Home > Focus on Japan 2012 > Bad Traffic

Bad Traffic

May 23rd, 2012

Last weekend, Sachi and I went on a kind of ‘day trip’ we have done from time to time: driving Ponta to a dog run in Tokorozawa, and then on to Costco for shopping. Now that we have the car, Costco trips are much easier–but because Costco always sets up shop in distant locations (presumably to avoid high land costs), it’s not an easy drive. Not because of distance–in total, it’s a 35 km (22 mile) round trip. Instead, it’s hard because of insufficient roads and horrific traffic control, making what should be no more than an hour in traffic into a four-hour road trip.

In Japan, most people use trains, in part because of cost, but also perhaps because traffic can be a nightmare at times. Tokyo, like most places in Japan, is not exactly traffic-friendly; thoroughfares are not ubiquitous, and often you have to navigate three sides of a square to get where you want to go.

Take our trip to the dog run in Tokorozawa. As the crow flies, it’s just 8 km (5 mi.). However, the most direct route is on small, narrow roads which, in Japan, qualify as streets with two-way traffic–which is to say, one car pulls over onto the curb while the one coming from the other direction slowly creeps past, with inches of clearance on either side. A lot of roads in Japan are like that, streets so narrow they would barely qualify as a one-way street in the U.S.

The same path is also filled with a multitude of turns, some of which are so subtle and confusing that it is easy to go down the wrong way.

However, this is usually the way that the GPS recommends, probably because it chooses the least-distance route and ignores how fast one might go. Google Maps does the same thing, claiming that the 11-km small-road route to the dog run takes 34 minutes–when in fact, it is more than an hour. Sachi and I discovered that a three-sides-of-a-square route, taking bigger roads, is much faster, despite the fact that it is 16 km (10 mi.).

However, what really gets me is the traffic control. In Japan, I really get the impression that when they plan traffic, they don’t. As in, they don’t give a good goddamn about traffic flow, instead they just follow pre-set standards someone set randomly some time in the past.

It’s like that with road designations and speed limits. You can be in the countryside, on a wide two-lane thoroughfare, with no lights or stop signs for a kilometer at a time, no pedestrians in sight and the sidewalk blocked off by large barriers in any case… and the speed limit will be set to 25 mph (40 kph). In the U.S., a similar street would have double the speed limit. In Japan, the limit is set by the road’s official classification–meaning that a narrower, pedestrian-laden one-lane street near the city center may have a higher speed limit.

Traffic control in Japan seems to be planned the same way–mostly arbitrarily. On our trip last weekend, we ran into at least three traffic jams which were obviously endemic; the exact same traffic jam is there every time we go, and I am sure the same is true of the new jams we encountered on our route this time.

The culprit is usually the same: a badly timed right-turn signal. In Japan, we drive on the left, so right turns must cross traffic. The roads are narrow, and right-turn lanes are short. A traffic signal, especially at a 5-way intersection (where these jams usually occur), may take 2-3 minutes to cycle. However, the right-turn light will last only two or three seconds–and no, I am not exaggerating, I timed it. (The turn light is actually 5 seconds, but straight-through drivers run their red light, cutting a few seconds off the turn signal traffic.) So, naturally, the line of people wanting to turn right quickly backs up, and very soon blocks the whole flow of traffic (as most streets are one lane), thus creating a traffic jam that backs up for more than a kilometer.

What is so stupid about it is that the jams could obviously be eliminated, or at least greatly lessened, by simply extending the turn light by five to ten seconds–nothing when you consider the overall cycle duration. And yet, it never happens. Not all right-turn lights are so poorly timed, but enough are, and they tend to be in key spots where you cannot get around them.

This last weekend, we got caught by exactly that type of traffic jam, made even worse by an incredibly idiotic placement of a parking lot exit stream just 100 meters or so from just such a right-turn trap. We were almost at Costco–one turn away–when traffic came to a stop. And I mean, a dead stop. At one point, I realized that traffic had not moved for more than five minutes. People were starting to get out of their cars to see what had happened.

Now, this was already bad enough before: a signal at the intersection had the same short-right-turn-lane combined with the three-second-turn-light syndrome. Add a steady stream of cars exiting the mall parking lot close by. (In previous trips, we noted that these people got impatient real fast, as if they had been the only ones waiting for half an hour, and tended to bull into the line and then go bumper-to-bumper, denying the main street traffic access to the stream again.)

