Saturday, July 26, 2008

Ueno Park Lotus Flowers- Tokyo

Map Location

Ueno Park is a beautiful park in Tokyo. Its a nice place to go at any time of year.

In July the Lotus flowers are blooming. This is my favorite time to be in the park (though Sakura is very good here too). This year they were at their best on or about the 25th of July.

More Pictures

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Oze National Park

Map Location for one of quite a number of entry points into the park. There are many entrances.

Oze wetlands

One of the most famous natural areas near Tochigi is Oze National Park. This park spanning Tochigi, Fukushima, Gunma and Niigata prefectures features great wetlands, mountains, forests and a lake. Its quite crowded in Spring and Autumn. In fact it was fairly busy when we were there on a weekend in June. The park was originally part of the Nikko National Park, but was separated to form its own park to reduce visitor numbers to it fragile environment.

Oze Lake

There is quite a bit of walking that you could do in the park. I would think you could easily spend 3 or 4 days here. But most people walk in and spend the night at one of the huts at the lake or in the wetlands and then walk out the next day. You can walk in via the mountain peak but I imagine that would be a fairly hard day if you're not fit.

Oze accommodation with a view

On our trip we walked into the wetlands on the first day. We did not book in advance and were able to get a room at the second place we tried. It looked like there were plenty of vacancies. I don't recommend this method. Had we failed to get a room it would have been a long, long day walking out again. The room was 8,500 yen each for the two of us in a small room with shared bathroom and simple dinner and breakfast. The staff spoke pretty decent English and there was a Chinese lady working there who spoke Mandarin.

Lots of boardwalks in the park

The entire park was really lovely. In June it was very green. It was also much cleaner than most Japanese walking destinations. I didn't see a single piece of rubbish on the ground the entire trip. The park was not crowded but it was definitely busy. Especially the area around the lake. I think for our trip there in Autumn when its more popular, we will have to go on a weekday.

Just a word of advice. Wear long pants! There are huge quantities of biting insects in the wetlands. They don't fly more than 40 or 50 centimeters from the ground so your arms and face are safe, but if you are wearing shorts they will eat you alive.

Next time I'd also like to climb the mountain.

More photos from the park and the drive in from Tochigi.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Passing the Tochigi Driving Test

Its been some time since I wrote of the Tochigi Driving Test. Well the good news is I passed the test. The bad news is I still don't have a clear set of rules to deliver on how to do it. I swore, if I ever passed that I would write the best guide I could on how I did it, so here it is.

Preparation is covered in Applying for a Driver's License in Tochigi

Please keep in mind some of this might be wrong. Its just my best attempt to dump everything I thought and knew when I passed the test.

General Advice
Its not a race.
You should try to speed up a bit on the long straight parts, apart from that there doesn't appear to be any minimum speed. There is lots and lots of indicating, head checking and mirror checking to be done. Drive slowly.

Be twitchy.
You want to make sure the instructor sees you looking in the mirrors and doing your head checks. So move your head around to make sure its obvious you are doing it.

Be confident, but not arrogant.
You want them to see that you are fully in control of the vehicle in a relaxed comfortable way. But not see that you think the test is below you because of your vast driving experience. (this part was tricky for me). Some people think instructors can fail you on attitude or if they don't like you so act accordingly.

Do lots of checking mirrors and headchecks.
As far as I know you cant fail for checking the mirrors too often or doing headchecks too often. So if you're not sure if its necessary, do it. Do it twice! By headchecks I mean actually turning your head to look at something (like blind spots, traffic entering from the side, pedestrians or oncoming traffic.)

Be aware of whereabouts you are in your lane.
When turning you should be 1m from the left of the lane or 1/2m from the right hand side of the lane (for left and right turns respectively). When I move to one side or the other in the lane I always accompany it with a check of center and side mirror and a check of my blindspot. But in most cases I move to the correct part of the lane as I turn into the road.

Take your time in the S-bend and Z-crank.
If you run over the curve you fail automatically. But if you just hit the curve you can back up and try again. So go slowly so you can stop if you hit the curve. (most experienced drivers will never hit it, but it can happen).

