line station, bought tickets for the three of us with my limited Japanese, and we were off the next day on the luxurious bullet train.
It was incredible. You queue up like you do for the ordinary trains, this time with luggage, and within minutes you’re whisked away, hurtling along the tracks at hundreds of miles an hour. More spacious than the everyday trains, there was plenty of room to stretch out with luggage and a squirmy toddler, and plenty of room for a toddler to peek around his parents and flirt with the Japanese women a few rows behind us.
As you approached your destination, everyone grabbed their luggage off the above racks and lined up to depart – the train stops for less than five minutes at each stop and passengers are whisked on and off rapidly. Before you know it, the sleek train has already moved on to its next destination!
If I could travel entirely by bullet train throughout the rest of my time here, I would. It was so relaxing and efficient, and such a switch from either navigating the directions and signage in Japanese or battling our toddler to stay on the regular trains at every station. The views as we whirred past were phenomenal and the trip actually felt all-too-short.
Can’t wait for our next one!