But instead of simply adjusting that right turn signal, what did the morons in traffic control do? They added a signal just before the parking lot traffic flow. The timing was perfect: as soon as the new signal turned red for the main traffic flow, that’s when the line moved forward, essentially giving most of the flow’s movement to the parking lot traffic–but also more or less turning the main road beyond that point into a parking lot.

Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid. For no cost, they could have alleviated most of the problem. Instead, they spent all that money to add a traffic light, making the problem even worse.

After 10 minutes and still no forward progress, I decided to do something that seemed counter-intuitive. Instead of trying to complete the last 500 meters of that nightmare, I turned around and took a 4-km “shortcut” around a large country club, essentially covering 3-1/2 sides of a large square. It took about 7 minutes, and saved us anywhere from half an hour to an hour.

Nor is this the only kind of stupidity one sees in Japanese traffic control. I remember when I lived in Inagi, they spent years building a completely new, luxuriously wide (for Japan), two-lane thoroughfare straight through the center of town. What used to require a circuitous, jammed-up ride down narrow roads was replaced by a beautiful, wide avenue where one could leisurely cruise straight across town.

Except, of course, they screwed it up with traffic lights. Lights at virtually every intersection, every few hundred meters. Of course, that would not be so bad… if the lights were not set to be staggered. Yep, you could see it down the straightaway: red green red green red. You just leave a red light, and seconds later, you stop at the next one. Each wait was about thirty seconds, and there was virtually no cross-traffic. You felt like a complete idiot, just waiting there for no reason. Then again. And again. And again and again. Just as stupid: I found that if you took a narrow side street, it had no stops signs or traffic lights, and so you could completely avoid the three-minute delay and zip past in seconds. And yet, I was apparently the only one who had found this–the side street was always empty, even when the traffic on the main street was heavy.

Ironically, the main, traffic-signal-filled street passed right by city hall. I don’t understand why the place has not get been burned to the ground by irate commuters.

Except that, this is Japan. People simply accept this crap–probably because they know that complaining will do no good. I would not be surprised it, six years later now, the traffic lights were still the same.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2012 Tags: by
  1. matthew
    May 23rd, 2012 at 11:56 | #1

    When it comes to traffic, Japan is truly “land without logic”. It is also unclear as to who has control of the traffic system. I have never heard of a definitive answer. I have heard that the police are in charge. I have heard the city is in charge. I have heard that the prefecture is in charge. No idea.

  2. Troy
    May 23rd, 2012 at 13:21 | #2

    In 7+ years I only drove a car a couple of hours, a rental Toyota van when I was moving stuff.

    Out on my walk last week it hit me that the dual carriageway I was crossing served only maybe 100 homes but was wider than just about any street I’d crossed in Tokyo.

    Here’s a comparison of it with the Kan-nana dori (red inset):


    same width!

    But not having kids or dogs I don’t mind the crazy streets of Tokyo since it allows for much more density, and density is better than convenience.

    Plus making the lights more efficient would just mean more people would drive cars!

    If half the 42 million people of kanto drove cars, if stopped as in the above picture (3 ars per 20m) they would fill the 6 lanes of the Kan-nana dori for 23,000km, a line stretching from Tokyo to Buenos Aires!

  3. Stuart
    May 23rd, 2012 at 13:31 | #3

    The key I learned when visiting Japan was to watch which roads the taxis turn on. They tend to go on the back roads that skip the lights.

    In Japan, most people use trains, in part because of cost, but also perhaps because traffic can be a nightmare at times.
    Also the lack of parking. I recall staying at a hotel last time I was in Tokyo that had something like 100 rooms and a whole 5 or 6 parking spaces.

  4. Stuart
    May 23rd, 2012 at 13:32 | #4

    huh that bq tag didn’t work. must have typed it in wrong

  5. Luis
    May 23rd, 2012 at 13:45 | #5


    huh that bq tag didn’t work. must have typed it in wrong

    Sorry, I should remove the note. I think that it might not work (except for me) because I disabled a plug-in that a security app told me might be a security hole for the Pharma hack. That plug-in enabled more than the standard HTML codes. My most recent cleanup seems to be working–the database codes have not re-asserted in a week, which they usually do, and the appearance of hacked cache pages on Google have fallen back.

  6. Luis
    May 23rd, 2012 at 14:09 | #6

    The key I learned when visiting Japan was to watch which roads the taxis turn on. They tend to go on the back roads that skip the lights.
    Yep. Blogged on that five years ago.

