Friday, 8 March 2013

On the road to Nikko

Thanks to booking the car through Tocoo, picking up the car from Nissan was a breeze. All the major car manufacturers have their own rental car companies. Last time we were here we rented through Mazda (via Tocoo) and Toyota (direct with Toyota). This time we're trying Nissan mainly because they're the only one that offers an English language GPS in the car. Tocoo, though, is a rental car booking agency that makes the reservation for you. Not that long ago only Toyota in Hokkaido had a English language booking web page so Tocoo was almost essential. Now they're still convenient because the discount through Tocoo is excellent. Once we'd made the reservation all we had to do was turn up and pick up the car.

We have a Nissan Bluebird Sylphy. Modern cars are like the Tardis. They seem to get smaller on the outside but on the inside you can fit in an Olympic sized swimming pool. The Sylphy is slightly bigger than necessary in Japan, smaller cars are easier to park, but I was sure we will need the extra boot space - bags, pram, travel cot etc. The child seat for Georgia is a bit unusual. It has a padded table like thing that drops on over her lap and against her tummy and it is held in place by velcro tabs and the adult seat belt which wraps around and clicks in to the usual clasp. There's no 5 point harness but it seems to do the trick. Georgia seems happy enough in it. The other option we go for are snow tyres. Last time they were essential. The weather doesn't look too bad but you never know whether or not we'll get a dump in the mountains. Snow dump by the way. Of course I will be taking a dump in the mountains as well but we don't need snow tyres for that. Won't crap outside either, too cold. I will use heated toilets.

The car doesn't have a key. Just a remote for unlocking the doors. You just have to have the remote on you to start the car. It takes a bit of getting used to. Thankfully the Japanese had the foresight of choosing right-hand drive vehicles just so that when we turned up I didn't have to engage my left-hand drive brain. Not having to think while driving is a bonus. The English GPS is quite handy. Last time we could spend 10 minutes programming the destination into the bloody thing. Most of the time spent trying to navigate to the main menu. With English menus all we had to do was go to the phone number input screen, enter the phone number of our destination, a list of possible routes would come up and we'd choose the fastest and bang, off we'd go following the instructions of the Japanese lady with sultry English voice.

The first thing the GPS had to do, after we picked up our bags at the hotel, was get us to the express way north. It's only 2 hours to Nikko from Tokyo. The expressway entrance was only a couple of kay from the hotel and yes I missed the first entrance and had to rely on the GPS to get us back on track. Once we were on the expressway it was pretty much the one expressway the whole way. Expressway is a bit of a misnomer in Japan. The maximum speed limit is 80 kph. In practice though it seems higher. There were many cars zooming past us in excess of 100 kph.

We were following a river on a raised express way out of Tokyo. In cities like Sydney the high rise gives way to suburbia quite soon and you have kilometre after kilometre of suburban homes. In Tokyo the high rise seems to go on for ever. It made us realise how you can cram 4 or 5 times the population of Sydney into an area about the same size as Sydney. Some of the outlying regions of Tokyo ain't pretty. In fact it looks pretty grey, concrete and unappealing. That is, unappealing to live there. To drive through it is quite fascinating. We often notice these tall structures in the distance. 4 or 5 tall towers, maybe 50 metres or more high, holding up a net. When we get close enough we realise that it is a golf driving range. Not much room for golf courses so they have many driving ranges. A driving range takes up about as much space as a small baseball stadium.

The expressways in Japan are tollways. It is quite expensive to travel a couple of hours on one. Y2000 ($20) to Y4000 ($40). Even when you leave the main expressway you might switch to a minor road that is still multi-lane expressway and that can also cost $1 to $3. We always know when we're approaching a toll point because the GPS tells us that we are and it will cost us so many yen. The car also has an ETC (Electronic Toll Collection) device that helpfully beeps and says E.T.C then a bunch of Japanese when we approach a toll booth. We don't have an ETC card so we pay cash.

There are many many roadside rest areas that can have as much in the way of facilities as a Starbucks or Mos Burger to smaller ones that may just have a few vending machines. They seem to come up every 20 or 30 kilometres so if you need a snack or coffee you don't have long to wait between potential stops. We stopped at one and I got a coffee out of a machine. It was the best damned vending machine coffee I've ever had. You can choose the strength of the coffee, how much milk and how sweet.

Half the fun for me of a road trip is the road trip. I love watching the scenery unfold. We go from heavily urban hi-rise to semi-rural and then the mountains appear. There's nothing like snow capped peaks appearing in front of you to remind you that you're not in Oz any more. The road itself is fascinating to me. The signs, the street furniture and the tunnels. In Japan they just blast right through mountains and hills. Some tunnels are only hundreds of metre long, others are kilometres. After a couple of tunnels Georgia pipes up from the back with "night time". We tell her it is a tunnel, so every time we go through a tunnel after that Georgia will say "another one" or just "tunnel". I also keep myself amused by counting down how close we're getting to Fukushima. We're heading north towards Fukushima. Fukushima is where the nuclear reactor melted down after the tsunami a couple of years ago. I know we'll eventually turn off but I'm looking forward to see how close we'll get. I first see the Fukushima sign at about 240 km, then it slowly ticks down to about 120 when we turn off the express way to Fukushima and on to the road to Nikko. I'm sure I felt a tickling in the balls from the radiation. It is a reminder, however, that this country has earthquakes with reasonable regularity. We're only days away from the anniversary of the 2011 tsunami.

Eventually we rolled into Nikko. Nikko seems like a long narrow town. It appears to be only a couple of blocks wide but it is kilometres long. Nikko is famous for its World Heritage listed temples but they're not immediately obvious. I think they're a little bit out of town. We were due to do some clothes washing after 5 days in Japan so I'd done some research as to whether there was a coin laundry in Nikko. Nikko is a highly visited tourist town so we assumed there had to be a coin laundry in town, somewhere. Nothing in the guide books but I eventually found a couple of apparent laundrys on-line but the info was all in Japanese so I wasn't really certain if they were laundrys or not. As it was as we drove into town we drove right past a big coin laundry. It stood out like dog's balls. Crisis averted. We will be able to do the washing.  Ms GPS found our hotel about 2 blocks from the laundry. Convenient too.

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