Road Trip Japan 2019 - Part 1
Updated: Jan 24, 2021
This is a translation of my original article written in French 🇫🇷 Road Trip Japon 2019 - Partie 1.
For once, I decided to write an article on a simple and light topic. I am going to tell you here about the road trip that me and my wife undertook in April 2019.
The planned trip
This is the second time that we were going to Japan. The first time, we mainly visited Tokyo (where we had arrived by plane) and Kyoto (we had rented a car to make the Tokyo-Kyoto round trip). For this second trip, our goal was to discover the lesser-known cities of Japan, and to see many landscapes by taking a road trip from North to South.
We wanted to make the longest road trip possible, so we chose to arrive at Misawa Airport, the northernmost town on the main island (Honshu). It is not strictly speaking the northernmost place in Japan, because we could have arrived on Hokkaido island. But it’s not possible to cross directly from Hokkaido to Honshu by car, so we would have had to take the ferry, which is quite expensive. For the return trip, we chose to leave from Kagoshima airport, the southernmost point, on the Kyushu island.
Flight to Japan
There is no direct flight from France to these lesser known cities. In addition, only the company Japan Airlines serves Misawa airport. So we took flights that go through Tokyo. In Roissy, the Japan Airlines staff was very nice, and the host at the check-in counter said “I see you are going to Misawa. It's not a common destination! What are you going to do there? ”. We answered: “We don't know, we'll see!”
A peculiarity of the way we do road trips is that we plan very little in advance what we are going to do. There are still 2 or 3 places where we really want to go (such as Cat Island, we will talk about it below), but we did not choose either the route or the cities where we will be visiting. The only things we booked from France were the plane ticket, the hotel for the first night and the car.
Be careful if you are tempted to take a road trip in Japan too, it is necessary to obtain a translation of your driving license in Japanese, and this procedure takes several months. This is in fact the only thing that was really necessary to plan in advance.
Arrival in Misawa
We landed in Misawa. It is a very small airport, with only one arrivals hall to collect our luggage. Misawa is actually a fairly large military air base, which brings together Japanese and American soldiers. The civilian airport is very small next door, and uses the airstrip of the military base, then the plane taxis to the civilian airport.
By the way, I want to thank the staff at Misawa Airport for helping me find my phone that I had lost, while they were closing since we were the last flight of the day.
We then collected our rental car. The car we rented was a typical Japanese car, from the brand Daihatsu, which has the particularity of being very narrow but quite high. Our experience of the streets of Tokyo two years ago made us realize how narrow the streets can sometimes be (especially because of the huge electric poles that are on the edges of the streets) and the interest of these small cars that you see everywhere in Japan. Contrary to what you might think, the car is very comfortable, even for spending long days on the road together.
Then we had to go to our hotel, which is in Hachinohe town (八戸市). But we had to take the toll motorway where you can only pay in cash or use the “ETC” electronic toll system. However, we did not have this "ETC" system nor any cash on us. Previously, on our road trip in 2017 and our long drive from Tokyo to Kyoto, we had panicked because we did not have enough cash on us, and we had to stop at every service area to desperately try to find an ATM compatible with Western cards (because many ATMs are actually not compatible with Visa/Mastercard cards). We had finally found an ATM and were able to pay without issues when we left the motorway.
But let’s get back to our story. We were looking for an ATM. We therefore drove on the country roads until we found a business. It was dark and the roadsides were snowy (but not so much that the snow was really an issue). Our GPS, set to find an ATM, brought us to a strange lighted building, which we thought was a mini-market. So we went into this building and this is what we saw:
We wondered what people were doing in this strange place, and we finally understood that it was some kind of betting system where the screens show the results. I found an ATM in this place but everything was written in Japanese and I couldn’t change the language. Luckily a police officer was there on guard and my wife (who speaks Japanese) asked him for help. But sadly the ATM was not compatible with Western cards.
I don't quite remember how we ended up finding an ATM, but I think we found one at FamilyMart: they are small and very practical stores all over Japan which are open 24 hours a day. They always have an ATM compatible with the western cards.
Hachinohe (八戸市) and Misawa (三沢市)
The next morning, we took a walk in the streets of Hachinohe. In Japan, there are no old districts that are distinct from modern ones like in Europe, because here everything is mixed. There is a traditional cemetery, a temple and a room full of slot machines on the same street.
In the afternoon, we returned to Misawa to visit the aviation museum which is next to the air base (aviation is quite important here!).
The road in the mountains
The next day, we left for the mountains to see a bridge where there is a magnificent view. So we drove up to the mountain to get to this place.
Along the way, we saw lots of illuminated signs with information written in Japanese that we did not understand. The road was almost deserted, and we simply stopped in a small village for a coffee from a vending machine. In Japan there are plenty of these machines, that allow you to buy cold or hot drinks in cans for 100 to 150 yens (100 yens is around 1 US dollar). These machines are always in perfect condition, even in the depths of the countryside, which shows that the Japanese are very respectful so that there is little damage.