    For the trip back from Costco, the bottle neck is one of those 5-way intersections with the right-turn problem from 3 of the 5 directions. The GPS always says to go down one road, so I avoided a different road, thinking that the GPS was steering me clear of a worse route.

    Boy, was I dumb.

    Of course, the alternate route–only slightly longer–had only half the jam, and saved me 15 minutes last time. It still is jammed, made a bit worse by a train crossing next to a station (where the gates stay down even if the train is parked at the station for 3 minutes!).

    But this last time through, I saw a few cars (not taxis, as it happened) go down a side street, and when I checked my map, I could see an alternate way out that could potentially bypass even the smaller jam. In the image below, the red route was the GPS recommendation, the green route was the alternate I found, and the blue route is the one I plan to try next time.

  7. Troy
    May 25th, 2012 at 04:51 | #7

    So I found this . . .


    which apparently delivers from Costco Japan. This gives me a nice preview of what Costco Japan offers at least.

    If there were a way for a business to somehow locate a Trader Joe’s selection of cooled, frozen, and dry goods in Tokyo they’d make a killing I think.

    This is kinda National Azabu’s business model I suppose but I don’t think the Japanese-owned stores are really trying that hard to serve the middle class foreign community.

    Doing a back-of-the-envelop calculation of that business model:

    Rent: ¥600,000
    O/h: ¥400,000
    Wages for 2 p/t staff: ¥500,000
    “Profit”: ¥500,000

    that works out to a required gross margin (sales – COGS) of ~$1/minute, 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. On the edge of possible I guess.

    I can imagine the administrative hassle running an import business in Tokyo would be pretty colossal, LOL.

    I wonder if the yen is going to go to 60 or 100 from here. 60 would be a very nice tailwind for importers of course . . . pricing still seems to be set at the ¥150/yen like it was 15 years ago.

  8. Troy
    May 25th, 2012 at 06:02 | #8

    ah man I see all the good stuff in that pig store is being shipped from Costco Hawaii (the label indicates personal import)

    I should just move there I guess, LOL

  9. Troy
    May 25th, 2012 at 06:52 | #9

    “I came in 1985 and so have seen what have been called the “golden years” and then the tough years. There are always businesses that do well and those that need to change to match the times. Japan is going to be a good place for most of us who are alive now and after that, I think it will still be a good place to work and live, but we’ll need to learn Chinese.”


    LOL, my thoughts exactly.

    hoserfella JUN. 09, 2011 – 09:04AM JST:

    “if half of FBC customers are Japanese, and Costco are doing great business in Japan, it always amazes me that Japanese supermarkets don’t catch on. They continue to have a horrible selection of almost everything except sembei.”

    ditto, if things haven’t changed since the 1990s.

  10. Jim
    May 25th, 2012 at 08:25 | #10

    I can commiserate with you. The traffic signal at Costco Makuhari leads right into the parking area which can get so backed up that on the weekends you could wait 30 minutes or more. The buses, which used to loop through the parking area finally wised up and started dropping riders off before the signal to avoid the turn altogether. Needless to say I don’t go on the weekends. Costco has its other problems, for some people, simply passing through the doors seems to strip them of all manners, but that’s another issue altogether.

  11. Luis
    May 25th, 2012 at 10:19 | #11

    ah man I see all the good stuff in that pig store is being shipped from Costco Hawaii (the label indicates personal import)
    Yeah, I was going to point that out. Most of the stuff I want would be a “personal import,” meaning prohibitively expensive. Which really annoys me, in particular because of the boneless, skinless salmon. That was GREAT for making salmon casserole, but for some dopey reason they stopped selling that and went back to the same stupid Akebono bony skin-filled crap that you have to spend half an hour cleaning every time. Yech. So, for me, The Flying Pig is a disappointment.
    “if half of FBC customers are Japanese, and Costco are doing great business in Japan, it always amazes me that Japanese supermarkets don’t catch on.”
    What amazes me is that Costco, clearly doing great business, has failed to expand as they predicted. Back when they first started, they planned 50 stores within a decade. That decade is nearly up, and only 13 stores have been opened.

    C’mon, Costco, just one more… in Niiza City, if you please. (Alas… only one new one in Japan in the next year, and it’s in Hiroshima.)

  12. Troy
    May 25th, 2012 at 13:54 | #12

    Looking at http://www.foodandfunfromhome.com/remail.html

    I see the 21″x21″x15″ box I now happen to have out is a good size for air-shipping — just under the 62″ linear inch limit for regular small packages (according to them).

