Monday, July 26, 2010

A Quiet Drive

Driving in Japan can have some peculiar challenges.
Like mind-numbing fear.

Last night, I got the bizarre idea to drive out to a small mountain town that I heard had at one time given home to a whetstone mine (tied to another obsession of mine you might have read about). I knew it was out of the way--I can read a map, after all. But I forgot that out of the way can have a very special meaning in Japan.

You see, Japan has lots of mountains, which are usually big things, but they are all crammed in very tightly, so they kind of get...squashed together. Driving in the mountains in the US usually means lots of winding roads and switchbacks. In Japan it means driving on things which would best be descried as "paved goat paths." Most of the 40 kilometer trip there was nice, broad, 4-lane highway, but about 3km out from the village, I turned off the highway and the nice big roads suddenly contracted into one lane (but somehow, mysteriously, 2-way) streets bordered by towering pines on one side and sheer drop-offs on the other. No sane person would build roads there...seriously.

I made my way, though, gripping the steering wheel tightly, driving about 10 km an hour and hoping that no one would come the other way, and found the village. Although everything was closed and I couldn't find the place I was looking for it was still very pretty, with lovely valley views and babbling brooks. So that was good--it wasn't a total loss. I even saw some foxes and a Tanuki. Then it came time to go home.

Now let me just preface this with a big old preemptive "It was my fault". I know it. There's no need to tell me, ok?

So here's what happened.

I had turned around, and was retracing my way home, and I even had the navigation system set for the way back. But suddenly, I noticed what looked like a big, brand new two-lane highway leading in the general direction of home...It had intersected the little one-way road I had come in on at a very acute angle and I hadn't seen it coming in. Now, looking at the winding path I had taken there and comparing it to the big wide highway, and taking into consideration that although it wasn't on the navigation map, that map was 2 years old and the highway looked brand new, I turned onto it. Would you have done differently? Of course not.

What I hadn't considered, of course, was the apparent fact that the Japanese road system was designed by a blind fool possessed by the soul of the Marquis De Sade. The two lane went about a half a mile, and suddenly ended at a t-intersection with another one of those one-lane roads (WHY WOULD ANYONE BUILD THIS ROAD????). Now, at this point I SHOULD have turned back to the road I had come in on, the familiar though scary path. But, that new path still went in the general direction of home, and it appeared to wind through a bucolic forest offering nice scenery and the chance to see more wildlife, rather than skirt any valleys or cliffs. So I took it.

Ghu help me.

The path soon narrowed. Then narrowed again. It squeezed down into a trail just barely wider than my car, hemmed in by overgrown weeds and pine trees curving overhead to make a tunnel that ended about 2 feet above my car. Now, apart from the fact that this road was paved beautifully, with drainage grates installed every 100 meters or so, I would have sworn that this was a trail left by generations of wandering mountain bears, not a road made by men. There were no houses, no paths into the forest, no sign of any habitation or industry but the road. If I had been afraid of oncoming traffic on the way in, I was nearly wetting myself now.

A real, honest to goodness picture of the road.

I drove slowly, the needle hovering just above the 0, and sweated and cursed and laughed, unbelieving the fact that not only did this road exist, for cars, but that I was driving on it. I was scared not only of traffic, but of falling limbs, of potholes, of bears...the works. Truth be told, we have had some real flooding recently, and the possibility of the road being blocked by a recent landlside, or washed away totally, or any number of problems that would require me to drive over it again, IN REVERSE, was very real. Luckily, none of those obstacles appeared.

Again, I am making NONE of this up.

But of course, on a hairpin turn with no place to pull off and let it pass safely, another car did.

Now, I had been driving for more than a mile and a half, through switchbacks and blind curves, and I was not ABOUT to back up. The map showed that we were about 300 meters from the nearest real road, and I laid into my horn. The oncoming car, hidden behind its own headlights (it was dark, of course, in that forest) backed up, and edged ever so slightly to the side, with it's tire hanging half off the road over a ditch. I did the same, and luckily there was just enough clear space to the side to go off the road. I folded in my mirrors, as did the other car (I'm not joking), and we passed, with about 3cm to spare.

I was soaked in sweat and fear.

But that final 300 meters passed, and I nearly cried with joy when the path intersected that lovely 4 lane highway that lead home. And I made it home safely, in the end, with another story to tell about my own stupidity.

I'll have to go back during the day to find the hones, though.


whoosh said...

That is quite an adventure Jim. I fell your pain, too often we take for granted the luxuries of our modern and familiar lifestyle. Anyone who has tried to: cross the street in India, taken the scenic route in Bolivia, Tried to drive uphill in Tanzania (Russia to), or gone through a octuple round-a-bout (I could have been going upwards at an angle for all I know >_<) in Europe knows all too well the experience of a "Quite Drive".

Glad you made it back safely and have the wonderful demeanor to look back on it as a worthwhile (if slightly traumatic) experience :) Hope round two goes better and we get some pictures of those beautiful stones, not to say that your vapid darkness and vegetation with the bright sky glimmering in the background as a meek sign of hope and freedom pictures were not nice ^_^

Hey look at that I made it through the whole post without mentioning or making reference to the Tanuki ;P


Big Jim said...


Thanks for the kind words. I really was something else. When I get there again, I'll definitely post more pics...

As for the tanuki...everything you've heard is true.


Anonymous said...

I laughed my ass off, because I've done the same thing. My wife adores the goat tracks which she flies down at speed with no drama, and I creep along and still nearly kill us all.