Saturday, April 1, 2017

Car Life, Year 1

It's exactly a year today since I got my Japanese driver's license, and my "beginner" mark is coming off. It's also seven months with the Toyota Aqua; here some early impressions of life with a car here in Okinawa.

Beginner mark.

The Toyota Aqua

The Aqua is a hybrid compact car, tailor-made for daily commutes. It's small — fits in any parking space — and economical, and safer than a kei-car, with features such as side airbags, collision detection, lane warnings and so on. It's big enough for four people or a fair bit of luggage if needed, but really perfect for one to two people or a couple with a baby.

The Toyota Aqua.

When we got the Aqua I hadn't driven a car for over twenty years. I was astounded just how easy cars are to drive today. You press the pedal and it goes. There's no gear-shift, no clutch, no choke, no anything. Starting on a steep uphill slope? The car stops itself from rolling down when you release the brake. Backing up? The rear camera outlines where the car will go. Need to go somewhere? The navigator will guide you.

It will easily reach 100km/h — the practical top speed on Okinawas only highway — and fuel economy is good. My total average over the past seven months is just about 30km per liter or .33 liters per 10km. It varies quite a lot, though. The engine needs to warm up, so short trips use more fuel. Tire pressure and weather makes a noticeable difference, and I get much better mileage from routes I know well than when we're going somewhere new.

The Aqua is not an exciting car. If cars are your hobby you won't find much to like about it. It goes where it should with little fuss, maximal predictability and minimal excitement. It's as useful and dependable as a refrigerator, and just as thrilling. That is fine. Just like our fridge is our appliance for keeping food fresh, the Aqua is our appliance for getting around. A boring commute is a good commute; it means I arrived on time, with no problems.

Driving in Okinawa


The pachinko business in Japan is certainly at the forefront of pushing the bounds of architectural creativity, if not of good taste.

Unlike the big Japanese population centers, Okinawa doesn't have a great public transportation system. The bus network is fine for short trips, but slow and unreliable for long distances. Bicycles are hampered by the hilly terrain and the hot, humid and unpredictable weather. Taxis are relatively inexpensive but still not something you can afford to use on a daily basis.

That means most people have to drive whether they want to or not, so there's a lot of less-than-excellent drivers around. I freely admit I'm one of them. It also means traffic can get very congested on the few big roads on the island.

Morning sunlight near Sunabe.

Speeding is everywhere. For some reason, Okinawan roads have quite low speed limits. A straight, wide 4-lane road that would have a limit of 70 or even 90 km/h back in Sweden is here perhaps only 50. Also, while all speeding is illegal, the penalties are very mild up to 20km/h over the limit — one point off the license and a 10-15k yen fine. The police are much more concerned with drunk driving and serious offences so they will mostly ignore moderate speeding.

That means just about everybody is speeding. The actual speed on Okinawan roads is generally the posted limit + 15-20km/h. Even police cars are speeding along with everybody else. The only exceptions are driving school students; trucks and delivery vans that follow a company policy of keeping close to the speed limit; and some elderly drivers.

Speaking of elderly drivers, and of new drivers such as myself: the "beginner" mark I've been using, and the "disabled" and "elderly driver" marks, are a great idea. All new drivers have to use the beginner mark for the first year, while drivers over 65 can use the elderly driver mark if they want to.

The "Elderly driver" fourclover.

They warn other drivers that your experience, reaction time, cognitive capability or perception is lacking so you need a bit more leeway to drive safely. If a driver gets into an accident with you, they will be held to a higher level of responsibility because of your status. It really seems to work; people do give these cars a bit more space. I know I do myself.

This is a button. It's in every car. In some places it's called a "hazard light". On Okinawa this is the "instant parking space" button, and it's magical. Wherever you stop — no matter how busy or inconvenient — the moment you press this button the spot turns into your personal parking space.

The magical "make parking space" button.

It could be one lane on the main artery during rush hour, in a sharp bend over the top of a hill, or completely blocking a narrow one-way road — it doesn't matter; once you press that button it becomes your parking space. Quite amazing, really, what we can do with technology these days.

Drunk driving is a big problem here. It's of course connected to the lack of public transportation, combined with a culture of regular social drinking. One solution: daiko, or drive-home taxis. They exist elsewhere in Japan too, but are very common here. You call a daiko service, and two drivers show up in a small car. One of them drives your car and the other follows in theirs, while you ride along as a passenger in your own car.

They're more expensive than regular taxis, but not by that much — they're subsidized I believe. If you're not living that far away, and if you share the cost with 2-3 other people, it can be very economical.

