GPS enabled driving in Japan and Russia

This item appears on page 49 of the February 2012 issue.

For independent travelers who drive, Japan and Russia would seem to offer some obstacles, but I would dismiss these, as there are great benefits to driving in both countries. The independence factor is what applied in our experience.

Our first stop driving in Russia was Sergiyev Posad, north of Moscow.

We drove in Japan, May 3-17, 2010, never getting lost. From home, I had prebooked a car from Hertz (800/654-3001). I was even able to speak to an American in Tokyo to ask a few questions.

After experiencing the giant-kite festival in Hamamatsu, we picked up the car at a Toyota location. The two-week rental cost about ¥68,828 (near $890), with dropoff in Tokyo.

The rental included a GPS unit with instructions written in English. We didn’t use the voice instructions because they were in Japanese, but we only needed to know which way to turn, and the screen showed us that. Other than that, one “ding” meant “be ready” and a “ding, ding” meant “turn now.” (There are English-language GPSs available, but we didn’t happen to get one.)

Once in a while we had to cycle through the Japanese language to get back to the unit’s starting point. Our maps were used infrequently but were useful.

My wife took charge of the GPS and entered the appropriate phone number, yes, phone number, of each place we were headed for, be it a hotel or restaurant, or any phone number that would get us close to our exact destination. (Because addresses in Japan are based upon what was constructed first on a street, phone numbers are used.)

We knew the numbers of our prebooked hotels, and any tour book has phone numbers of other places in a town.

The fabulous scenery made us want to go back in the fall to drive in the north, probably including the island of Hokkaido. Now that we have gained total confidence, even driving in Tokyo, we suggest to ITN readers that what might have seemed impossible is actually an opportunity.

Driving in the beautiful Japanese Alps. Photos: Whitehouse

• As to Russia, we rented a car there for three days in May ’11. Our goal was the Golden Ring towns north of Moscow. We went with Avis (US & Can., 800/331-1212), the easiest to use, and the basics cost about $100 per day.

We furnished our own GPS, which was set up for that country and was totally accurate. In this case, we put in the name of the town or the address of our hotel.

We drove from Moscow to Sergiyev Posad and the next day through the countryside to Suzdal. We reached Vladimir on the third day, then returned to Moscow, dropping the car at an Avis location at a rail station.

As in Japan, the language may be impossible to read, but more English is being added to highway signs. That said, we never found the Cyrillic or Japanese signs to be an issue. We trusted our GPS, and it worked well.

• Both of these trips were arranged for us by a very competent trip planner we found, one who takes great interest in the most important details: Jerry Simons of SRQ Travel (988 Boulevard of the Arts, Ste. 1216, Sarasota, FL 34236; 866/630-1616 or 941/726-6934, e-mail

In Japan, he got us to the most interesting places we could have gone. Excluding the rental cost but including hotels (prebooked), meals and gas, the cost of this trip was about $350 a day. We only had to get to each town.

For a Trans-Siberian Express trip from Moscow to Beijing, April 12-May 12, and our driving trip outside Moscow, he found a person to meet and guide us in each city and town plus a very fine company to take us through Mongolia.

Oakland, CA