August 18, 2008

Awaji Island Vacation & Driving In Japan

For our second get-away trip of the Obon Holiday week, we headed to nearby Awaji Island. Awaji is a fairly small island that sits in between mainland Japan (Honshu) to Shikoku. Since Awaji is not really easily accessible without a car (no trains, and although you can get around by buses, it seemed inconvenient, since things are so spread out), we rented a car for the first time since moving to Japan.

This required driving on the "wrong" (i.e., left) side of the road in a car with a steering wheel on the wrong (i.e., right) side of the car. We rented a Toyoto Prius (it was also our first time driving a hybrid), which came with navigation (in Japanese, but it's not too hard to understand simple directions like "in 700 meters make a left"). Mike (if he does say so himself) did a pretty good job driving, except for turning on the windshield wipers pretty much every time he meant to turn on the turn signal. (The turn signal, like everything else, is on the opposite side of the steering column and the windshield wipers were on the side where the turn signal is normally found.) This cracked up Jacob and Lauren repeatedly. As we were driving on the road, we noticed how clean and new most Japanese cars were - no equivalent to beat-up Chevys on the road here! We attribute this to (i) taking more pride in cars as a status symbol; and (ii) the fact that they clean your car to the nines every time you pull into a gas station.

We relied quite heavily on the navigation lady. The only hitch was that we couldn't figure out how to re-program in a new destination, so whenever we changed our mind about where we wanted to go, we had to pull over and turn off the car to "reboot" the navi.

To get to Awaji Island, which is less than an hour from Kobe, you have to cross the Akashi Kaekyo Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world. Round trip toll for the expressway and bridge was over 5500 Yen ($52). Insane!

We stayed at the Westin Awaji Island Hotel, a high class (way out of our league, but hey it was two days!) hotel situated towards the northern end of the island. The grounds of The Westin are not to be believed and include Awaji Yumebutai Park, a sprawling mixture of flower gardens, lakes, and the architectural stylings of Tadao Ando. (Not to mention two seriously gigantic playgrounds.) The Westin also has a great pool, where we spent the better part of Saturday (and Sunday morning!), as Jacob attached himself (as usual) to three Japanese teenage girls, who became his "new friends."

On our day trips from the hotel we got to see rugged mountains, nice sea views, and lots and lots of onion farms. Onions are one of the foods that Awaji is famous for, and with good reason - they are really really good. We enjoyed them on salads, in Onion Bread, and also in the Awaji Bloomin' Onion form. Other local Awaji products include huge figs and grapes, boiled fish cakes (which doesn't sound too exciting, but they are good) and octopus (best grilled octopus-on-a-stick that Mike has had in Japan). Here are some of the pre-on-a-stick variety:

One day we made a quick stop at the Awaji Ranch, a tiny little farm that put out some seriously good milk. Free samples - woo hoo! The kids enjoyed checking out the cows, and we confirmed that "Moo" in English translates directly into Japanese.

Along the way, we also got to see this huge Daikannon (lit. large Kannon) statute.

Our first day in Awaji, we headed all the way down south and took a schooner ride to see the famous Naruto whirlpools. Dubbed the "whirly twirly pools" by our kids (but called the uzushio in Japanese), these whirlpools are formed under the Great Naruto Bridge. Boat tours head out and into the whirlpools, which twirl the boats around. It was very unique and very cool. (And also hard to do justice on camera.)

We spent our Sunday afternoon at Onokoro amusement park. One part cheesy kiddie amusement park, one part miniature models of famous buildings from around the world (mini-Great Wall of China, Notre Dame, Arc du Triomph, etc.), and one part fairy tale land; it was a fun last day in Awaji.

Here is a picture of us coming over the misty bridge our of Fairy Tale land. (Mike likes this shot, because it reminds him of a slow motion over-drama-field shot of a football team coming out of the tunnel for the Super Bowl.)

Like our trip to Biwako earlier in the week, these couple days of family R&R felt like a lot longer. And now that we have rented a car, we will surely do it again before our international drivers licenses expire at the end of the year.


Lisa said...

Looked like an incredible trip...the whirlpools looked very very cool. Love all the things you're doing..thanks for sharing! can't wait to eat some octopus on a stick..

Alexis Jacobs said...

Okay I am not sure about the octopus on a stick... Sounds like a fun family vacation!

PS: I have been trying to find your email on this site as we just got confirmation that we will soon before expats in Kobe. I would love to have a fellow American give me some reassurances and Kobe advice. You can email me at

Pat Carrothers said...

Funny driving comments. I heard the windshield wiper thing from all new drivers. The Japanese must get a kick out of seeing a car load of foreigners driving with their wipers on. I have also noticed the clean car thing. I am working at a construction site now in Japan and as you leave the site every car and truck (even dump and cement trucks) get washed! You drive through an automatic sprayer and then there are a bunch of guys with pressure washers taking care of any spots left behind. You wouldn’t want to get any dirt on the roads!

jackaw said...

Very cool shot! Almost awesome....

I forget -- after a week in Maine and playing bridge in NH -- how much your experiences bring a smile to my face. It's like eating a favorite dish and each time the taste buds are awakened anew.

Well done, guys.

Jade Graham said...

I've been to Oregon several times and I can never get over how absolutely gorgeous it is! גאודי ברצלונה