Getting around will seem pretty daunting at first. For tips on navigating your local area, talk to renewing JETs, your predecessor, and the locals. The road system in Japan is fairly straightforward, and the roads are broken down into the following categories:
- Local roads: Free, but slow, windy, and full of traffic.
- Main routes: Basically the same as local roads. They but are indicated by different colors in map books and numbers such as R29.
- Highways/Bypasses: Often have small toll charges. They are usually fast flowing, full of traffic and usually limited to certain urban areas. They provide the best balance between price, speed and convenience. They have names such as “Himeji Bypass”.
- Expressways: Fast, convenient, traffic-free and ridiculously expensive. Expressways extend to all corners of Japan, but it is usually cheaper to take the train than to travel long distances on the expressway. They have names such as “Chugoku Expressway”, “Bantan Expressway”, etc.
- Tunnels & Bridges: Usually have heavy toll charges. If you can avoid using new tunnels and bridges, you can save a lot of money.
A good road map is an indispensable resource for the vehicularly-inclined JET. By far the best map book available is the Japan Driving Map Book. It is possibly the only map book of Japan’s roads that is all in English. It has a bright orange cover, and can usually be found at the Junkudo bookstore in Kobe or at Kinokuniya in Osaka, but make sure to call ahead first to see if they have it in stock. Convenience stores often stock a good range of map books and you can usually find regional maps at the ￥100 shop. For a more detailed map book of Hyogo, which makes the baffling criss-cross of main roads, highways, expressways and bypasses more comprehensible, look for a blue book called Hyogo, which can be found in convenience stores and bookstores. It is only in Japanese, but it has good pictures.
JARTIC has a good site for getting very detailed traffic information on the expressways and major highways in Kobe & Osaka.
NEXCO offers a similar site called iHighway that also features traffic cameras.
Both sites are all in Japanese but fairly easy to navigate and understand.
Driving to and from Kobe
Kobe is quite an easy city to drive around, due to the Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake and subsequent reconstruction 10 years ago. The streets now are mostly straight, wide and fast flowing, and are organized in a vaguely planned grid. It’s a nice change from driving in most Japanese cities. There are of course heavy traffic at times, lane-hogging heavy trucks and surprising one-way roads, so take care.
To drive in Kobe, you’ve first got to get there. There are three main routes into Kobe city: The Himeji Bypass, Route 2, and Expressways.
The Himeji Bypass
- The Himeji Bypass, also known as the Kakogawa Bypass and Danishinmei, runs between Himeji and Kobe. The name changes as it passes Kakogawa, and at the Kobe end it is called the Danishinmei, but keep in mind that it’s still the same road.
- It is usually fast and free flowing, but is prone to traffic jams during holiday periods such as Obon, New Years, and Golden Week.
- Onramps for the Himeji bypass can be hard to find, especially coming out of Kobe. In Himeji, the onramp is to the south of the castle, between Himeji station and Himeji Port. In Kobe the onramp is at the western end of Route 28. Route 28 runs parallel to Route 2, but one block northward. Don’t try to follow Route 2 in search of the bypass, as you will end up on a very slow road to Himeji.
- There are also connections to it from the Bantan Expressway and the Chugoku Expressway.
- The road runs almost directly above Route 2, so it’s often obscured in many map books. However, it is there if you search for it.
- The toll charge is about 500 yen.
- Route 2 runs from through the southern part of Kobe, going all the way from Osaka to Fukuoka.
- It’s slow, especially during peak hours, with heavy traffic and frequent traffic jams.
- No toll charges.
There are of course numerous roads into Kobe, but for those who live a long way off, the Chugoku, Sanyo, and Maizuru Wakasa Expressways are the fastest and easiest ways to get to Kobe. Though they are convenient, fast, and traffic free, they are also very expensive.
Coming east on the Sanyo (山陽自動車道)
– Take the Kobe Kita Exit (神戸北IC). This is a small turn off which comes up quickly on your left – don’t miss it or you will have to drive a long way to turn around.
