My Most Memorable Journeys #3: driving in Japan

That time I embarked on an 800-mile drive along Japan’s coast, from Sapporo to Fukui, without sat nav.

Yes, you read that correctly. Driving in Japan without sat nav. 

This was way back in the summer of 2000. I had already been living in Japan for a year, teaching English, and really needed help learning Japanese.

So what did I do? Instead of finding a local language school to help me, I traveled 800 miles north to Hokkaido, and spent a month learning Japanese in Sapporo. Y’know, the easier option.

I took my car up there on the ferry, which took a whopping 20 hours (that’s another story). For the return journey, I planned to drive all the way back down instead.

yours truly in Japan

Armed with little more than my basic Japanese ability, a simple mobile phone and my Rough Guide to Japan, I set off from Sapporo.

It didn’t start well. I got lost trying to get out of the city.

Eventually, I got on the correct highway and headed to Hakodate, the port where I needed to catch the ferry to take me to the main island of Honshu.

I made the ferry just in time, and stood on the deck, watching Hokkaido slowly fade into the distance while sea gulls circled overhead.

Four hours later, I  drove off the ferry into Aomori. I had pre-booked a hotel room, now all I had to do was find it, preferably before nightfall.

When I say hotel what I really mean is a cheap Japanese inn. I had a map in my Rough Guide showing how to get to this elusive inn. I drove around for a while, and sure enough, the inn was where it was supposed to be.

I had a simple tatami room, with a futon on the floor. I slept well, pleased with myself for completing the first part of my journey.

Now all I had to do was drive south, by following the coast all the way back home.

my tiny, yet reliable, Japanese car

I called and reserved a proper hotel room in Niigata, which was about six hours away, and then hit the road.

I stopped off along the way, checking out coastal tourist traps and grabbing meals whenever I wanted. I felt liberated, but at the same time, I had been away from my apartment for a month, and was eager to get back.

So I reached Niigata, and found the hotel straight away. I was so pleased with myself!

When I tried to check-in there was a problem. The staff said there was no reservation in my name. I explained that I had called and booked a room. After some confusion, they checked me in and I went up to my room.

It was only as I was relaxing on the bed that I had a sudden realisation: I was in the wrong hotel. 

I consulted my Rough Guide and saw that there were in fact two hotels in Niigata with the same name. Naturally, I had arrived at the wrong one. I whipped out my phone and called the original hotel to cancel my reservation. Oops.

I was thankful they couldn’t see how embarrassed I was. On the plus side, I had conducted all these conversations entirely in Japanese, so my month away at a language school had paid off.

I didn’t stick around in Niigata the next morning; I decided to drive the remaining six hours to get back home.

I ached from all the driving, but it felt great to be back in my little apartment, in my sleepy coastal town. England wasn’t home anymore. This was home.


My other most memorable journeys are here and here

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