Okinawa: Driving on the Left

On the whole, Japan has a fantastic public transportation system: trains and buses everywhere, and some of the fastest and most comfortable high-speed trains in the world. Although it can sometimes be a little confusing to use if you don’t speak Japanese, I always suggest people give the trains a try. That said, not every place in Japan has the extensive rail coverage of Tokyo or Osaka; some places barely even have buses. Okinawa—tropical paradise and early Japanese colonial holdover—is one of these places. Although you can conceivably get around using nothing but the one monorail, the couple of buses, and your feet, I don’t know why you’d want to. After all, you can drive! You just have to drive on the left.

This is something that takes some prep work, of course: you have to get your international driver’s license. Holy smokes, you’re probably thinking. Why the hell kind of crazy stuff do you have to do for that? Oh, the criteria is far crazier than you’re expecting: you have to jump through the flaming hoop that is possessing a driver’s license from your home country.

Wooooooaaaaaaahhhhwait, what? Nothing else?

Okay, okay. In the States you also need $15 dollars, two passport photos, and 18 years’ experience being alive. But if you were thinking you’d need to take a class on driving on the left, or a test proving that you can understand the road signs of the country where you’ll be driving, or even a country-specific license, I hate to break it to you, but no. The assumption made by the issuers of the permit is, I think, that if you’re a reasonably safe driver in the States where you understand everything, you’ll be a reasonably safe driver anywhere else in the world. Who the hell needs an understanding of local law and signage for that?!

And I do trust my husband’s driving. I do! I do.

I do.

I kept telling myself this as I climbed into the passenger seat.

It was our first day in Okinawa and we’d rented a car from a local place. My husband fiddled with the seat and checked out all the dials and rolled down the windows and rolled them up again while I experienced the profound discomfort of sitting in the seat that my body and senses knew perfectly well was the driver’s seat, but which had no steering wheel or pedals. Instead, the steering wheel was on the other side of the car, where my husband was now trying to work the radio and asking me to translate the dials.

Luckily we were accompanied by my middle brother Loren, an airman stationed on Okinawa for the past three years. He’d bought a car from a fellow resident and had been driving around the island for two years already, so he had some clue how our tiny Honda Fit was meant to operate. I listened in, but most of the information washed over me as I remembered with regret that I’d been too busy to get my international driver’s permit before we left, so it was literally illegal for me to drive this car.

“…Lead you! Just follow me!” I heard Loren say, and looked up. He was grinning into the car at Shannon and Shannon was doing his level best to look cool and confident and happy, but I could feel that he was nervous.

Loren walked to his car where Jason was waiting, and he pulled slowly out into the road, a carefully chosen side-street with little traffic. Suddenly the car was moving as Shannon crept out behind him, and my body was screaming at me that cars are not supposed to move when there’s no steering wheel or pedals for the driver which is clearly me—IT’S CLEARLY ME!!!! I plastered a smile on my face and looked out the window in the most casual way I could manage. Of course, my body kept telling me to quit pretending I was in an old movie and watch the damn road, so it wasn’t relaxing in the least.

Loren pulled up to the intersection of the small road and the big main road, stopping at the stop sign. Not the familiar red octagon emblazoned STOP; this was the Japanese version, a red triangle emblazoned 止まれ. Loren flicked on his left turn signal. Shannon pulled behind him and did the same.  Then, at the first possible break in traffic, Loren dove onto the road and Shannon jumped in behind him.

The turn was sharp, right-turn sharp, and I had the sickening feeling that I always get when turning onto a left-bearing one-way street, sure I was going to hit someone despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Buildings and cars streamed past us and I felt sure we must be speeding. A glance at the speedometer revealed 40 kilometers per hour—25mph—but it felt like twice that. Other cars flowed around us like a river with competing currents and I gripped the ceiling handle until my knuckles were white.