After two hours of driving, we arrived in front of a big pile of snow in the middle of the road at the end of a village: the road had not been cleared further. So we turned back, but we did not regret this excursion in the mountains!
Driving to Ishinomaki (石巻市)
One of the few goals that we had planned in advance was to visit Cat Island. We therefore set off towards Ishinomaki, the city where the port is located to reach the island. On the way, it was snowing heavily and visibility was poor.
I am using this opportunity to talk about driving in Japan. Already, you may have noticed that they are driving on the left. In reality, you get used to it quickly. In addition, the Japanese are careful and extremely nice on roads. Having driven in France, the United States, Germany, Canada and Japan, it is in France that the drivers are the most nervous and aggressive! In the United States, people are generally much less nervous than in France, but in Japan it is the ultimate level of courtesy. Drivers never engage in dangerous behavior. In Tokyo, on our previous trip, I even blocked traffic on one lane for a few minutes because I was in the wrong position on the lane to turn (in Tokyo there are some very weird road configurations) and no one got upset!
To get around Japan, you use motorways a lot. In the mountainous parts, you alternate between bridges and tunnels. The highest speed limit that exists is 100 km/h (60 mph), on motorways only, and in fact during most of our road trip the speed was limited to 80 km/h (50 mph) by illuminated signs (possibly due to the season?). But in fact almost everyone drives at 100 km/h (60 mph) anyway, which surprised us because the Japanese are usually very respectful of the law. But we are talking about driving “too fast” by driving at 100 km/h (60 mph) on expressways! It is somewhat the opposite extreme of Germany, where regular (one lane in each direction) roads are limited to 100 km/h (60 mph), while motorways often have no speed limit at all (or are limited to 130 km/h = 80 mph). This is much less surprising, however, compared to the United States, where interstates are often limited to 65 mph (105 km/h).
On an service area we saw this strange vending machine for buying food (in addition to the classic vending machines for buying drinks):
These are frozen dishes which are defrosted by an integrated microwave. We tested out of curiosity. To be fair, the fries were pretty bad.
Finally, we arrived in Ishinomaki and spent the night in a hotel where several cats were walking around and the decoration was on a cat theme.
Tashirojima (田代島) - The Cat Island 🐱
The next morning, the snow had partially melted, but it was raining and we thought that it was not worth going to the island (we are not going to pet cats in the rain!).
But later in the morning, the weather improved and we finally decided to take the boat. It was clearly not the most touristic season, it was cold and there was hardly anyone on the boat.
As soon as we arrived, many cats were already present on the peer:
We walked in the village where we could admire and sometimes pet cats. Then we took the path that goes through the forest where we could admire the vegetation with many bamboos.
Then we arrived near a small restaurant where many baskets had been placed to accommodate the cats.
There is even a temple dedicated to cats a little further along the path, at which people pay tribute to their deceased cats and leave small offerings. We met more cats and finally took the boat from the other side of the island (we were only four people to ride - when I told you that there were not many people!).
Fukushima prefecture (福島県)
After spending a second night in Ishinomaki (this is the only time we stayed two nights in the same place), we headed south towards Fukushima prefecture. Contrary to what one might think, the city of Fukushima is not at all the place where the famous nuclear accident took place. The nuclear power station is named after the prefecture but is actually located in Ōkuma town. This town as well as Futaba (the town next to it) were being cleaned up in 2019 and residents were not yet allowed to return to live there. The rest of Fukushima prefecture, however, did not present any particular risk. There were sometimes light signs which indicate the level of radioactivity along the highway and which showed a normal level (equal to natural radioactivity).
We then stopped for lunch. I use this opportunity to present you an original ordering system you can see in many restaurants. You often order with a machine like below (I'm cheating a bit, this photo is from our previous trip actually).
Using it is simple, you start by paying by inserting yens and order by pressing the buttons. The machine then gives you a ticket which you give to the cook or waiter. In Europe and the US, payment in advance using a machine is usually used only in fast food restaurants, but in Japan many small restaurants have such machines.
The Japanese people are used to almost always paying in cash. During our trip, we only used our credit card once, to pay in a large hotel. One possible explanation for this habit is that wallet theft is extremely rare, so there is no risk of having a large amount of cash on you.
The new Reiwa Era (令和)
As we were eating our dish (the food is very good in Japan), we saw a report on the restaurant's television, where we recognized Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was showing a calligraphy. This was a historic announcement: the Prime Minister had just revealed the name of Japan's new era, which is due to come into effect a month later when the new emperor inherits the throne.
In official documents, the current year is not written as “2019” but 平成31年, which means the 31st year (31年) of the Heisei era (平成), which corresponds to the reign of Emperor Akihito (the emperor has a symbolic role, Japan is a democracy). It is also in this form that the year of manufacture is indicated on the coins. In economic life, on the other hand, it is often customary to use the Western year, out of pragmatism. The new era name announced is Reiwa (令和), which can have multiple meanings and generated some debate, but the government finally clarified that the correct interpretation was “era of beautiful harmony”.
To be continued!
This article is already long, which is why I will tell you the rest of our adventure in a second one. See you soon.