Thursday, April 11, 2013

Sasebo Excursion: These aren't your American highways...

So, I had lived in Japan for seven months and still had not driven myself out of the Iwakuni area on the expressways. Anyone who knows me knows that this is odd... after being the only student to score a 100 on her written driving exam for her permit at age 15, I got the privilege of being the one to drive back to the school from the DMV... on the Interstate 5 freeway in Southern California. So, with the freeway being the first place I had ever driven, I feel quite at home on it.

But the Japanese expressway protocol is different enough from the American highway protocol that it can be a bit intimidating for a transplanted foreigner such as myself, and I hadn't ventured on to them yet. I knew I needed to get over my apprehension if I was going to truly immerse myself in Japan, so when the boys and I were disappointed by the lack of room on the Space A plane bound for Okinawa Friday, I quickly started considering our short-notice spring break travel options. After all, it was the boys' birthday month and I had promised them dinner and dessert at Chili's.

The nearest Chili's was in Sasebo, on the U.S. Navy base there. I needed to drive on the Japanese expressways for about four and a half hours to get there. I got a map from the base travel agency, called to make room reservations at the Navy lodge and planned a 2-night trip, just me and the boys. Rodney made it on to a Space A flight to Okinawa on Monday for his Master Sergeant seminar, so he wouldn't be joining us.

The weather was great, the directions provided to me were accurate, and we made it to Sasebo with little fanfare (details about the Japanese expressways are below). The area actually reminded me a little bit of San Diego, complete with palm trees planted around the base. Here is the front gate to the base:

We got settled in to our room in the Navy Lodge (which was more modern than the room we had stayed in while waiting for housing in Iwakuni, but not as large) and then headed out to check out the base. The exchange was a bit smaller than ours, but since it is a Navy exchange, not a Marine Corps exchange, they had different items for sale, especially clothes. It is tough to find clothes in Will's size, since he is in that weird boy/man stage. He's sometimes too big for the boy stuff and sometimes too small for the men's size small stuff. Fortunately, Sasebo had him covered and we bought him six pairs of shorts to get him through the summer. Next to the exchange is the TINY commissary. I don't think I will ever complain about our commissary again. This one was about a sixth of the size of ours... and they were out of yogurt. I guess Iwakuni isn't the only commissary with dairy issues.

A stone's throw away from the exchange and the commissary was the base theater, which has a much more up-to-date and busy movie schedule than the Iwakuni theater has. Interesting, since the Sasebo base is about half the size of Iwakuni's, but whatever. The Jack the Giant Slayer movie was playing at 6:30 p.m. and the boys wanted to go. Sounded good to me. But I needed a beverage, first. Priorities, you know? So, we were off to Chili's...

Really, a Presidente maragarita and chicken fajitas... it's the simple things that make life great.

The movie was OK (the boys loved it, I thought it was mediocre) and then we headed back to our rooms to shower and relax. And get ready to explore more of what Sasebo had to offer. When we checked in the hotel staff was fabulous about giving us information about the base and sights to see around the area. It was just a matter of seeing what we felt like doing the next day. The boys had been thrilled to find a lot of WWE stuff on clearance at the exchange, so they used their birthday money to get new wrestling toys. As you can see, they were quite pleased with their purchases.

Tuesday we woke up to the sound of three sharp horn blasts from a ship at 8 a.m. sharp. None of us really appreciated that, but we got over it. We ate a healthy breakfast in our little kitchenette and then headed out for an unhealthy breakfast: Dunkin Donuts. To get there, we had to walk along the harbor the base wraps around.

I thought it was interesting that the Navy had life preservers attached to the fence about every 50 yards. I have seen this no where else in Japan. In fact, most of the water ways don't even have fences.

After breakfast, we headed to Yonka-cho, which is a shopping district, similar to that of Hondori Street near Peace Park in Hiroshima. The district is divided in to four "cities" and yon mean four in Japanese.