Be conservative, polished and well mannered.
I'm not sure how much water this holds. Wear neat clothes, brush your hair and act very politely. I passed on the one time I was running late, didn't shave, wash my hair, wear a jacket or even put on deodorant. On the other hand I heard of somebody being penalized for chewing gum. So it can't hurt to be on the safe side.

Course Map, thanks to My Beloved Sushi for allowing me to use it.

Step by step (Still quite messy, will keep working on it in the coming days.)
1.) Your fist job will be to be the passenger for the driver in front of you. Check for traffic before you open the door to enter. Put on your seatbelt. Enjoy the ride. You might watch the instructor. You can see when he marks a deduction for the driver and maybe work out why. When the ride is finished check for traffic before opening the door and exit the vehicle.

2.) While waiting for your turn walk around the car paying careful attention for any damage to the vehicle or rubbish, small animals or pedestrians caught under the vehicle. Take this and every other step seriously!

3.) When the other driver is finished talking with the tester, check for traffic, then open the door and get in the car. Lock the doors, adjust the seat forwards/backwards and put on your seatbelt. Check your passenger is wearing their seatbelt(some say verbally). Check your mirrors. Actually put your hand on the central mirror, even if its perfect. Check the transmission is in Parked and the handbrake is on by actually touching and jiggling them. Check the center and right mirror, indicate right, put you foot on the brake pedal, put the car in Drive, disengage the handbrake, check mirrors and headcheck left and right, pay special attention for any other vehicles starting at the same time as you. And off you go!

4.) Leave your indicator on as you approach the dotted line that signifies the start of the road. Check middle and right mirrors and headcheck right then enter traffic looking ahead. Turn off the indicator once you are on the road. Accelerate fairly hard here. I tried to hit 40 km/h on the straight. As soon as you do hit 40 (or thereabouts) slow down because you have lots to do before the first turn).

5.) The instructor will tell you to turn right. So check middle and right mirrors then indicate. Now you must wait 3 seconds before changing lanes. After 3 seconds, check middle and right mirrors, headcheck right and then move into the right lane. By now I was always about 30m from the turn so I left the indicator on and moved to within 1/2m of the right hand side of the right lane (another mirror check and headcheck can't hurt here if you have time).

6.) As you approach the turn you should be to the right of the lane check center and right mirror and check over your right shoulder. Check oncoming traffic and slowly turn into the turn. Your next turn will be to the right so turn into the right hand side of the lane. Hold the indicator on.

7.) Immediately, check center and right mirror and headcheck right. Check oncoming traffic and then turn right again. Your next turn will be left so go to the left of the lane (but not less than 1m. this one will be a tight turn).

8.) As you approach the turn check center and left mirrors, headcheck left and slowly enter the S-bend. You want to be going nice and slowly here. Slowly enough to stop if you do hit a curb. As soon as your into the S-bend turn off the indicator.

9.) When you're about 2/3 of the way though the S-bend check center and left mirrors and indicate left. Slow down here, you don't have to stop, but as you approach the intersection check center mirror, left mirror, headcheck left, look right, left and right and check for traffic entering from across the road. Then turn to the left.

10.) Your next turn will be right so as soon as he tells you, check center and right mirrors, indicate right, check mirrors again and headcheck and move to the right of the lane (you want to be on the right hand side nice and early and frankly, I'm not completely sure of the order, but I try to get on the right pretty much as soon as I indicate). Stop at the intersection, you should be 1/2m from the center line and less than 1 1/2m from the stop line. Don't go over the stop line. I stop for one full breath in and out.

11.) The check center and right mirrors, headcheck right, look right, look left, look right and enter the traffic. This is your first right hand turn at a T junction. Its hard to describe but go just a little bit straight then turn right. Don't cut diagonally across from where you are stopped till you are in the lane. You want to end up on the left side of the left lane.

Walking the course before the test

12.) Slow down and look for pedestrians at the crossing. Go around the corner. Now speed up a bit, but you don't have room to go too fast here.

13.) The instructor will tell you to go right up ahead. So check center and right mirrors, indicate and wait for 3 seconds (thats why you can't be going too fast here, 3 seconds will take you a long way if you are going fast). Then check mirrors again, headcheck right and change lanes, you want to finish up to the right of the right hand lane. (I do 2 headchecks here, but its probably unnecessary).

