One thing I really missed about America was driving. Driving is almost a necessity in the States and I missed the sense of freedom and independence when I had to rely on buses and trains. Buses and trains are fine in the larger cities, but Tohoku is not Tokyo. Buses came every hour and trains were few and far between. The last train to my station was at 10:30 at night, so partying either had to last all night until the morning or ended early. That’s why it was such a relief when my best friend started to let me drive their car. But first came the rules of the road.
Of course you will need a license to drive in Japan, but as a newcomer to Japan you will be more than fine with an international driver’s license. It is important to get this before coming to Japan because it is nearly impossible to get once you leave home. There is not really any special requirements to get this other than contact your insurance company and the Department of Motor Vehicles, pay about 15 bucks and submit a brief application with a passport photo. However, you must also have a valid driver’s license in your country (ie the USA). International Driver’s Licenses are valid for one year. They can technically be renewed if you come back to the States each year, but it is frowned upon if you never get your Japanese Driver’s license–which is incredible hard to do.
Once you have your license, are ready to start driving. I got into the right side of the car to start doing some practice circles around the parking lot. I then turned onto the road and began my first one and half hour drive on a country drive. Driving on the left side of the road is not so bad actually. Turning in the intersection is quite challenging, but I found the narrow roads much more scary. Often roads did not have center divides which meant cars zoomed within inches of mine. Still I enjoyed my new sense of freedom and asked my friend more about driving in Japan.
First I had to ask why some cars had yellow license plates and some had white license plates. Yellow plate cars are considered lightweight cars and white plates are heavy weight cars. The distinction is made because there are countless regulations and expenses that go with each model. Lightweight cars are cheaper in nearly all categories, but if you are driving far distances often, a more powerful engine and room for passengers and items might be a better option. Freeways in Japan are on a toll system, gas prices are by the liter and are expensive, and maintenance checks are ridiculous. Also registration, taxes, and insurance are also more expensive with a heavier car. And let’s not forget changing the tires every year for the snow season and then switching back in the Spring. At least car washes run less than four bucks at the gas stations.
I hope you can all experience driving in Japan at one point, but if you want to own your own car, be prepared for the rules of the road and expenses that come with the wheels.