    The “DIM” weight on this size is 48lbs, so filled with popcorn, the minimum charge to get the box airshipped from their LA warehouse would be $137. (Parcel post to get this box from a friend in CA to LA runs around $25 for 50lbs of stuff).

    hmm, via Priority Mail International (6-10 day service) the USPS site says they can ship 48lbs in a 22x22x15 box for $160.

    So screw Madi’s I guess.

    If I were back in Japan again I wouldn’t mind getting a box of stuff this size from the US every month . . . wouldn’t have to live so close to Hiroo, LOL.

    At the ~$3.30/lb freight rate, a 20oz box of something would only cost an extra ¥330, that’s not bad for getting something home-delivered from the US.

    4lbs of Jelly Bellies:


    would be ¥2600, compared to ¥3955 via FBC and ¥3188 via flying pig.

  13. Troy
    May 25th, 2012 at 14:00 | #13


    just one more… in Niiza City, if you please.

    What gets me is that it’s economical for people to grow dirt:


    so close to Tokyo.

    Looking at google maps I see a well-aimed tennis ball throw would end up in Saitama, LOL

  14. Troy
    May 26th, 2012 at 04:18 | #14

    heh, I should move to a no sales-tax state (Oregon?) and start a business drop-shipping boxes from Costco to Japan like what The Flying Pig is doing.

    I could even pre-pack the boxes and give people fixed choices, LOL. We all want the same stuff, right?

    10 boxes a day at $30/box profit would be a $90,000/yr net.

  15. Troy
    May 26th, 2012 at 06:37 | #15

    Hey I found your new Niiza Costco site:


    wth is a 米軍通信隊 doing there???

  16. Troy
    May 26th, 2012 at 07:22 | #16

    That little site has an interesting history . . .


    some sort of naval radio intelligence site during the war, now the “Owada High Frequency Facility” run by the 374th Communications Squadron based out of Yokota, one of 8 remaining US bases in the Tokyo area.


  17. Troy
    May 26th, 2012 at 13:46 | #17

    Flying Pig “personal import” service isn’t *that* bad compared to eg. me airmailing from California, only about 6% more ($610 vs $570) on a random sample of 20 items (well 4X of 5 items to get the weight up to 50+lbs).

    The killer is that $3.30/lb air freight charge!

    So I guess the FBC model makes the most sense — consolidate orders into a full container and ship that over. Not sure exactly, but I think you can ship a 20′ container from Portland to eg. Yokohama for no more than $2000, and one container can hold around 300 60kg boxes, or well under $10/box (better than the ~$200 via air!).

    Sagawa charges ~$20 to deliver up to 30kg once the package clears customs, so with the sea route the $/lb charge is ~50c, a lot better than $3.20!

    With that efficiency, it wouldn’t really make any sense to stock a retail store in Tokyo, not with Tokyo retail rents, retail BS, shrinkage, etc etc.

    Though a catalog showroom would be great, with like free samples and stuff. That would be immensely cool. Put in some touchscreen iMacs and people could enter their orders and have them arrive a month later like FBC . . .

    Ah, dreaming is so much more fun than work . . .

  18. Troy
    May 27th, 2012 at 09:18 | #18

    Looking at LCL (less than cargo load) shipper online quoting, if/when I come back I’m shipping the entire #*@!$ house with me too!

    It apparently costs $300 to ship a washer & dryer from Portland to Yokohama.

    20 30kg 22″x22″x15″ boxes (the max Sagawa will “takkyubin”) quote under $600, including $200 insurance cost. Getting the 20 boxes delivered from the Yokohama warehouse is another ¥40,000. Not sure what the customs clearance and unloading/warehousing costs, probably not as cheap, LOL.

    Now, maybe my life in non endaka Japan is coloring things, and it makes more sense to buy home goods in Japan. . .

  19. Luis
    May 27th, 2012 at 09:47 | #19

    I long ago lost faith in the ability to ship anything, mail or cargo, reliably or cheaply. With the degradation of cheaper shipping for things like books or non-letter materials, and after having a few parcels confiscated by customs for no specifically stated reason, I am extremely reluctant to trust international mail nowadays or see it as worthwhile. Maybe there are deals or special methods I don’t know about…

    I do recall that back in the 80’s people were talking about buying space in shipping containers, and would use that to ship entire households back and forth. Don’t know if that’s even still available, or worth it.

  20. Stuart
    June 6th, 2012 at 02:30 | #20

    I probably got that taxi idea from you! It definitely worked for me when I was there last staying around the Asakusa area.

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