09 December, 2015

Driving fun in Tokyo

I drive in Tokyo. That surprises some people, mostly non-Australians. I don't drive a lot, because we don't use the car as our everyday transport. We're close to all the things we do regularly: school, shops, and church. So our usual transport is walking or bikes. We're also close to the train station. So, for example, on Monday when I went to the OMF prayer meeting across town, I just walked to the train station (about 6 minutes) and caught trains.

But sometimes we use the car. For example for going camping or on holidays it is very useful. It's also great for grocery shopping on wet days and for a day like today when I bought bulk groceries at Costco (about an hour drive). We also use it to ferry other people to things like school events (sports, camps etc.) and out-of-town missionary gatherings. It's also good for getting large or heavy things around, like cans of kerosene to heat our house in winter.

Basically, if we're going a fair distance towards or through the centre of Tokyo (east) it is generally a bad idea to take the car. But if we're going south, or west or north the car is quite a viable option.

But there are challenges. Like getting lost or stuck!

The other day I drove our middle son to the orthodontist. We can take the bus, but I find driving this route less stressful than the bus along exactly the same route, even though it involves about 30 sets of traffic lights.

I have memorised a route, but there was one little bit where I thought I could knock off some time by taking a back route. Bad idea without a navigator! Oh, and a bad idea when you're already running late.

Looking at the map, you can see the red route. The easy, "big" route. That's what I have been taking (destination on the left at the end of the red line).

On Friday I deviated and drove the green route. My limitation with navigation while I'm driving is that I can't keep too many steps in my head at once. And the roads are so small, there's no verge to pull over and check your map, so I was driving by instinct rather than clear directions.  

I got to the red asterisk and knew I my destination was close, but probably one street over, I just couldn't find a connecting road (the bigger road further north of the asterisk is a one way road going the wrong way). At that asterisk there were two construction vehicles with guys working on something on the corner. There was one small and one large truck blocking the way into the street that I thought I wanted to go down. As is the custom in Japan, the workers noticed me and took action to allow me into the street. They shifted the large truck and helped me squeeze around the small van. 

About 50 m down the road I realised I'd made a big mistake. There was no way out of this road. The tiny "road" marked on the map is just a bike path. 

So I had a small panic, for a moment I wondered if we'd ever get out. We could almost touch the orthodontist's building and we were about 20 minutes late! But now I was stuck pointing the wrong way down a dead end. I uttered a hurried prayer and swallowed my pride.

Getting out of there was no small feat. I backed back until I found an empty carport under a house, quietly apologised to any one who might be home, and backed into the space. The road was so narrow that it took me about 15-point turn to get in and out again, pointing the right way.

Then I smiled and waved at the construction workers and squeezed back past the van. There was only a couple of centimetres on each side of my side mirrors, thankfully I didn't have to retract them to get through.

It was a miracle that I didn't hit anything. Took me a while to recover, though!

Entertaining traffic controllers
Today I was driving on a larger road (large enough to have a dotted line down the middle) and encountered some road work, one lane was closed and they were directing traffic around it.

Japanese traffic controllers can be very entertaining. They usually use an orange-red "light sabre" or two flags, one red and one white. Some of them can get quite animated with their waving. 

But today the older gentleman directing traffic got me a bit confused. He held his light sabre vertically and was waggling it. I wasn't sure if he was calling me to stop, or to move over into the opposite lane to pass the road work. I slowed from the 30km/hr I was doing and then moved over.

That had an astounding effect. He started jumping up and down, and moved his light sabre to horizontal, which clearly meant stop, so I pulled back into my lane. I've never made one of these guys jump up and down before!

Driving in Tokyo is never boring. Often tedious, but there's lots to keep you on your toes.

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