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Driving in Ishigaki
A car is without a doubt the best way to travel around Ishigaki island. There are plenty of rent-a-car companies and prices are very reasonable, ranging from about 3000 yen for a 12 hour rental, although prices can be higher during the summer season. It won't be a surprise to hear that companies tend to ask you to fork out a few hundred yen for additional insurance when you come to make a booking, but even then the price is usually within most travelers' budgets. Cars are typically supplied with a full tank of petrol and customers are expected to return them with a full tank (see the information on petrol stations below).
International Drivers License
If you're planning on driving in Japan you should apply for an international driver's license in your home country. Please beware if you've been told that you can drive on your regular license as this may not be the case. An international driver's licence can be used for up to a year after entering Japan, after which point a Japanese driver's license will be required.
Despite the fact that it is legal to drive on an international drivers license for up to a year after entering Japan, many rental dealerships on the island refuse to lease their cars to foreigners who do not hold a Japanese license. Reasons given include poor communication and the fact that most foreigners cannot read the rental agreements which they must sign (a fair point). To add to this there is a fear that foreigners are more likely to be involved in an accident and if one should occur insurance issues may become overly complex. Our advice would be to approach larger, national companies, who are more likely to be experienced when it comes to dealing with foreign visitors.
Most cars are supplied with Sat Nav (usually in Japanese only) and this should suffice if combined with one of the maps provided in the free magazines which are available at the airport. Ishigaki has just a few large roads which run around the island, and if you stick to these you probably won't get lost. These roads are pretty well signposted and even if you do lose your way you should be able to find a sign with English text which will lead you towards the city. Try to plan your trip well before you leave and use the coastline to maintain your sense of direction.
There are no self-service petrol (gas) stations on Ishigaki island. As soon as you drive onto the petrol stations forecourt you'll be greeted by a few excited attendants who'll make rather strange noises while guiding you to a pump. If you'd like them to fill the tank say 'Mantan de onegaishimasu' ('Mantan' means 'full tank'). If your tank has been filled this will usually be indicated on the receipt – your rental car company may ask to see this receipt later. Note that many petrol stations on Ishigaki island close quite early – ask your rental car company for advice about which petrol station should be used and its opening times.
Road safety & basic precautions
On the whole driving in Ishigaki is pretty safe, but this is usually attributed to the fact that people drive quite slowly rather than anything else. Road manners are good on the whole, but the island definitely has its fair share of poor drivers, and the key is to be on your guard if you want to avoid an accident.
Seatbelt laws ignored
When it comes to child safety in vehicles both the law and common sense appear to have been completely abandoned. Many, if not most parents, allow small children to ride in the front of the car unrestrained, and some mothers won't hesitate to drive while carrying young babies in their arms. The situation alarms both foreigns and mainlanders alike, but unfortunately neither the police nor the local authorities seem willing or able to address the problem. As a result even low-speed accidents can result in serious injuries and fatalities; this is another reason to exercise caution, particularly when driving through the city center.
Traffic lights - pedestrians may cross at the same time as cars
There is an important difference between Japan's traffic light system and that of many countries, and drivers from Europe in particular should take time to understand it.
A green light naturally means that you are free to proceed, but take great care when turning left or right as pedestrians traveling in the same direction will usually have a green light too. This can be particularly dangerous when turning right across oncoming traffic as you not only have to wait for a gap, but you have to look over your shoulder to ensure that a pedestrian (or even a cyclist) isn't crossing the road which you're trying to turn onto. The exception is when a green filter arrow is illuminated, at which point pedestrians usually cannot cross.
Ambiguous traffic lights
When looking at the layout of some of Ishigaki's roads you may be forgiven for thinking that the designers are actively trying to cause accidents. Particularly confusing are a few large junctions where the traffic light is positioned on the opposite side of the intersection, which may be as far as 50 meters in front of the line where you must stop.
Unsurprisingly, people who are unfamiliar with the city's roads occasionally drive straight through such junctions completely unaware of the fact that they are running a red light. Do keep your eyes on the road ahead in order to avoid doing so yourself.
Be particularly careful if driving around Ishigaki's back streets as not all junctions are clearly marked. High walls on corners often make junctions hard to spot, particularly for newcomers to the island and foreigners who are less likely to notice signs written in Japanese. Keep your eyes peeled for stop signs which will usually read '止まれ’ ('tomare'). Right-of-way can often shift unexpectedly when driving through Ishigaki's side streets, and vigilance is advised at all times.
Speed limits are displayed in kilometers per hour. Ishigaki has many wide country roads, and sticking to the speed limit can be quite a challenge – the limit on most open roads is either 40 or 50km/h (25 or 31mph). The police are also quite strict when it comes to enforcing speed limits and speed traps are occasionally set up on roads around the island. However, Ishigaki is small which means that you're never too far from your destination (unless you're traveling to the Hirakubo peninsula), and the scenery is so beautiful that there's no real need to make it pass any faster than it has too.
It goes without saying that if you've been drinking then don't drive. Drink-drive laws are very strict in Japan and even being slightly over the limit (which is virtually zero) can result in the driver along with his or her passengers being served a huge fine – think along the lines of around five thousand US dollars for the driver, and slightly less for each passenger. In Japan the late night bar / Izakaya culture often leads to people being over the limit the next day without realizing, but make no mistake, the police may be polite but they will not budge an inch if you are caught.
During the peak season there are hundreds of people driving around the island and many of them clearly forget that there may be other cars behind them when they finally find the location that they were looking for. Watch out for these drivers, keep your distance, and above all, try to avoid becoming one of them yourself.