It’s strange to think about how close you get to other people when you drive. I think you lose the sense that you and the other cars are barely five feet apart. As a passenger, I’ve never felt unsafe except when someone was driving unsafely, and as a driver I feel that power that comes with the agency to alter my course if someone starts to be unsafe. All this was out the window as I sat in the left side of the car but without a steering wheel in my hands. Suddenly every car we passed on the right was bound to merge into us, every light pole a collision waiting to happen, and me powerless to stop it. The narrow roads put us within two feet of other cars, but it felt like every pass should be a collision. I rarely stomp the phantom brake, but my right foot was getting a workout.

Naturally, Loren began to grow comfortable driving the roads he knew well, and was clearly excited to have us, because he began to drive faster and faster. The 40 kilometer-per-hour speed limit felt blisteringly fast in my psychologically vulnerable position, and Shannon was sticking to it. Loren, though, was creeping up on 50 kilometers per hour, then 60. Shannon tried to add a little speed to keep up, but lost his nerve. Finally, after slowly losing ground, our connection was severed by a red light. Loren careened into distance, while we sat behind the light and panicked.

“What the hell!” Shannon said. “Is he going to wait for us?!”

“Of course,” I said with significantly more calm than I felt. “Loren’s usually a decent leader; he’ll see we’re not behind him.”

“Ugh, I wish I could call!”

The portable wi-fi box—the only way to use the phone—was with Jason in Loren’s car.

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” I said, my voice getting thin. “He’ll wait. Don’t worry.”

“I can’t believe he just left us behind a red light.”

“I know. That’s definitely annoying.” Understatement.

“He knows we don’t know where we are right?”

“Yeah, he knows. I think he’s just excited.”

“Well I don’t know where I’m going!”

“I could try to pull up the GPS,” I said in an attempt to keep both of us calm. I knew we were going to Shuri Castle; if it was as big as Loren made it sound, it couldn’t be hard to find on the GPS.

I fiddled with it but couldn’t make it work. My panic ratcheted up a notch.

The light turned green and Shannon all but flew across the street, eager to find Loren.

He was a few blocks ahead, having pulled to the side to wait for us. He pulled out in front of us again when we got close and continued to lead, this time a touch more sedate.

We blew by signs I didn’t know the meaning of: blue circle with red cross-through, white triangle with red outline and kanji I couldn’t read. I tried to take comfort in the ones I did know—the pedestrian crossings and the parking limits and the speed limits—but it was hard when I felt sure both Shannon and I were missing vital driving information.

We took impossibly wide right turns to get around the traffic waiting at intersections. We drove past power poles so close to the road that they were literally in the lane, the white line on the side bulging out around them. We turned merged crazy and fast to follow Loren when he didn’t use his blinker, fudging safety a tiny bit in our terror that we’d be left behind and lost. And as for fudging safety, Loren was hardly a strange driver: everyone else seemed content to use no blinkers and drive way too fast and run red lights, sometimes three or four careening across an intersection after the light had already told them to stop. Every. Intersection.

When we arrived at Shuri Castle half an hour later, I’d never been more excited to be out of a car. It had never occurred to me before that day, but now I realized with scary certainty that that driving is nothing more than flinging yourself through the air inside a metal box at deadly speed.


5 thoughts on “Okinawa: Driving on the Left

  1. garland0130 says:

    This reminds me of when I drove in Ireland for the first day. I just sort of assumed I could do it, and kept repeating “The driver always sits next to the center of the road.” over and over again as I made hesitant left and right turns. I also got terribly lost, and I too were happy to abandon my car and just walk around. Though, you get used to it surprisingly fast. 🙂


      • sutematsu says:

        It’s fine; I loved it! 🙂

        I’m so glad we had my brother to lead us, because we definitely would have gotten lost. It might not have been a disaster like I feared (our destination was basically the biggest tourist attraction on the island), but holy cow it was scary! Still, I’m envious of you and Shannon, since I never got to do it. Next time!!!


  2. Jason Gerecke says:

    For me, the scare from driving on the the wrong side of the road with minimal knowledge of signs and laws is nothing compared to those occasional moments of panic as you pass an oncoming car or lamppost without slowing down on what would be considered a one-lane road over here on the US.

    I now sometimes find myself in awe of just how wide our roads are.

    Liked by 1 person

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