Monday, 18 August 2014

Driving, stunning views and the police

Date: Saturday 17th August 2014

Weather: Though I crossed half of Japan in one day, the weather remained pretty much the same wherever I was. A roof of cloud covered the sky for the entire day. The weird thing was; no matter how high, or low, the road I was on climbed or descended, the clouds always seemed to remain at the same height. There was, of course, long periods of heavy rain, which means...

MP3 track of the day: Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain – Jason Donovan

The morning pretty much went how I'd planned it. My alarm went off at 4:30am and, due to having a long shower the night before, I had a light shower, cleaned my teeth and got dressed. I found myself sitting inside my car at around 5:00am. After double checking that I had everything, I made sure that my music player, snacks and drinks were all within easy reach; I then consulted my map.

My route home would try to be as direct as it could be, missing large urban areas and as many traffic lights as possible. Not only did I think that this would make my trip quicker, I also believed that it would save me money on petrol. To start, I would head north until I joined the '458'; this would take me into the large city of Nagano (where I stayed for my 30th birthday) however, as I would be within this city at around 6am on a Saturday, I was confident that traffic would be light. After this I would join the '18' briefly before switching onto the '172', which headed in a north-easterly direction through fields and many small communities. Next I would switch onto the '272' which would take me over the mountains and into the city of Aizu-Wakamatsu. By the time I reached Aizu-Wakamatsu I felt that it should be about midday; I would therefore stop for something to eat (plus probably fuel) before heading straight towards Japan's eastern coastline. From their I would take the '7' through the big cities of Fukushima and Sendai. This part of the trip I wasn't looking forward too however, once through Sendai, it should be plain sailing along the '45' all the way to Miyako. For those who have limited knowledge of Japanese geography; I would start of by heading east, then I would head north-east to Aizu-Wakamatsu before heading east to Japan's eastern coastline. I would then head north, hugging the coastline all the way back up to Miyako. I left that my 'estimated time of arrival in Miyako' would be around 10pm. With my plan, my bags and my 'snack and music placement' double checked, I turned the ignition key and quietly left my hostel's car park (which is actually a small area of grassland next to a stream). The time: 5:15am.

The first part of my trip occurred without incident. Always wary of road closures, I found the mountain road to Nagano open and without traffic. Japan really is beautiful in the morning; I loved climbing into the clouds, only to fall back out of them and into another small farming community with plenty of rice fields ready for harvesting.

A part from reminiscing about my 30th birthday holiday, Nagano proved to be no problem at all. I went straight through this lovely city and out onto the '18'. Due to local morning traffic, things did slow down a little around the suburbs of Nagano however, once far enough away from the city, the cars disappeared and I was once again left by my self. A sheet of grey cloud hung above me as I drove north-east which, though no good for photos, did make the day a lot cooler and meant that my air-conditioning was not required.

I found the '172' to be a joyous road of little traffic, plenty of places to pass and – for once – a continual white hashed line (which means that you can over-take). The time was getting onto 9am and I had enjoyed this road so much that I didn't want to leave it however, soon enough, the dreaded '272' was shown on the road sign above me.

For those of you unfamiliar with my '30th Birthday blogs', it was this road - which was closed due to snow - which forced a 4/5 hour diversion around the mountain range it crossed. As I approached this road, it didn't look that inviting; the clouds were dark grey in colour and seemed to be swirling around as a warning. The cloud looked thick therefore, I wondered if the road would have been closed due to sever fog however, as I searched everywhere for a sign none appeared. I pressed on; sure I could have abandoned my route and used a different road however, I had an old score to settle and I wanted to know if the '272' 'winter closure' was justified.

The winter snow closure was certainly justified though, for this summer trip, the dark clouds weren't an issue (the cloud never reduced visibility because, when I climbed, so too did the cloud … weird). I could see how dangerous this road could be if there was ice and snow on it; at first the '272' meandered it's way in between soaring mountains on either side of it, closely following the path of a river. Once it could meander no more, the road started to climb extremely quickly through a series of 's' bends, some of which had a little less 'stopping you from driving over the edge' equipment than I would have liked.

Once at the top, the mountain seemed to have given up trying to dissuade me and it opened up a view so stunning that I can't remember seeing anything quite this good anywhere else in Japan. I parked up – along with two other Japanese cars – and stared down into the valley way, way, way below me. Sharp edged mountains crashed downwards hitting lake after lake in the valley below; this sight went on and on and on, right into the distance. I took photograph after photograph trying to do this area justice though alas, I couldn't quite get it right. A Japanese guy – who I had driven up the mountain with – also stopped his car and, as we took photographs, we chatted a little; he also asked if he could take my photo. After my 'photo shoot' he wished me well and continued on his way; I wanted to take a few more photos however, the mountain had other ideas.

I had thought that the mountain had given up trying to make me leave however, it had just been storing up power for one gigantic hit. As I was taking my last shots, a torrent of rain came from nowhere. I rushed to my car, got in and drove off with my wipers on full power. This continued all the way down the mountain preventing me from seeing the terrain around me. Once I had stopped descending I instantly recognised the place I had stopped at last April. I then drove through terrain and villages which, though not completely new to me, felt alien because of the dynamic seasonal changes within this area.

Once I was clear of the mountains and back in the valley below, I had a huge smile on my face even though the rain was still bucketing it down. I had beaten the road which had caused me so many problems and, as the time was 11am, it would appear that this road is indeed a very quick way to move from Japan's central prefectures, to it's northern ones. I continued to drive, enjoying what view I could see and noticing that, for every ten kilometres I got closer to Aizu-Wakamatsu, another car could be seen heading in the same direction as I.

