23 Apr 2013
So you may have read about my adventures in learning to drive on the left. In the driver’s ed class to get my Japanese license, I also learned some of the nuts and bolts of driving, like the only place in Okinawa you can turn on red is on Kadena Air Base, or the meaning behind these interesting decals:
The pointy green and yellow “mark” is for new drivers, whereas both the teardrop and clover “marks” below are for senior citizen drivers (and since we’re on Okinawa, known for having the most centenarians per capita, there are a lot of them). The teardrop one has been around for a while; the clover is newer.
Still, there were some things they didn’t cover about driving in Okinawa, that I had to learn from experience.
I present to you:
Some Unofficial, Unwritten Rules about Driving in Okinawa, Japan (Now Written!)
1. You should let cars in.
It’s considered common courtesy to let a vehicle in ahead of you, whether it’s trying to switch lanes, or you’re stopped at a red light and someone’s trying to turn onto the main street in front of you. It’s also customary to bow and/or put your hand up to say thank you if someone lets you in.
But when cars are trying to merge onto busy highways and expressways, you should get over to the far lane, or just keep driving as you were. Because they don’t really do the moving merge over here. If you slow down for a car to get in, they usually won’t go. Until you are completely and unequivocally stopped. And waving them on. Which could definitely cause problems. Ask me how I know.
2. You might not get a green arrow telling you to turn.
At some intersections on island, you might want to turn right, across traffic (since we drive on the left). Of course if there’s oncoming traffic, you can’t go, but then, all of a sudden, that traffic will stop, and you will still have a green light, not an arrow. This means it’s okay to turn. Which was quite confusing to me at first, since I was so used to green arrows. But you get used to it. I still think green arrows are a lot more logical, though.
3. Yellow means Go, and Red, uh, Red means Go, too.
Where I’m from, the days are gone when you could roll through an intersection if it were a stale yellow, turning red. Police are now pretty ticket-happy for traffic violations, and there are lots of red light cameras with their signature “flashes” when they take pictures of violators.
But here on Okinawa? Eh, not so much. Traffic cops are much more hands off. They only seem to get involved when there’s an accident. And I’ve only heard of cameras checking for speeding on the northern part of the expressway (so watch out there–tickets, I heard, were around $300 US). If you’re the first in line at an intersection and get a green light, you should really consider waiting until about 3 (some people count 5!) cars have gone through the red light. Because it’s going to happen. And you don’t want to be in the intersection when it does.
4. Mirrors on the streets are your friends.
No, they’re not part of some neighborhood watch program to prevent theft (like their American cousins in convenience and liquor stores). And they’re not some public service to pedestrians worried about “road hair.”
Considering how terribly narrow the streets are, they’re actually quite necessary in helping cars not crash into each other at intersections–they let you see oncoming traffic without moving too far into the teensy weensy road and getting in the way.
5. Tiny streets and parking spots call for even tinier cars. It’s no wonder that the most popular vehicles on island include this:
This isn’t as common, but it’s small and goofy looking, nonetheless:
And these are typical work trucks you see everywhere. One model of this truck is even called a Suzuki “Carry.”
But a Celica is considered “big.” Because it’s long. It also likes to scrape up against stuff in tight corners, if you’re not paying attention. And let’s not even talk about the fact that it’s so low to the ground, that you have to squat and twist your butt toward the seat to climb in.
Don’t get me wrong, you do see people driving these monstrosities, mostly families who need that much space:
5. Contrary to everything you’ve been taught, scooters and mopeds (same diff) are considered cool on island.
And watch out–they sneak between lanes and their drivers can be pretty reckless sometimes. I saw one pop a wheelie, nearly vertical, for a good 5 seconds or so a few months back. It was really cool! Dangerous, but cool.
6. Entrance and Exit kanji–don’t drive like a total noob!
You’ve successfully made it to a parking garage, but now it’s time to leave, and none of the signs are in English? It would help to know the difference between the entrance and exit, wouldn’t it?
Well, this is the kanji for Enter (in Japanese, pronounced iriguchi): 入口
Or what I think of as a wish bone and a square.
And this is the kanji for Exit (pronounced deguchi): 出口
7. Your vehicle–a fine place to display your decorating skills
Maybe it’s because Japanese houses are rather small, that the decor seems to spill over into the car. I’m still finding it hard to explain this:
I can maybe get behind the idea of protecting your dashboard, but why the shag carpet? Wouldn’t that just attract more dust?
And I’m not sure if some people just LOVE stuffed animals, or if they’re running a mobile daycare business:
This, on the other hand, is totes kawaii, and if my vehicle allowed for such things, I’d get one too:
And if you’re feeling really fancy:
You can get some special illuminated plates (light bulbs not included), or. . .
8. Curtains–they’re not just for RV’s and sketchy kidnapper vans.
The Okinawans like to put curtains in their vehicles. I’m not sure if it’s to block the sun, or for, um, “privacy,” but I think it does have to do, in part, with the fact that many (construction worker types especially) have 2 hour lunch breaks, and it’s perfectly acceptable to go to your car and take a nap. Nice!
With the curtain, it honestly looks like a ghost is driving, just like in this prank.
It’s good for disguising your true identity while driving, something I know Dr. Claw and superheroes would appreciate.
And to be honest, having some curtains in your car can come in handy when, say, you need to change into clothes after a day at the beach. But I wonder–do you install the curtains yourself, or do they come with the vehicle, like the puke orange ones in this van most certainly did?
9. Highway names–could be a little more creative, and, um, different.
Once you start driving in Okinawa, you might make an attempt to learn the names of highways and streets, you know, to better give and understand directions. Pretty useful skill, right? But then you realize that there is more than one Route 58 (3 of them, I believe), and more than one Route 85, and the list goes on. With so many (infinite!) numbers that exist, can you imagine the confusion/frustration? And then, many other streets don’t really have names, and the Japanese addressing system is the exact opposite of the Western system. And in Oki, most roads curve around the hills of the island, so forget any kind of grid system.Thank goodness for smart phones with GPS, is all I have to say.
10. The expressway: it’s easier than it looks.
Some basic tips for newbies: you get in the toll lane with the minus sign, not the ETC lanes (ETC stands for Electronic Toll Collection System), unless you have a ETC device in your car, which you have to sign up for.
You take your ticket, and head either north toward Nago or south toward Naha. When you get off, you hand the toll person your ticket and pay in yen (or card).
If you still find it all a bit unnerving, there’s a good write up on Okinawa Hai on using the toll road.
All right, I realize that some of my road rules aren’t rules at all, but are Oki car fashion trends that I find baffling. I can have some fun, can’t I?