Safety first in Japan

Japanese people are very concerned with safety. One of the first Japanese words I learned after arriving in Japan was anzen (安全 ), the Japanese word for safety.

A well-known example of this concern with safety is the method of ‘pointing and calling‘, shisa kanko (指差喚呼), used by public transport operators in Japan. Japanese train drivers will point at every sign they pass, calling out its status. This looks very funny to Western eyes but it is proven to help keep focus and attention.

Foreign Toyota employees receive similar instructions when they first arrive in Japan. The Toyota headquarters in Japan are so large that they include roads with motorized traffic on them. During their initial orientation, the expat employees are instructed on how to cross the road when they are at headquarters: they have to point to the left, say yoshi (which means something like OK), point to the right, say yoshi again, and only then may they cross. The Europeans, with their disdain for rules, think it is silly and try to skip the yoshi yoshi whenever they can. The Japanese employees, however, diligently follow the safety regulations, much to the astonishment and amusement of the Europeans.

Another example of Japanese concern with safety is this group of school children. They are all wearing helmets, which seem to be part of their school uniform.

Japanese safety anzen

Safety first in Japan: helmets as part of the school uniform.

I guess a country that is frequently affected by natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunami, volcanic eruptions and the like, cannot be blamed for an emphasis on safety. But Japan wouldn’t be Japan if there wasn’t also a huge contradiction in this concern with safety.

Imagine my surprise when I found out that many Japanese people watch TV while driving! While the Belgian government campaigns heavily against using the phone while driving, let alone watching television, in Japan it seems to be the most normal thing in the world to watch TV while driving. Many Japanese people have their navi system adjusted to also broadcast TV. While this isn’t exactly legal, as I’ve been told, many people do it.

Japanese people ignoring safety and breaking the rules? Just when you think you have things figured out, Japan throws you a curveball. Or is it allright to break the rules because the car is considered ‘private space’ (related to the honne – tatemae distinction) where you can do what you want? I would love to hear other people’s opinion on this. Please share what you think in the comment section!

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Bunny alert!

When driving along the highway in Japan, one often comes across signs warning drivers about animals that could possibly cross the road. While in Belgium such signs almost always depict a deer, in Japan the sign can show all sorts of animals. The Japanese love to be specific!

The sign that surprised me most was the one with a bunny on it. It’s especially funny because the sign is bigger than the actual animal. I almost feel as if I should beware of giant bunnies, attacking the cars in Godzilla-like fashion. Fortunately we have had no such encounter yet!

Bunny alert sign Japan

Bunny alert sign in Japan

Running out of gas in the middle of nowhere

During our recent trip to Hokkaido (see post about Hokkaido) we covered quite some distance by car. At one point we drove all the way from Hakodate to Kushiro, about 585 kilometers in one day.

Hokkaido from Hakodate to Kussharo

The blue line indicates our road trip

A large part of this route included highway, which is closed off by toll booths at the beginning and end. It turns out there are no gasoline stations (‘gasorin sutando’ in Japanese) on the highway in Japan, or at least not in Hokkaido. Here’s the story of how we found out:

We entered the highway above the left-most black arrow. We saw a gas station right before entering the highway but we still had enough gas for about 160 km. So no need to fill up the tank. Or so we thought.

So we start to drive. And drive. And drive some more. After about 100 km we start to get a little worried. Where are all the gas stations? When is this highway going to end? There’s not an exit in sight.

When the highway finally ends, after 127 km (right-most black arrow), we’re relieved. There’s bound to be a gas station soon. Right? Think again. The highway ends on a road that leads through the middle of nowhere. We’re in the mountains, night is setting in and we don’t even pass any side roads, just the entrance to a farm here and there.

Hokkaido mountains at dusk

The mountains at dusk. Very gloomy.

Meanwhile our estimated driving range has dropped to 4 km. Gulp. It’s time to do something now! So when we finally come across a side road, we make a turn. It’s supposed to lead to a village 12 km further. We start driving along this road, only to see this road take us further into the mountains and further into the middle of nowhere. By now our estimated driving range is 0 km.