Rush hour traffic along Route 58 is actually not too bad if the weather is cooperating and nothing happens. If I leave work at six it takes me 1:25-30 or so to get home, compared to 1:10-15 if I leave at six thirty. The problem is that if something happens — an accident, a concert or some other event — then the rush hour time can easily become two hours.

Leon Eri Dance School. Taken while I was stuck in an endless jam in Ginowan. I absolutely love the typography.

On Friday evenings, there's always things happening, and the traffic is always hideously slow, so I take the highway.  It costs 650 yen each time, but it's worth it to get home in just over an hour instead of two hours or more.

But overall, Okinawa is a good place to drive. Most drivers aren't stressed or rushed, and the pace is fairly relaxed. People are tolerant, give each other space, let each other in and generally cooperate even when the traffic grinds to a complete halt.

About Driving

People say a car broadens your horizons, and they're right. We get to many places we otherwise couldn't. We often go to farmers markets, beaches and restaurants that we really couldn't reach otherwise. The markets especially is a great place for very inexpensive, insanely fresh seasonal ingredients. It's a lot of fun.

Palm trees in the morning.

But a car is also terribly inconvenient. It's a bulky, expensive, dangerous machine that needs constant maintenance and attention. When you drive, you need to be awake, alert and focused — no reading, dozing off or daydreaming. Driving really is wasted time. You can't suddenly stop or change direction because you saw a neat-looking cafe or something.  And parking is always a problem.

The car hurts my photography. There's lots of photo opportunities here — I have a list of cool spots longer than my arm already — but in a car I can never just stop, take a picture, then be on my way. It means ten-minutes of finding some place to get off the road, turn around and go back, then find a place to stop so I can walk over to the spot. By that time the scene is already long gone.

This cloud line one morning was absolutely unbelievable. It stayed completely straight and unmixed for over an hour.

But I need to get to work, and we want to explore the island. Until we get self-driving cars, driving is the only reasonable way. There is hope though; here's a YouTube clip of a self-driving Nissan Leaf that goes all through busy London — on highways, roundabouts and busy city streets — in the rain all by itself, without any driver input. Seriously, it is already a better driver than I am. And they (optimistically) aim to have something like it for sale in 2020. If they really do, I'd be sorely tempted to trade in the Aqua...

Sunday, March 12, 2017


So we've been to Sweden for a week. Not for holidays unfortunately, but for a family funeral. It was nothing sudden, it didn't come as a surprise, but still you hope the people you love will never leave, and it's heart-wrenching when they do. The far-flung family members all got together again for the first time in years, and this was fun even though the circumstances were not. I even got to meet a relative I never before knew existed.

Yes, this looks great. Too cold for me, nowadays. Borlänge train station.

I never used to have any problems with the cold in winter. In fact, I always rather liked wintertime — the white snow, the crisp air, the peace and quiet. But many years in Osaka, and six months in Okinawa must have softened me up. It was only -5 degrees and I was freezing. I will never complain about the winter in Okinawa ever again.

Now why did I ever leave Borlänge? Oh yes, now I remember: it's a small industrial town in the middle of a forest, with nothing much but trees and mosquitos to keep you company.

My employer OIST gave me another reason to appreciate them. They give you up to a full seven days of leave for this sort of occasion. Travelling from Naha to Borlänge takes three flights and a train ride, about 26-30 hours in all even if you do the whole trip in one go. Had I had just the more common three days it would have been impossible impossible to attend the funeral as well as talk things over with the other family members.

We spent one evening in Stockholm. Too cold for walking around, but I managed a few pictures before my hands started freezing solid.

Finnair is probably the most convenient way between Okinawa and Scandinavia.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Premium Friday

So, "Premium Friday" is upon us. We're supposed to leave work at three pm the last friday of the month, to (presumably) spend the time  — and our money — in shops, restaurants, izakayas and bars. The idea is the brainchild of the Japanese government and various consumer companies (The name is completely non-coincidentally similar to "Premium Malts", a popular beer).

Japanese workers spend far too much time working, and spend too little money when they don't. Premium Friday is supposed to curb working hours a little, and get people to spend a bit of money out on the town instead of saving it all for their kids' university tuition or retirement.

How is it going? The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry that champions the idea doesn't even give their own employees clear permission to leave early, that's how well it's going. Some companies do give paid leave but many companies say — sensibly — that if somebody wants to leave early they can take flex-time and make it up later, or take a few hours out of their yearly vacation time.