The Hina Doll girl's festival was in March, but the boys' Children's Day is coming up May 5. Emperor and Empress dolls are displayed for girls in March, and samurai helmets like this one below are displayed for boys in May. These helmet displays were not cheap. They were a few hundred dollars each.

With all the gun law stuff going on in the states right now, I thought this t-shirt in a trendy Japanese store was interesting...

There's nothing quite like booze and coffee with jazz...

Of course, we ate at Chili's again Tuesday night and then had to rush back to the hotel by 7 p.m. because WWE Smackdown was on. Fortunately, I had downloaded the season premier of Mad Men, so I plugged my headphones in to my iPad and tuned out the steroid-laced soap opera the boys were transfixed on.

We thought we would be woken up at 8 a.m. sharp Wednesday by ship horns again, but we weren't. After eating breakfast and packing up, we hit the road.

Now, a little information about Japan's expressways. Expressways are a lot like the American interstate highways system in looks and basic function, but it's not free. Not by a long shot. There are surface streets to get everywhere in Japan, but taking those will take you twice as long thanks to traffic and signals. So, if you want to get anywhere in a reasonable amount of time, you have to take the expressways. The one that goes through Iwakuni is called the Sanyo. You take it northeast and it takes you to Hiroshima. You take it southwest and it takes you to Kyushu, the next island over and home to Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Mt. Aso and Sasebo. But it is a total of five expressways to get to Sasebo. As long as I have good directions and pay attention, that many freeways is not a problem for this Southern California girl. It's like taking the 5 to the 55 to the 91 to the 15 to get to the desert. No problem.

The only problem is that an error not only costs you time and gas, but it costs you tolls. Where in the states there is a get off every mile or two where you can turn around, get food, get gas, etc., express ways in Japan have scheduled rest stops and get offs are sometimes 30 kilometers or more apart, which is about 18 miles. Round trip from Iwakuni to Sasebo, I paid about 16,000 yen in tolls. That's about $165, just to use the expressways. On the way home, I went through the wrong entrance to a toll gate and accidentally got off the expressway. I couldn't find the interchange to get going to the way I wanted to go so I had to the wrong way for about 10 km and then get off, turn around and get back on. That mistake cost me another $9 in tolls. You can see how this can start to add up...

As I mentioned, there are two types of "get offs" on a Japanese express way: exits and rest stops. Because you have to pay tolls every time you get on and off the expressway, these rest stops are available to travelers. They vary in their amenities, but all of them have at least bathrooms and vending machines. Most have coffee shops and restaurants.

The exits are what get you use to get completely off the expressway and on your way to your destination. The sign below shows upcoming rest stops and the amenities they provide:

This sign shows an exit:

This sign tells me there is construction going on ahead. I know that because I can read the picture. :) There was A LOT of construction going on, but it really didn't slow the flow of traffic much.

Directional signs that tell me which way to go. All directional expressway signs are in English, which is nice.

From Sasebo to Iwakuni it is about 360 km (225 miles) and 44 tunnels. The average speed limit is 80 km an hour (about 50 mph), but I think this is a mere suggestion from the way I was getting passed when I attempted to follow the rules. After awhile I stepped it up and found that I was comfortable driving between 100 and 110 kph, which makes sense because that is about 65-70 mph, the standard for most American highways. Of course, I usually drive 80-85 mph on standard American highways, but I also know how to communicate with police if I am pulled over. I am not sure if crying and batting my eyelashes would work with Japanese police. Plus, it is not an international incident if I am speeding in America. Hopefully I will not get a photo of myself driving and a speeding ticket in the mail, which, from what I understand, is how the Japanese handle that sort of thing. I hope I never have to find out.

Regardless, I am much more confident when traveling on the expressways now, I just need to make sure I have plenty of yen for tolls, and budget accordingly. I will now also appreciate America's FREEways and never complain about the cost of the toll roads when I come across one. They're still cheaper than the ones in Japan.

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