Planning a 6-week trip through Japan required quite a bit of preparing. Buying the plane tickets was easy, flying to Fukuoka, Kyushu and departing from Sapporo, Hokkaido. How to reach our points of interest efficiently and in a cost-effective manner was a hard nut to crack as we wanted to cover about 6000km on the 4 main islands.
We decided to rent a car to explore Kyushu and Shikoku as these are more remote areas of Japan where public transportation is less practical than driving to reach the landmarks we wanted to check out.
Driving in Japan appeared to be a unique experience.
This started even before reaching Japan, as one week prior, we completely freaked out when we found out that the international driver’s license delivered by France (and a few other countries like Monaco, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, Slovenia and Taiwan) is not valid in Japan without the appropriate Japanese translation delivered exclusively in Japan (JAF or consular offices or foreign embassies). Of course, these offices are closed on Saturdays while we were landing that day to pick up the car on a Sunday… Murphy’s law applies! Thankfully, the rental company agreed on renting us the car as long as we could show one valid license for one of the drivers, regardless of whose. Hence our roles were clearly defined: the French one navigates while the Dutch one drives!
Picking up the car in Fukuoka where no one at the rental office spoke English was also a challenge! With pictures and sign language we managed to get our Mazda and figure out it was running on regular, even knowing how to recognize it in Japanese. Quite essential when refueling!
Once in the car the third challenge kicked in at the very first turn as we ended up with the windscreen wipers at full speed instead of the blinker on! The joys of driving on the left lane with the steering wheel on the right! After a few street corners, we got the hang of it, despite the very loud annoying female voice of our car’s Japanese GPS instructing us in English to go back to the rental office! Only the voice being in English, it took about 45 minutes to try all possible Japanese combinations of buttons to stop the navigation…
Starting to be amazed by the efficiency of our iPhone navigation application we drove smoothly out of town towards the South-West, passing kilometers of suburbs with stores on each side of the street before reaching the a beautiful coastal road along the Sea of Japan. We decided to avoid the expensive highways to discover the countryside and passed by the castle of Karatsu, the pottery town of Arita, and an unexpected Dutch windmill closer to Dejima.
Navigating through Nagasaki was easy as Japanese drivers are not pushy at all and very respectful of the rules. The toughest part was to park and understand the meter!
We discovered a variety of landscapes: mountain passes among bamboos and cedars, the volcanic slopes of Mount Aso covered by grassland, rice fields among rolling hills or plains, coastal roads with dramatic views on the roaring Pacific, mountain views with perfectly conical volcanoes, shrines, etc.
Driving in Kyushu is not daunting at all: roads are very well maintained, speed limits are low (don’t expect more than 60km/h on roads), signage is abundant in both Japanese and roman alphabet, and Japanese drivers are very respectful. It is a fantastic way of exploring Kyushu and its more remote areas as long as the navigation is under control: driving for 8 days, we made 2 U-turns only! With a bit of help from maps.me!