It's too early to say, but the idea may look dead in the water. Why do they try this sort of thing? Because the long, inefficient, work hours and the unwillingness to spend have become major problems for Japanese society and economy.

The real solutions to these problems are either intractable or politically unworkable. It would mean wholesale reform of employment laws; redesign the pension and social security systems; and spread the economic and social burden on education and senior care just for a start.

That'd be a very tall order indeed. The different stakeholders all have different, incompatible ideas of how to change each of these institutions. My home country Sweden only managed to reform its pension system because of an acute financial crisis (as in "500% interest and currency in free-fall"). I doubt real reform will be possible in Japan either without a similar sense of impending disaster.

Meanwhile the clamour to "do something" is growing steadily louder. And the ministries — like every organization faced with a crisis — realize that doing nothing is worse than doing "something", whatever "something" may be. And so we get "Premium Friday". A campaign at least looks like doing something, which is better than doing nothing even if the end result is the same.

But if Premium Friday fails, the blame will at least mostly be on all those companies that wanted something done but then refused to give their own workers permission to participate. They're the ones that are forcing those too-long working hours on their employees in the first place after all.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The darkest days

We have to leave for Sweden over next week or so to attend to a family matter. Not the best time of year for visiting Scandinavia, in the cold and the dark. To cheer myself up a little, here's a few pictures from last summer that I never got around to post here.

Kobe harbour

Kawanishi warehouses. The sacks are coffee beans.

Fishing on the pier.

Shogi players near Tennouji, Osaka.

Cool Biz, Osaka.

Shinsaibashi, Osaka.

Baseball players at dusk, Naha.

Sunday, January 15, 2017


Winter has arrived. On the mainland half the country has ground to a halt in a snowstorm. Here on Okinawa we have 14-17 degrees, windy with grey skies and rain showers. It honestly feels more like autumn than winter to me; sad and lonely, but also peaceful.

We've had a string of bad news in the family lately, and that doesn't improve the mood of course. But brooding about things doesn't help. We had to get out of the house for a while so we drove down to the seaside in Itoman south of Naha. There's a couple of good farmers' markets there, and a large beach area with a fairly good lunch restaurant.

Sun beach in Itoman.

It's not that cold, so quite a lot of people visit the seaside even now. They're walking their dogs, playing, doing sports or just taking in some fresh air and scenery.

A visitor came by as we were having lunch.

A different kind of bird. Naha airport and a Japanese air force base are both just north of here and the landing flight path goes right along the coast. Have to come here for airplane pictures one day with better weather.

A hotpot is great comfort food when you're feeling cold and miserable. A good hotpot will warm your heart and your stomach alike.

We're still worried, but the fresh air and change of scenery did wonders to improve our mood. Just like this winter weather, things will eventually pass.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Banana Desk

We had a great time over the New Year holiday in Osaka! Lots of eating and drinking of course — I gained 3kg over those ten days — but we also did a lot of errands, now that we were back in a big city again.

One of those errands was to get an extra Gerton desk leg from IKEA. I got a desk from IKEA before we moved. A cheap one, where you get legs and a surface separately and just assemble them. Mostly this desk has worked fine, except for one thing:

Banana desk.

Yes, the surface is bending, and bending quite a lot. It's in no danger of breaking or anything, but it's a bit annoying. The real solution would have been to get a solid wood surface from somewhere, but that's expensive and heavy. Instead, I opted to add a fifth leg to the desk.

It would have been easy, but IKEA is a very clever company and knows how to make things cheaper more than anybody. These desks aren't solid at all. It's a wooden frame with leg supports in the corners, then rigid sheets of laminate on the top and bottom. The box construction should make the desk fairly strong, but it means the interior is mostly filled with nothing as far as I can tell. And "nothing" is not a great material for wood screws to get a grip in.

I glued a piece of plywood to the underside of the desk, then screwed the screws through the plywood and into the desk.

The solution is to glue a wooden support piece to the bottom, then fix the leg onto that instead. I got a scrap piece of 15mm plywood at the Makeman shop in Urasoe, and cut off a 17×17cm square. Wood glue is very strong and the force from the leg is almost all directed inwards, but I figured that if the screws went in through the desk bottom it would help keep the piece steady until the glue set. With a 15mm thick board the screws stick out almost another centimeter, giving me a solid joint.

The desk with its extra leg. It still needs to bend back just a little more, but that will take some time.

It will take a few weeks for the surface to bend back fully; I've adjusted the length of the middle leg twice already and I'll probably adjust it once or twice more before it's completely level. Once it is level, though, it should be completely stable.  A fun little post-holiday project.