A few tips for driving in Yamagata

There are a few tricks I’ve learned over the years driving here in Yamagata, some that may seem counterintuitive at first but that I have tested multiple times and found to be true.

Yamagata drivers in general like to follow the pack, which means on roads with two lanes going the same direction, they tend to prioritize one of the lanes. If you know which lane is likely to be prioritized, go in the other lane. You’ll get there quicker (just don’t be a dick if there’s a good reason for everyone being in the same lane, like a merging lane not too far away).

Yamagata drivers also often go through yellow traffic lights, sometimes even red. Here, best to play it safe and judge it as if you were driving in NZ, where this is heavily policed. This means you need to be extra careful when the lights change as well as some cars go after they have changed and may even crash into you.

The problem is that the lights are often set on a timer, and you can see where they are in the cycle by looking at the pedestrian crossing lights. If the lights for the pedestrian crossing going the same direction as you just changed, you may be able to make it. If the pedestrian crossing lights of the road cutting across your path are flashing green, slow down so that when they change for you you are still moving. That way you can get through relatively quickly.

In general, stop signs are faster than traffic lights. I used to think traffic lights were faster because there is a 100% chance of you stopping at a stop sign, whereas you can get lucky at traffic lights. But over time I have come to realize that the average amount of time spent waiting at a stop sign is usually less than the average amount of time spent waiting for a traffic light. As a general rule, you should prioritize routes that have minimal intersections, failing that, prioritize routes that avoid traffic lights.

Sakata city recently got a new roundabout. For someone from the city with the most roundabouts per capita (at least this has been true in the past, check out Lower Hutt), you understand how much of a godsend roundabouts are.

However, with a huge concentration of people who do not know how to use them, this can be very troublesome and will take a long time for people to get used to. If they do get used to them, hopefully you’ll see more roundabouts where there are traffic lights now in the middle of the rice fields that never seem to change even when there is absolutely no one there.

Having done a 360 on the black ice before, it’s fun, but also very dangerous. When you’re driving on snow, focus on going in the direction you want to go. Snow is also when you use the ‘b’ gear, which I believe is engine brake. It’s like changing down gears in a manual, and you use it to slow the car down rather than the normal brakes that will make you slide.

Living in Yamagata means you do get good at changing tires though, you need to switch from normal tires to studless tires in the winter, and if you have your wife’s tires to change as well, you get pretty good at it.

Generally speaking, it’s fine to leave your keys in the ignition and go into shops. If it’s winter, people leave their cars on and often go into the Konbini (convenience store) or what have you.

As a pedestrian, at the pedestrian crossings without lights there is a less than 50% chance that people will stop for you, according to a recent study. In my experience, this number is probably at about 10 to 20% of cars stopping for you. Be extra careful here. In NZ I would say the same number would be in the 90s. Orange flashing lights and plenty of warning goes a long way in actually having people stop.

That’s about all I can think of for now. If I think of something else, I’ll probably add it. Either way, driving in the two countries is completely different, although we do drive on the same ‘right’ side of the road!



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Sakata City, Yamagata, Japan 


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