Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Japan Lite: Driving in Japan not for the gullible

It was Sunday. We were driving. But this was no Sunday drive.

That's because in Japan, unless you're on the highway, you're probably driving on a road that used to be a footpath and even now, after being paved and widened for cars, still looks more like a bicycle path. This is why Japanese cars are so small. And the people too. After all, they have to fit into those cars.

Then there are the Japanese drivers themselves — people who go straight from playing with toy vehicles as kids to the real ones as adults. For the Japanese, there is no in between stage with go-carts, mini bikes, or trail bikes before driving the real thing. No broken bones, hospital visits or head-on collisions for practice. They go straight to "Wee! It's a motor vehicle!" and drive with careless abandon.

But the Japanese are very skilled at driving at high speeds along gullies, ditches, canals and rivers.

I hardly ever meet a first-time tourist to Japan who doesn't bulk at the gaping gullies and dastardly ditches alongside the roads here. "They're so dangerous!" they say. Well, I can assure you, that as long as you don't drive into the gullies, they're not dangerous at all. If you're worried about them, then by gully, don't drive.

Or, as a last-ditch effort, have a friend do your errands for you. Let him drive into the ditch.

The function of these man-made gullies and ditches is to catch and divert gushing rainwater, especially during the rainy season. Without these, every time it poured down rain, it would be like trying to drive through Niagara Falls.

So the gullies are there for a good reason. They are only dangerous to the gullible.

Many of the roads here are only wide enough for one car at a time, which means that every time a car comes from the opposite direction, you both have to slow down to a crawl and inch past one another, possibly opening your window to fold in the outside mirror to gain an extra centimeter.

That's why in Japan you don't really drive, you dart. It's all about accelerating and braking, two opposite functions that too often happen almost simultaneously. You really can't just relax with some jazz music on the CD player. Instead, put on some head-banging music and push the pedal to the heavy metal.

Soon, you'll develop a rhythm with your darting, a back-and-forth movement as you move to the very outside of the lane as the oncoming car approaches and passes, and then swing back into your lane and continue driving. You'll do this move every few hundred meters until soon you'll feel your body start rocking back and forth in anticipation. Turn up the heavy metal music. Who says you can't dance?!

After you've mastered gullies, ditches and narrow roads, you're ready to try the combination, tested by the one-lane roads along canals. Roads through Japanese neighborhoods tend to hug a system of canals built to carry away graywater from houses. Now canals are something to worry about, because if you fall in, you won't come out.

Although canals tend to be on just one side of the road at a time, the narrow roads will test your knowledge of your exact tire width, leaving only millimeters to spare between you and the eerie canal. If you are just learning to drive in Japan, I don't recommend driving these streets in one of those lightweight trucks with no hoods. With nothing but the windshield between you and the edge of the canal, you'll feel like you're riding in the front seat of a roller-coaster, which may prompt you to put your hands up over your head and scream.

Only after you've mastered the canals should you attempt to drive along Japan's many riverbanks. With no guard rails, caution signs or streetlights, it's amazing more people don't drive over the edge and into the river. Then again, for all we know, the river bottoms could be covered with carloads of people who were on their way to the convenience store.

I urge special caution along these riverbanks so you don't inadvertently perform a Thelma and Louise over the edge.

Other than these potentially fatal obstacles encountered in everyday driving in Japan, it's really not that dangerous. It's not exactly a Sunday drive, but hey, there's nothing for the first-time tourist to be too worried about.

As a matter of fact, as someone who hardly ever drives, I don't know what the problem is.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Japan Lite: Float this stimulus package

By Amy Chavez

For years Japan has struggled with the question of how to revive the countryside. With few jobs and an aging population, the countryside isn't much of a draw for anyone under the age of 80.

This goes for the islands in the Seto Inland Sea too, where the last generations of fishermen barely manage to hang on to a folkloric lifestyle. There have been many thoughts on how to revive the islands, but despite the half-hearted promotional efforts by the government, nothing much changes here.

But, I have an idea on how to revive not only the island where I live, but all of the islands in the Seto Inland Sea. My plan would increase the overall island population by 400,000, build a new industry, and create up to a million jobs. This idea would make you, me and Japan very rich.

My economic stimulus package for Japan is this: Japan should lease out the 200 or so inhabited islands in the Inland Sea.

Why? Because we already have a potential buyer. The Maldives. You see, the Maldives (a series of over 1,000 islands, but of which only about 200 are inhabited), have this sinking feeling that they are not going to be around for much longer. The relatively flat islands are disappearing as sea levels rise due to the warming of the planet. The Maldives are already relocating its population to safer ground.

The Maldives government considered the possibility of protecting their islands by building giant sea walls around them, but the idea was deemed impractical and too expensive. Eventually people would be living in holes in the ocean and they'd need repelling gear and possibly miners' hats to get down into the holes to visit their relatives. Centuries later, people would have to drill for their ancestors.

So instead, the country is looking for a new home. The Maldives government is already saving money to buy up land somewhere else. They have reportedly looked into large tracts of land in India, Sri Lanka and Australia.

Hey Japan, these people have cash! Their population needs islands, and our islands need population. And since our islands are basically mountains, should the seas continue to rise, we can always move to higher ground.

But it gets even better. Most of our islands are part of the Seto Inland Sea National Park, which, by the way, could use some animal inhabitants. So, part of the deal would be that the Maldives bring their diverse wildlife with them. This would put the Seto Inland Sea National Park on a par with the great national parks of the world.

Imagine the possibilities these animals would bring to our islands: leopard tourism, loris tourism, and elephant tourism. Japan's TV stations would have plenty of material close at hand for numerous documentaries on the sloth bear, the jackal, and the mongoose. There could be annual water buffalo races, giant squirrel safaris and eco trips for student groups to study the behavior of the hanuman langur.

A whole new meibutsu for the area would develop: sambar cuisine. Move over Hello Kitty — these exotic animals will all be available on key chains and cell-phone straps!

After all, are the Maldives just going to leave all their animals there to drown? If animals can survive in zoos around the world, they can survive here in Japan. If it's a little cold for some of the elephants, just give them kimono.

We wouldn't want the Maldives tourist infrastructure to go to waste, so we could load all the hotels and other structures onto cargo ships and transport the entire country over here. Then all we'd have left to do is divert flights. Anything headed to the Maldives would be redirected, in mid-air, to Japan. Heck, some tourists probably wouldn't even notice.

Bringing the Maldives here will create jobs in our new joint-tourism sector. We'll need to employ rangers, mahouts and bear trackers. We'll need zoologists, veterinarians and keepers. We'll need multilingual guides, hotel staff, cooks and a beefed-up transportation system. And whatever your skill is, we'll surely need you too.

But most importantly, we'll need the mother of all arks to bring the animals over on. I have confidence in the Japanese, because of their long history as shipbuilders, that they will be able to construct a luxurious animal cruise ship to bring these animals safely to Japan.

What happens if the Maldives don't want to lease our islands? Don't despair. The South Pacific islands are sinking too.

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