14.) As you approach the intersection check mirrors again, check the right hand blind spot, check oncoming traffic and turn right. Your next turn is right (and very soon) so make sure you end up in the right hand side of the lane and hold the indicator for another right turn (I check mirrors center and right mirrors as I do that).

15.) Now right away, check center and right mirrors again, check your right hand blind spot, check for oncoming traffic and turn right. Your next turn is left so end up on the left (its a tight one so don't be less than 1 m. from the curb).

16.) Immediately, check center and left mirrors and indicate left. Then check mirrors again, check your blind spot and enter the Z-crank. Drive slowly here. Don't indicate on the corners in the crank. As you enter the last leg, check center and right mirrors, indicate right, then check your mirrors again, check your right hand blindspot, look right, look left, look right and turn right. There are lots of little streets entering here. Be twitchy and look at them all. Finish up on the left hand side of the road.

17.) When you are 30m from the intersection check center and left mirrors and indicate left. The next intersection is the blind one. There are big barriers up to prevent you from seeing traffic to the left and right. So start by checking left and right before the barriers obstruct your vision. As you arrive at the blind intersection slow right down check center and left mirrors and look over your left shoulder. Now lean over the steering wheel and creep forward checking left and right for traffic. Make sure you keep to the left as you go around the corner.

18.) Now continue on the road, slowdown to go around the left hand corner and check center and left mirrors and then make sure you are within 1m of the left hand side of the road. As you approach the corner check mirrors and blindspot and take the left hand turn. Your next turn is right so be on the right hand side of the lane.

19.) There is lots to check at this intersection. If the light is red stop within 1 1/2 meters of the road marking. When the light turns green (or if its green when you arrive) check mirrors and right hand shoulder. Now check right, left, right and oncoming traffic then turn to the right. Stay just to the right of the diamond marking in the middle (don't touch it.) Your next turn is left so end up within 1 meter of the right left hand side of the road.

18.)You need to check center and left mirror pretty much right away and then indicate. As you approach the turn check center and left mirror again, headcheck left and then turn. You should end on the right hand side of the lane.

19.) Immediately, check center and right mirrors and indicate right. As you approach the intersection check center and right mirrors again, headcheck right. The check for traffic right, left and right, check for oncoming traffic and then turn right finishing up on the right hand side of the lane.

20.) I've heard different accounts of how to handle this intersection. You should already be on the right. Now check center and right mirrors and indicate. Pull up at the stop sign. You should be within 1/2 a meter from the center line and within 1 1/2 meters from the stop line. Pause for a breath in and out. Now check center and right mirrors, look right, left, right and enter the intersection slowly. After you pass the divider check center and right mirros, headcheck right, look right, left right and turn. Finish up on the left hand side of the road.

21.) Immediately check center and left mirrors and indicate left. The tester will tell you where to stop the car, this is the only place where you really need to understand what he says. He'll say (number1) no (number2), meaning lane number1, position number2. Check center and left mirrors again and then move to the left until you are heading for your appropriate stopping location.

22.) Slowly approach the stopping point. Keep an eye on the left hand mirror and be within 0.3 meters of the curb. Stop the car nice and close to the stopping point. I use front of the car within 0.3 meters of the marker pole. Bring the car to a stop, turn off the indicator, put the transmission into parked and apply the handbrake. Do not turn off the engine.

23.) Wait patiently while your tester gives you some advice. Even when I passed he told me something I did wrong. My wife once got 0% and was not offered any hints. When he's done check for traffic before opening the door and exit the vehicle. If the next person is the last person in your group you'll need to be passenger again.

See you all next week

Thats it. You're done. Now you just need to wait till 3:30, 4:00 for the results to be announced. If you do pass you have to take your form to the cashier and get some more stamps, then listen to the guy give you some more instructions, get your photo taken and take possession of your passport. Counter number 1 downstairs will sell you a beginners sign for your car.

I'd greatly appreciate any comments that could improve this entry. I'm quite sure its less than 100% correct. But I'm pretty sure it contains pretty much everything that was in my head the day I passed.

