SUP Magazine - - Frontside - – BRIT­TANY PARKER

THE PLANE HAD JUST TOUCHED DOWN IN TOKYO when we re­al­ized we hadn’t done our home­work. Out of all the peo­ple trav­el­ing with our group only one car­ried an in­ter­na­tional driver’s li­cense, which needed to be pur­chased prior to leav­ing the US. That one per­son also car­ried the re­spon­si­bil­ity of nav­i­gat­ing a for­eign coun­try that not only doesn’t speak the same lan­guage, but doesn’t even use the same al­pha­bet. But there we were, seven Amer­i­can white­wa­ter pad­dlers wing­ing it in a coun­try noth­ing like our own.

Our friend Yacu—a stout Ja­panese river pad­dler and our guide—met us at the air­port and helped us ar­range a rental car. Our ve­hi­cle for the ad­ven­ture to come was a com­pact bug-like mini­van un­like any­thing we had ever driven, if only be­cause the steer­ing wheel was on the right side. The cam- straps barely fit around our in­flat­a­bles piled on top and the seven of us barely fit in­side.

Yacu handed us the keys, plugged our des­ti­na­tion into the Ja­panese-speak­ing GPS and sent us driv­ing into the night. Turns out, get­ting your in­ter­na­tional driver’s li­cense doesn’t ac­tu­ally in­volve learn­ing how to drive in­ter­na­tion­ally. And thus our sec­ond mis­take: as­sum­ing we’d un­der­stand Ja­pan’s traf­fic signs and laws.

With our phones set to air­plane mode, Google was not at our fin­ger­tips. Im­por­tant ques­tions like, “What’s a Ja­panese stop sign look like?” went un­re­solved (An­swer: an up­side-down yield sign). We were pi­lots fly­ing with­out in­stru­ments.

When we fi­nally reached our first des­ti­na­tion of the trip we’d run three stop signs, sideswiped an­other car and got­ten scolded in Ja­panese by the driver. My anx­i­ety from the jour­ney didn’t sub­side un­til we put in for our first run of Ja­panese white­wa­ter, which proved to be as in­cred­i­ble as it was dif­fi­cult to reach.

The days pro­gressed and the driv­ing be­came eas­ier as we toured be­tween river runs, still, the worst was yet to come.

We were near­ing the end of our trip when our trusty driver—for­get­ting that traf­fic moved in the op­po­site di­rec­tion—looked the wrong way while turn­ing onto a busy road. Mid­way through the ma­neu­ver the van screeched to a halt and there, laid out in the mid­dle of the street, was a mo­tor­cy­clist. Luck­ily, they’d slid out be­fore mak­ing con­tact with the van and avoided se­ri­ous in­jury, but he was vis­i­bly shaken and dis­ori­ented. The po­lice ar­rived, none of whom spoke a lick of English. We lucked out again when an English-speak­ing man rec­og­nized our strug­gle and of­fered to trans­late. An hour later peace was made, hands were shaken and we went care­fully on our way.

Look­ing back on our Ja­panese ad­ven­ture, I now un­der­stand that there’s no such thing as be­ing too pre­pared when trav­el­ing to and driv­ing in a for­eign coun­try. Ig­no­rance is not a good ex­cuse for putting yourself or oth­ers in dan­ger. And while I now know what driv­ing is like in Ja­pan, next time I’ll stick with the bus.







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