Chapter Seventeen: Highway to Hell

My friend Janet had moved to Japan to work as a teacher for Communicat several years before I did, and by happy coincidence we were both allocated to the northern region of Tohoku. Unfortunately the distance between our small towns was complicated by a substantial mountain range lying between the two. This was to be expected, I suppose, given that estimates for Japan’s mountain coverage range from fifty percent ( to four fifths (, though the general consensus seems to be three quarters of the total land mass. Sitting roughly equidistant between us was Fukushima City, and so we decided to hold our reunion there.

The drive was longer than I was psychologically prepared for, and this particular adventure enlightened me to some rules of the Japanese road with which I had not been familiar, and no one – including my employer – had thought to educate me. For a start, Japanese motorists drive an average of twenty kilometers an hour above the legal limit. I hasten to stress that the national restrictions are about twenty kilometers below what would be considered by most to be a sensible speed, and it is a wonder that the government doesn’t raise them to reflect the reality of the roads.

My theory, for what it’s worth, is that the frustratingly low limits counteract the extremely poor capability of humans to judge their own behaviour. Tell a driver that they will only be punished for speeding above the limit plus 10 percent, or that speedometers in cars give a deceptively high reading, and they are likely to accelerate. With these behavioural economics at play, there is a strong argument for keeping maximum speeds impractically low.

Another quirk which I discovered to my peril were the traffic light sensors. Once triggered, these machines will display an LED message that the presence of a vehicle has been registered, and the lights will eventually change for the patiently waiting motorist. Although clearly labelled, it is disturbingly easy not to notice these alternative systems, particularly when you are ignorant of their existence. To exacerbate matters, the sensor area is not particularly broad, and cars that do not stop close enough will remain undetected. On my way to Fukushima City, I found myself in this dead zone, unknowingly waiting for eternity. Behind me a white-haired man impatiently waved his hand for me to drive on. I grew flushed and confused, helplessly watching the two-way traffic cross before me. When I felt the wait had grown preposterously long, I began to edge out past the red light and make my overdue right turn. Unfortunately, I was so flustered my judgement was impaired and a car coming from the left nearly hit me. I sped on, trying to abandon my shame at the junction. It wasn’t until I recounted my traumatic experience to Janet that I learned about the sensors; she herself had once stopped out of range and the driver behind had stepped out to explain that she needed to advance.

Finally, there was a blunder on this journey that I would only make once in my years driving on Japanese roads. Naïvely trusting the GPS, I was guided onto the highway system; a well-maintained, peaceful and fast road network. Unfortunately, a handsome sum is charged for the privilege of using these motorways, and I begrudgingly parted with nearly two thousand yen at a toll booth.

With only light emotional scarring, I arrived in Fukushima City and found Janet. Although fifty miles from the site of the 2011 disaster and apparently a fully-functioning metropolis, I found the city to be a depressing concrete vacuum and the two of us struggled to find anywhere suitable to spend the day, despite repeated and earnest google searches. The only appropriate place was Hanamiyama Koen (花見山公園), a hillside park named after the annual practice of admiring the explosions of white and pink cherry blossoms in the spring. Sadly, we were several months too late for this spectacle, though the park was still beautiful under the intense azure sky.

The crest of the hill was a verdant palette, peppered with regal lanterns and pagodas made of stone. The ground was scattered with majestic boulders that seemed to cascade down the hillside. In a murky pond a stone sculpture of a grand ship with a proud, emblazoned sail appeared to float upon the water, with its portly dwarfish crew captained by a stout samurai. A large living black carp glided through the enigmatic water, and it seemed as though the plump shipmates nervously watched the scaly sea creature pass.

We wondered the route, which the map had claimed would take an hour, and were back at the entrance forty minutes later. Another thorough google session turned up a different park called Bentenyama (弁天山), which turned out to be a brown and dusty hill. We climbed to the top, panting and perspiring in the summer heat. The walk did not take long, and we involuntarily donated a considerable quantity of blood to the mosquito population. The airborne leeches left me with a swollen ankle, but we were rewarded, at least, with a prospect onto the grey Lego City of Fukushima, split by a wide brown river and cradled by hills of vivacious green that dissolved into the clouds beyond.