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Seeing the Sights of Japan From the Slow Lane

March 23, 1986|BURT IRWIN | Irwin is a copy editor on the Times Metro desk.

KAMAKURA, Japan — "A piece of cake," I reassured Beth as I wheeled the car onto the expressway bound for this seaside shrine town. "After all, the people here have been driving for years."

"Yes, but they all speak Japanese and can read the signs," my wife reminded me.

I eased over confidently from the left into the expressway lanes for Yokohama. "All we have to do is watch for the Kamakura turn. If we miss that, the expressway ends in the Yokohama dock area."

Twenty minutes later, in the middle of the Yokohama dock area I made a U-turn, cautiously remembering to "drive to the left, look to the right," and retraced our way to the expressway entrance. To my shouted question of "Kamakura, wah doh koh des kah?" the toll booth attendant pointed up the expressway and said "Hidari, " gesturing left. We were on our way again, to more wrong turns, to be sure, but also to some memorable adventures.

Not for Everybody

Driving in Japan clearly is not for all tourists. Indeed, in a Travel Section article Jan. 19 ("Japan--A Land of Raw Fish, Cleanliness, Safety") Dr. Karl Neumann wrote: "Unless you are very daring, leave the driving to others." That advice also comes from the Japanese National Tourist Organization.

Employees there advised us of the problems we would face: heavy and slow traffic even on the national highways; high toll fees on the expressway; expensive gasoline; parking problems, and most especially, signs in Japanese.

"Even the Japanese sometimes have trouble finding their way around," the smiling attendant at JNTO's office in Los Angeles warned us.

The three-week, 1,900-mile trip we had outlined called for several one-night stops, and we felt that ruled out the train. We also wanted to immerse ourselves as much as possible in the culture of the country and decided that riding the bus with other tourists, as convenient as that might be, was not the way to do it.

My inherent independence also resisted the regimentation that involves, even if it meant more effort on our part. (I resented a tour escort ordering "7 a.m. at the bus, bags on the curb." It was totally different for Beth to agree with: "7 a.m. makeup on, ready to go out the door.")

Besides allowing you to set your own timetable, there are other advantages to travel by car. If you're a photographer you can stop for those scenes too good to pass up. Or you can eat on your own schedule and in restaurants too small to handle a busload. You can be a little sloppy in your packing, until, of course, the dreadful day of reckoning when it is time to pack for the flight home.

Price to Pay

There is a price to pay--you're your own tour guide and if something goes wrong there's no one to complain to. And it takes a lot of planning.

So for us a car seemed to be the way to go. We talked with friends who had traveled to Japan ("You're not going to drive!") to get their impressions.

We picked up brochures from travel agents on bus trips to see what the "must" stops were. JNTO provided us with illustrated folders on the various prefectures we expected to visit and sheets on towns with local maps.

From a bookstore in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles we bought detailed highway maps with the names in both Roman and Japanese characters (also available in Tokyo's Jena bookstore and Imperial Hotel), as well as a Japanese phrase book with accompanying cassette tape. We arranged for an international driver's license, passport and visa. Then we got to work.

Poring Over Folders

We pored over our folders and maps, measured distances, jotted lists of sights to be seen. We listened to our tape, gave up on becoming anywhere near fluent, and concentrated on half a dozen survival questions and answers, such as "To-uh-rye, wah doh koh des kah " (Where's the john?))

Although we normally like to travel without the constraint of reservations, we figured we would have enough trouble finding our way around without having to look up two or three places before finding a vacancy. So we found a sympathetic travel agent willing to make the reservations in return for a 10% fee (the rates for business hotels and minshuku are so low that they do not pay a commission).

In Under Budget

We hoped to spend no more than $50 a night for accommodations. The agent incredibly was able to fill the bill by juggling the inexpensive minshuku (about $44 with two meals) with the expensive ryokan ($100) and filling in the rest with business hotels ($43) and a very acceptable range of hotels ($49) belonging to the Pass Hotel Assn. We were disappointed only once.

Our first four days were spent on foot in Tokyo, where we became accustomed to the traffic moving on the left. Then we had the car delivered to our hotel and we were off.

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