Good luck!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Komine Castle - Shirakawa - Fukushima

Map Location

This is a tiny little castle. But its very worth visiting. We went in summer, but there are lots of cherry trees so its sure to be good in spring and the whole area must be lovely in autumn too. You can combine a trip here with a trip to Nanko Park which is only a very short distance from here.

You can take the train to Shirakawa and walk to the castle and then Nanko park would just be a short taxi trip. The drive north along highway 294 is quite beautiful though I'm sure the freeway is faster.

In June when were at the castle the rose garden was also in full swing. Nestled under a castle wall is a very attractive location for such a garden.

More Photos

Nanko Park - Shirakawa - Fukushima

Map Location

The park is in Fukushima, but its a short drive from Tochigi and well worth the effort. You can combine a trip to this park with a trip to Komine Castle (which also has an excellent rose garden).

There are two main parts to the park both of which are fairly quick visits. The gardens are a classic example of a Japanese garden complete with tea rooms. Entry to the gardens is 350 yen and for an extra 500 yen you can go to the tea rooms and have traditional tea (without the ceremony) in a pretty little tea house. The tea is well worth the price, especially if you are visiting Japan or haven't experienced ocha before.

The garden is small but quite beautiful with a big lake, lots of cedar trees and little streams running through it. Judging by the photos its a good place to visit in autumn too.

The lake is quite large and also surrounded by cedar trees. Its quite beautiful by afternoon light (and I imagine morning light). There are boats you can go out on the lake in (though nobody was using them when we were there). There is not a single swan shaped boat!! You can walk around the edge of the lake. We only went a short while, but it must take a hour to walk all the way around. There is a great place to shoot the sunset from the side of the lake.

There is also a small temple at the lake though the only thing I could see to recommend it is you there is sake sampling at the entrance for a donation :-)

We strongly recommend this trip. Combine it with Komine for a great day.

More Photos

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Sano Outlet Mall

Map Location

Sano Outlet Mall feels pretty much like an American Outlet Mall. In fact I think this company also manages the outlet mall in Las Vegas (which is amazingly good BTW). You can find plenty of international brands here. I've heard people complain its hard to get large sizes here.

Sorry for the awful photo. Its taken before we started to take photos seriously.

You can get there easily from the highway or you can get there by train too. Details are at the site listed above.

The outlet is expanding and will open a new section in July 2008. Also I hear Nasushiobara will be getting its own outlet in July near the Shinkansen station.

You can combine this trip with Ashikaga pretty well.

Ashikaga Flower Park

Map Location

This park's claim to fame is its wisteria vines (has the biggest one in Japan??). A great place to visit in early May.

You really should get here nice and early. It gets quite busy. We got there at 8AM and things were already starting to getting busy. Its lit and can be visited at night (which is sure to be beautiful) but we haven't been there at night.

There are other attractions nearby. Ashikaga downtown is quite historic, there is an art gallery nearby, a winery and a Kirin brewery (which we need to collect the whole set of brewery visits) and Sano factory outlet. We haven't been to many of these places so we'll fill them in over time.

Lots more photos

Shiodachoseichi Shibazakura Park

Map Location

This park has a very beautiful flower display which you can view in early May. The photos here were taken on May 1st 2008.

I don't recommend going here as a dedicated trip. However, if you are going to somewhere nearby (like Motegi or Mashiko) then you should stop here. It won't take very long to look around. Its a fairly small simple park.

There is a dam right next door to it which you can walk around too.

As usual in Japan you should plan to get here as early as you can so you beat the crowds.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Narita, Chiba Prefecture

Map Location

We all know about Narita because its where the airports is. Everybody flies in and out of Narita, but few know that its a nice place to visit. We frequently stop there for the night on our way in or out of Japan or perhaps when we have to go there for a guest visit. The hotel we stay at has a bus to both downtown Narita and the shopping center.

The highlight of Narita is the temple, the gardens surrounding it and the road leading to it. If you come from countryside Tochigi like us there is a movie theatre, shopping and plenty of restaurants.

The road leading to the temple is very pretty. Its lined with little shops and restaurants. It seems to specialize in Unagi (fresh water eel).

The temple and gardens are at the end of the street. You could easily spend 1/2 a day to a day looking around the whole thing.