Due to traffic, I crawled into the outskirts of Aizu-Wakamatsu at around midday. Having missed breakfast (I was hoping to find somewhere open along the way but alas, there wasn't anything) I was starving. Unsure what I fancied, I scoured the huge signs erected along the road. Soon enough I found a sign for a ramen 'chain restaurant' which I had visited before. My stomach gave a stir of approval and so I left the main road and parked my car within the restaurant's car park.

As I was munching my way through a semi-spicy bowl of ramen (with six gyoza's as a side) I looked at my road map wondering if the route I had planned was still viable. My current route meant that I had to travel through three big cities (Aizu-Wakamatsu – I was still on the outskirts -, Fukushima and Sendai). It was becoming obvious that hitting these cities out of the 'rush hour period' was irrelevant, due to it being a Saturday and still within 'Obon'. As I looked at my map I saw a possible route north, which would mean that I missed all three of these cities however, I would have to travel through Yamagata city instead. As I kept gazing at my map I realised that, if I did indeed head north, Yamagata was the only big city between me and home. I could head north through Yamagata and then, head directly east joining the Japanese coastline at Ishinomaki before continuing north along Japan's eastern coast all the way to Miyako. With that settled I finished my meal, closed my map, paid and got back in my car.

A part from one minor accident, the drive up to, and through, Yamagata city proved to be effortless. Now I joined the '347' east-bound; which is the same '347' I used on the first day of my holiday. Though it was still raining, the views were still good and I enjoyed weaving my way along this mountain road. All too soon, I found myself level once again and driving through small towns and villages.

Once I had stopped for a quick bite (It was now 6pm), I found myself within the city of Ishinomaki. It was here that I would stop travelling east (due to the sea) and instead I would head north along a very familiar road; so familiar in fact that, due to the time, I didn't mind that it was now dark and therefore I couldn't see anything. With the feeling of home sight I pressed on, possibly going a little quicker than I should have.

At 8pm I crossed into Iwate; my home prefecture.

I was only forty-five minutes away from home when I saw a police car – which had been travelling in the opposite direction – do a U-turn and switch on it's red flashing lights. At this time, I knew that my speed was okay therefore, I was unaware of any traffic law I had violated. Being a good citizen I pulled off the main road and into a bus bay; I then put my hazards lights on and stared at my rear-view mirror hoping that this specific policeman had been given a radio message and it wasn't actually me he was after. That dream faded as soon as he pulled into the bus bay behind me.

At the same time as the policeman got out of his car, I forgot every single word of Japanese I had learnt over the last two years (though I put a funny spin on this, it is probably for the best that I look as though I can't speak Japanese. I could have said that I knew a little but then, he might have said something which I may have misunderstood to mean something completely different. My studies have prepared me for light conversation, asking directions, shopping and chatting up pretty Japanese ladies however, as of yet, I have not read 'chapter 237: how to get yourself out of trouble with the police when they pull you over for a traffic offence').

I opened my window to be greeted by an elderly gentleman who appeared to have lost his eyes. He seemed to be one of those people who closes their eyes whilst speaking, only to open them when he had finished. When he did open them he got quite a shock and realised that, the first two minutes of our meeting had been fruitless. “... good evening officer, can I help you...” was the facial image I portrayed and, as they explained what I had done wrong with a mix of Japanese, English and gestures, my face changed from 'butter wouldn't melt' to a honest look of 'I had no idea that was against the law'.

At night in Japan, a lot of traffic lights change the way they work (I now hate traffic lights even more). During the day traffic lights in Japan are the same as back at home however, at night, they continually flash either amber of red. I interpreted this to mean that, whichever road at the junction had the amber flashing light, then they had priority over the red however, it actually means something a little different. Yes the amber flashing light has priority over the red however, you still have to reduce your speed considerably with an amber flashing light and, with a red flashing light, you actually have to stop, look both ways, and then continue on your way. I, of course, sailed through a red flashing light – after checking that there was no traffic of course – and didn't actually stop. I gave the policeman my Japanese drivers licence and my 'foreigner card'. He went back to his car and spoke with his colleague; they then both came back to me and gave me back my cards. I then had to write my name – in block capitals - on a green slip, and place my fingerprint next to my name. Once completed, they wished me safe travels and off I went (though, I was still a little shocked therefore, I actually drove off forgetting to turn off my hazards and also forgetting to put back on my headlights).

Once back at home I put all of my stuff away before turning on my computer to see what kind of penalty I could face. The bad news was that I couldn't find any information on the penalty however, the good news is that tickets are usually issued at the time and that, having your fingerprint taken is a standard procedure when you have been stopped by the police (it's a bit like writing your signature). Strangely I didn't feel angry with the police, or annoyed with myself; I honestly didn't know about this rule therefore, I knew that I would probably get stopped now or later (the day after I chatted to a couple of Japanese friends. I found out that the fine could be about £60 and that, I might get a few points however, given that I didn't get a ticket there and then – and that the police had told me the rules of the road, been quite charming and wished me a save trip – they felt as though I probably got away with a caution … but I will just have to wait and see).

Once I had finished researching my possible punishment, I put all of my belongings away, filled up the washing machine for tomorrow, had a little bite to eat and fell soundly to sleep dreaming of all of the things I had achieved within such a short period of time ... and almost forgetting about the police.

Toodle Pip!

P.S. So blog fans! I am afraid to report that, it maybe a year until my next post. The reason for this is because, this winter, I might be heading home for Christmas (if not I shall probably stay home trying to save money). Next Spring I want to move to a new part of Japan therefore, summer 2015 seems like the next time I'll be travelling. Where; I have no idea … that's half the fun isn't it?

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