Driving in a foreign country is a gamble highly dependent on nerves, skill and how closely locals adhere to speed limits.
On one hand, you have my friend Abby, who navigated the terrifying stew of Beirut traffic like a female James Bond -- overtaking slower cars, zig-zagging through congestion and charming directions out of children in flawless Arabic. She would make a great getaway driver in a bank heist.
On the other, you have David and me. We have been known to circle the same restaurant four or five times before realizing that the GPS was saying to turn right, not left. Both of us have driven into Mexico by mistake (on separate occasions).
So when David, my travel buddy for Japan and South Korea, proposed renting a car to visit some museums out in the Japanese countryside, I had doubts. Just imagine the scene below, but replace Gozilla with us in a vehicle.
Overall, the road trip was completely doable. Okay yes, we almost hit a man within an hour of getting behind the wheel (he was fine). And yes, we did almost slam into a car at a red light (the car was fine). The stress of driving on the other side of the road, combined with following directions in kilometers and handling a new car, definitely took some adjustment.
However. Not only did we scrape through with no damage to either humans or property, those two days were the standouts of the entire Japanese journey. We got a peek into the rural side of the country, away from the technicolor frenzy of its cities.
*A tip for those who decide to do the same: Make sure to reserve a car early. It was extremely difficult, nearly impossible, to book one just a day in advance. We would have been completely lost without my friend Raena, who already speaks an impressive amount of Japanese after only a year in Tokyo (she would disagree, but I was in awe). She called at least half a dozen rental agencies in the general area we were planning to visit before finding a single car available in Nagaoka, a city in Niigata Prefecture. People in Japan tend to make travel plans well in advance, Raena said, and once they make a reservation, they keep them.
On an early weekday morning in October, we left Tokyo on a Shinkansen bullet train. The ride took about an hour and a half. Once we got to Nagaoka, we picked up our cute Mazda Flair hybrid. David was at the wheel (he was the one with an international driver's license), while I navigated and programmed the GPS. We drove about an hour south to the city of Tokamachi.
Echigo-Tsumari Art Field
Our primary goal was to see the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field, an area with about 160 works of art scattered among the farmlands and backroads around Tokamachi. The region's reputation as an art cluster got its start in 2000, when Japanese curator Fram Kitagawa created an arts festival there in an effort to revive its economy (he also had a hand in turning the island of Naoshima into a haven for modern art). Now, the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial is held every three years.
My favorite among the crop was the House of Light, a two-story house designed by California artist James Turrell.
It features a lot of traditional Japanese architecture, including shoji screens, along with his signature manipulations of light: a bath illuminated by fiber optic cables, doorways lit in mesmerizing ways and a retractable roof that reveals a skyspace, with an automatic light program at sunset and sunrise. The house is even available to rent, although you'll have to book well in advance. Prices start at 4,000 yen a person (about $35) per night; everyone also splits a facilities charge of 20,000 yen (or about $180). I would definitely come back to Japan just for a night in this house.
To be honest, aside from the Turrell house and a few pieces at the Satoyama Museum of Contemporary Art, the art itself was the least interesting part of the trip. Some of the most promising works were closed for the season.
The outdoor installations that are available year-round were --- the best description I can come up with is goofy as hell. I'll let the pictures explain themselves.
Serendipity and soba
Driving in the countryside itself was the highlight. Motoring around Tokamachi, you'll encounter lush green fields of vegetables and small towns chock full of buildings with barrel roofs, built so snow can slide right off during the winter. The drive from one museum to the next usually took 30 to 40 minutes, and we spent that time admiring the scenery and architecture.
Our favorite stop was definitely not on the original itinerary. The Satoyama art museum's ground floor is essentially an open-air plaza that hosts events throughout the year. When we were there, the woman manning the front desk mentioned that a soba festival was being held there the next day. We deliberated for about three seconds before deciding that we had to come back. That day, we even caught a few of the soba masters at work rolling out dough and cutting noodles in preparation for the festival.
Guys, the soba festival was fantastic. A few dozen local restaurants had set up stalls selling both hot and cold soba. Many were offering the local specialty, hegi soba noodles, which is made from seaweed. A bowl cost about $3. I also sampled the most fantastic tempura of my life, a mouth-watering mix of sweet potatoes and carrots that was crisp and chewy at the same time.
All I can say is, rent a car and just drive out into rural Japan. You don't need a schedule or definite plans. That is the best part of travel -- what you find when you get there.
P.S. Japanese drivers are also extremely law-abiding and generally cautious, so it's really the safest place to try driving outside of your home country.