More Pictures

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Kairaku-en Park, Mito, Ibaraki

Map Location

Mito is a seaside town in Ibaraki prefecture. Its just a couple of hours drive from Tochigi. I would imagine its nice to go there at any time of year to sit by the ocean and watch the waves or to eat seafood. But what Mito is most famous for is the plum (Ume) trees in Kairaku-en park. Kairaku-en is thought to be one of the great 3 parks of Japan.

Ume trees flower before cherry blossum and they are paler in color. Frankly, I don't like them as much, but they are still beautiful in their own right. And the gardens are very beautiful. The Ume is great, wonderful views of the whole gardens from the hill, a great bamboo forest and Kobun-tei a reproduction of a warlord's villa. You could easily spend a day looking around here.

More Pics (taken before we had a good camera and before we were into documenting Japan, mostly personal pics)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Cherry Blossom in Nasushiobara, Tochigi

Cherry Blossom (Sakura) was probably at its best in Nasushiobara on the weekend of April 12th this year. It was great in Tokyo 2 weeks earlier. I haven't found a place locally to compete with places like Ueno Park, the Palace or Akasaka yet. But here in Nasushiobara you don't have to share the beauty of the Sakura with thousands of people.

This is a special time in Tochigi. Firstly, the trees are beautiful. Flowers are coming out everywhere. Secondly, everybody is getting ready to plant their rice. Paddies are being flooded and land is turning to water. The night is filled with the sound of flogs and insects. And allergies are back. Cedar trees, for which there was a huge program to plant all over the place, are said to be substantially responsible for this. Everybody is sniffling and wearing masks.

We went out to 4 places to see the blossom.

The first place was Nasunogahara Park. This is a great place to go at any time. There is not a huge quantity of trees here, but the setting is lovely.

Map Location
Next we went to Nogi Jinja. This is a little temple with Sakura lining the sides of the street approaching. There is also a nice little lake a short way behind the temple which is very pretty.

Map Location
I don't know the name of this road, but its lined with cherry trees for about a kilometer.

Sorry, not a great pic
Finally, we went to a hilltop temple which is supposed to be the best place in the area for the blossom. We went in the early morning. I suspect it would be quite busy during the day. In Japan its very common to have a party with friends or workmates under the Sakura. And this is the place where people do it in Nasushiobara.

Now on April 17th cherry blossom is almost over for the year. But I expect a trip up Nasu mountain this weekend will find it in full bloom at some point on the way to the top.
More pics:
Nasunogahara Cherry Blossom
Mixed Cherry Blossom, including Tokyo

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Gonpachi Restaurant - Tokyo

Remember the Japanese restaurant in the movie Kill Bill? The one where Uma Thurman killed the Crazy 88? It was a bloodbath! The restaurant was a set, but it was modeled after a real restaurant in Tokyo. If you know the movie, I think its recognizable.

Its a party place. I recommend going with a group. We were there on a Friday night and the place was a blast. It was very crowded but we had a reservation. The food was good barfood. The atmosphere was great. Even if you don't like Kill Bill its a pretty cool looking restaurant. If you're a fan of the movie you really should go here.

Map Location

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Applying for a Drivers License in Tochigi

You can drive on an International Driver's License in Japan. However, if you want to live in Japan, the right to drive on an International License only lasts for one year (even if you renew your International Driver's License). After that, you must get a Japanese Driver's License. Depending on where you are from this is a difficult thing to do.

The first thing you need to do is get a translation of your driver's license. You must do this at the Japan Automobile Federation office in Utsunomiya. More details at the bottom of this post but basically you just need a copy of your license (front and back) and a copy of your alien registration card (and I think the original). These guys are very helpful. You can do it by post. We went in and it took an hour for 2 translations over lunch.

If you are Australian or Canadian (help me grow this list please) it's now a fairly simple matter of going in to the Driving License Center with the translation, your license, your passport, your Alien Registration Card and a passport photo and you can get a Japanese License. You have to do a written test (which is very easy) and an eye test. If you are from Hong Kong, Brasil, China, Vietnam, USA or Philippines (please help me grow this list) then you have to do a practical test. The practical test is not easy. The two times I have been present when the results have come out the pass rate was respectively about 5% and 3%. I am Australian, but unfortunately, my only current license is from USA so I have to join the second process. It took me two full days to submit my application due to the large number of stamps in my passport. And I had to go home and get an old passport because they wanted to see more travel info than was in my 1 year old passport.