Coming south on the Maizuru Wakasa (舞鶴若狭自動車道)
– At the Yoshikawa Junction (吉川Jct) merge onto the Chugoku Expressway (中国自動車道) going east.
– Take the next exit at the Kobe-Sanda turnoff (神戸三田IC).
Coming east on the Chugoku (中国自動車道)
– Take the next exit at the Kobe-Sanda turnoff (神戸三田IC).
Coming west on the Chugoku(中国自動車道）
– Merge onto the Sanyo Expressway (山陽自動車道) and then take the Kobe-Sanda turn-off (神戸北IC) which is the first exit you reach after getting on the Sanyo. This is a small turn off which comes up quickly on your left – don’t miss it or you will have to drive a long way to turn around.
- After you get off the expressway, pay the toll at the exit gate, and then take a right at the fork heading for Mt. Rokko and Sannomiya. This is the 六甲北有料道路 (rokko kita yuuryou douro) or “Rokko North Toll Road”.
- Follow the road for a while, ignoring all of the turn offs. You’ll need to pay a couple of minimal tollgates.
- You will next come to Highway 7, with a green sign saying “Hanshin 7” and a right-side turnoff. If you take this exit, you will end up in Suma-ku (about 20 minutes west of Sannomiya.) This is a good way to get to the bridge to Awaji and is also a short-cut to Suzurandai-ku.
- If you are going to Sannomiya, do not take this turnoff and continue on the same road, following the signs to Rokko and Sannomiya.
- You will have the choice of two tunnels, the Rokko Tunnel (六甲山トンネル) or the Shin-Kobe Tunnel (新神戸トンネル).
- The Rokko Tunnel is less expensive but not as convenient as the Shin-Kobe Tunnel. The Rokko Tunnel will drop you in Nada-ku, a ways east of downtown Kobe. It’s then a long 20 min drive into Sannomiya along Route 2.
- The Shin-Kobe tunnel is more expensive, but it drops you in central Kobe about 5 minutes from Sannomiya. This is the most direct way into Kobe.
For additional information on navigating expressways, see the W-Nexco global site: http://global.w-nexco.co.jp/
Parking in Kobe
- There is NO free parking in Kobe. Either you pay about 1000 yen per day to park, make friends with a Kobe-ite so you can use them for their parking space, or simply start getting creative.
- Everyone finds their own solution to this dilemma, but a few warnings: Kobe Police are money hungry now, and will tow and fine you! I’ve been told you can even be arrested for parking illegally in Japan, so use your head. And remember that every piece of land in Kobe is accounted for!
- Parking overnight in outlying suburbs is less risky than parking outside Ryan’s Pub.
- Police clear roads in central Kobe at about 6 am.
- There is free parking available in Myodani, just outside Kobe. Park there and take the bus (600 yen) to downtown. To reach Myodani look for the turn off when driving from the Chugoku Expressway to Sannomiya.
- If you are driving from Himeji to Kobe, it is usually cheaper/more convenient all said and done to just park in Himeji and take the train into town.
Parking in Himeji
- There are a lot of cheap parking garages in Himeji, and it’s small and fairly easy to drive around.
- There are two cheap car parks at Himeji Castle, one on either side of the Castle grounds. Both are overnight parks, and cost around ¥600 a day.
- Watch out though, cause both car parks are packed-full during festivals. Himeji-jo has a lot of festivals.
- There is another fairly cheap car park on the south side of the train station. It costs a little more, but saves you the effort of walking to the station.
If you will do a lot of driving in Japan then it might be worthwhile to invest in a navigation system. Relatively inexpensive units can be purchased which easily mount on the dashboard, suctioned to the window, etc. A good navi system can really get you out of a jam or help you find difficult to locate places.
It’s always a good idea to check a route ahead of time and carry a map book in case you need to ask directions from a human being. Additionally, most if not all Japanese navigation units will NOT have any options for English so your Japanese should be up to speed for optimal use.
You can find the right unit for you by starting at Kakaku.