Estimated driving range 0 km

Estimated driving range 0 km

Feeling slightly desperate, we decide to stop at the next farm to ask for directions. It feels strange just driving up someone’s farmyard but we don’t have a choice. After shouting ‘sumimasen’ for about 5 times, a very sleepy woman and an old man come to see what all the fuss is about. I can only imagine their surprise when they see two gaijin standing on their porch.

We try to explain in our best Japanese that we’re looking for a gas station. ‘Gasorin sutando???’ they repeat with a puzzled face, like we just asked them if there’s an ice cream parlour around here. After talking back and forth some more, it turns out there are no gas stations around here (we already figured as much). But they understand our problem and generously offer to sell us some of the gasoline they have in their barn.

They transfer 10 litres to our car and we shower them with thank you’s, bow about a hundred times and pay them 3 times the amount we would have paid at a gas station. With this we should be able to make it Kushiro.

I can hardly describe the relief we felt seeing the first houses by the roadside again, the first convenience store (a sure sign you’ve entered civilization) and of course the first gasoline station.

Gasoline station, Hokkaido

Finally a gas station!

Lost in Japan

A collegue of Dennis recommended a nice ramen restaurant to us. Thursday evening we decided to check it out. We consulted the restaurant’s website and concluded that it should be about 30 min. by car. The only thing we needed was the restaurant’s telephone number, to input into the gps. Japanese navigation systems can recognize telephone numbers and connect them to locations. Very convenient in a country where every address is made up out of a dozen of illegible characters. The restaurant is called Tsurukamedo and this is the address: 名古屋市緑区神の倉4丁目194番地  (to give you an idea of what we’re faced with on a daily basis).

Japanese gps

It was the first time we used the gps. We input the phone number and start driving. After 40 min. we arrive at the location where our gps says the restaurant should be. It’s a residential area. Clearly something went wrong. Dennis tries to remember the location from when he checked Google maps before leaving. We drive around for another 20 min., to no avail. The whole time it is raining non stop and the darkness outside gives a gloomy feel to our quest.

The rain and darkness give an ominous and at the same time romantic feel to our quest

Refusing to give up (we’re both quite stubborn), we stop at a convenience store to ask for directions.

conviencience store where Dennis is asking for directions

The personnel is prepared for this kind of situation. They have a map under the counter and even call the restaurant to ask for directions. Japanese people are very helpful. We are set in the right direction: 5 km closer to Toyota city than what the gps first  indicated. After stopping for directions a second time, we finally arrive at the restaurant – roughly 2hours after leaving in Toyota city.

Fortunately the ramen was worth the ordeal. We ate delicious ‘hakata ramen’.

hakata ramen

Interesting detail: you pay your dinner before entering the restaurant, by inserting money in a machine and indicating the desired dish. The machine then spits out a ticket, which you take inside and give to the waiter.

meal ticket machine

Parking space stolen

The apartment where we live assigns parking spaces to the residents. The rent for these spaces is included in the rent we pay for the apartment. However, when we got home last night (we had gone to a sushi restaurant by car), another car was standing in our parking space.

a grey Toyota with a lot of guts standing in our parking space

We were not sure what to do, as all the other unoccupied spots were of course property of someone else living in the building. Finally we decided to call the relocation agency and ask for advice. They notified the police and 15 minutes later, a very small car with three police agents crammed inside arrived.

the police arrives

The agents – 2 women and a man – get out and start examining the grey Toyota thouroughly: walking around the car, shining at it with flashlights and looking inside. The man starts saying a lot of things in very fast Japanese. Of course we don’t understand anything. Felipe, another expat living in our building who has been here longer, joins in to help translate. The police suggest we park elsewhere. We respond that that will be someone’s else spot and the problem will continue. ‘Saaa, that’s a difficult situation’ the policeofficer answers. After which he continues to suggest the same solution: we park elsewhere, if need be in a paying parking space somewhere.

Dennis talking to the police

Apparently they cannot touch the car, much less tow it. They won’t even write a ticket. After talking back and forth some more, we finally get him to write a paper (not an official document, just a white A4) saying ‘please do not park here again’. And that’s it. The police leave and we are left to find another parking space.

A little disappointing, I was expecting more from a police intervention. But atleast I got to see Japanese law enforcement in action. And take some cool pictures for the blog 🙂