Please don't assume that because you are a good driver you will pass easily. I studied quite heavily and thought I nailed it during the test and my result: 0%. If you want to get your license quickly and smoothly then I suggest spend a few hundred thousand yen (yup 2 or 3 thousand dollars) and go to driving school.

Let me digress here for a second and say that I think the driving in Japan is excellent. I know many will strongly disagree with me here but I think its probably the best in the world (at least that I have seen). Not the best in terms of "how quickly can you enter traffic", "how assertive are you on the road" or "how much like a New York cabbie you drive" but the best in terms of "how calm, relaxed and defensive their driving is". Its a pleasure to drive in Japan. I can understand that Japan would like longer term visitors to their country to drive like this too.

Here is what happens on the day of the test. You have to come in by 9:50 AM to you submit your paperwork (even if its not your first time). You must first pay a 2400 yen at a counter that closes at 10:00AM. Then you all line up and at about 10:30 they inspect your paperwork with you. Then if its your first time they give you an eye test and a written test. You don't need to prepare for the written test. Its very easy. Sample question: "If you come to an intersection and the traffic light is green but there is a policemen there indicating you should stop, is it OK to observe the green light and continue?" The eye test is easy too. At this point on your first attempt you will be given a totally inadequate 4 page pamphlet with some hints for doing the test. You must go to the web for information on how to pass (please post additional resources as comments here and I'll add them to the article). I haven't found a really authoritative reference yet.

At 12:00 you can walk the driving test course. I suggest you print out a map and walk it at least once the first time. Its quite useful to know it. I'll link to resources for passing the test below but on your walk note the location of any lane changes, stop signs, the blind intersection and the pedestrian crossing.

At 1:00 you all assemble in the test center, your name will be called and you have to write your name on a piece of paper and then turn it over. I got off to a bad start when I didn't understand what to do and my tester got visibly angry with me. Note who fills in the name before you. You have to follow them in the test. The guy who supervised you flipping the paper over will be your assessor.

Now just line up and get ready to be tested. You will be a passenger for the person in front of you while they are tested. At the end of the test your tester _might_ give you a hint about why you failed. My hint was that I wasn't far enough to the left or right of the lane before turning left of right (I was aware of this rule and thought I had done it). My wife got no hints and also got 0%. There is no additional feedback on your performance.

At about 3:30 the results are announced and you are free to sign up for the next round of tests if you fail. The calmness and tranquility of the failing attendees is quite shocking. People are clearly learning something from their time in Japan, but its not how to pass the driving test.

I know at least half of my anger about this is just because I am judged to be too poor a driver. I'm also a little bit upset that I can't communicate with the people running the foreign driver license conversion process (and there are enough applicants for them to have dedicated staff). I'm not being fair by being angry about those points. I'm a visitor in this country and I must follow their rules and learn to adapt to their system or get out. But I don't think its right that there is no authoritative reference on how to pass the test, that it takes 6 hours at the center to do the 15 minute test or that information about why I failed is haphazard and incomplete.

My next blog article? "Buying a bicycle in Tochigi" :-(


Hints for passing the driving test

My Beloved Sushi
Looks like the site is being redone. The layout is still a bit screwy, but I think this site has the best information. Get your map here.

Global Compassion
This site is not as good, but does contain good info. The map is different in Utsunomiya and I think the fail rate is higher than he says here too.

Japan Automobile Federation - get your license translated here.
English Website
Detailed info
Application Form

Update: On my fifth try I passed the test. More about it here.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Oouchijuku - Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima

Map Location

This is a historic Japanese village.

Its not far from Aizuwakamatsu. Some people arrived by taxi, I'm guessing from the nearby railway station.

It was just a little bit busy when we were there, but not overly crowded.

At least in winter the houses were mostly pretty closed up to keep the cold out. We'd recommend going into one of the restaurants to eat since they are nicely decorated inside aswell. Perhaps in summer you can see inside more easily.

There is a hill behind the town where you can go to get a view over the town.