Friday, January 1, 2010

Driving Miss Kathryn

Driver's Education was a one, 9 week term course offering in high school. A quicker route, for a fee of $80, AAA offered a 2 week class, plus driving time. After putting in my time, I skimmed the rules of the roads, familiarized myself with the less obvious there-to-trick-young-drivers road signs, showed up for my written test and got the ticket to pass go. With temps in hand, and the help of a short list of volunteer patient and experienced drivers shotgun, I set off for road practice. I performed some dry runs on a make-it-yourself obstacle course fully loaded with chalk markers and orange cones at a forgiving local church parking lot. Before long, I took the driving portion of the test, graduated to the official laminated version of the coveted license, and was hitting the highway solo. So simple. So sixteen.

I wish there was such a sweet sixteen story in Japan. I spent my first decade here overjoyed with public transportation. It's clean, efficient and even invites passengers to indulge in double tasking -- reading and texting while riding is no longer a no-no when you're not the one behind the wheel. I was delighted to ride trains and buses for long hauls, and was more than accustomed to mounting a push bike for local trips around town. I can't equate myself to the graces of the women pictured on travel posters from say, Bali Island. They are crossing a creek, knee deep, balancing a basket on their heads that is stacked 2 feet high with a fresh crop of bananas and even and a pineapple on top. In each hand is a full bucket of drinking water, and often a small child clinging to each hip. I was less amazing, yet I did master a front basket packed full of groceries, including the excess bags balancing out on each handle bar. It became a way of life for me here, but my husband drew the line at adding an infant to the 2 wheeled mix. You can guess where this is going - unfortunately (and fortunately), Mother Nature butt in and ended my train day tolerance, to the tune of the first trimester of pregnancy. The once unnoticeable combined scent of men's hair wax, ladies' perfume, and the contents of whatever the high school kids on board had in their packed lunches, literally drove me to the roads. I could no longer stomach the train, and had to gear up to getting my Japanese licence.

I've never hid the fact that I'm American. I mean, it's obvious, even without flashing a passport, that I'm not Japanese. However, I've met more than a few of my country folk during my travels throughout Asia over the years who go so far as to put a "Canada" patch on their backpacks. The reality is that the North Americans north of the States have a better reputation as travelers, or at least one that doesn't include "ugly" in the stereotyped nickname overseas. I don't consider myself an "Ugly American," and thus have never felt the need to disguise myself in maple leaf logos. However, the lure of faking a passport for one of 20 countries other than my seal with proud eagle tempted me for the first time when I looked into the licensing process in Japan.

Australia, Canada, and South Korea are among the chosen 20 lucky countries that embrace a gentleman's agreement with Japan, which numbs the pain of converting a valid foreign driver's license into a Japanese one. Australia, I can understand, and thus I'm less envious of our Aussie friends. After all, in Australia, like Japan, you drive on the left side of the road, and the steering wheel, in turn, is on the right side of the car to match the natural rhythm of the roads. But the same is not true of the drive on the right side of the road nations like the States, Canada or South Korea. But based on the logo on the cover of your passport, if you hold a valid driver's license from one of nations in the exclusive inner circle, you can get a Japanese license without taking a written or practical exam. Sure, there's some fees, paperwork, an eye exam and maybe some waiting in line involved, but I imagine (and I do dream) that it's a relatively pain free process by comparison. Unfortunately, if you're like me and have a driver's license from a country that didn't make the cut, you will be subjected to the agony, hair-pulling stress, humiliation, and financial defeat of having to take both a written and practical exam in order to "pass go" and collect your pass to the freedom of the Japanese roads.

This process, like the language, is designed to victimize foreigners. Passing requires several attempts, even for experienced drivers. Fortunately, the first hurdle, the written test, can be cleared. It's the only portion of the exam process where you feel that "holding a valid license from your home country" is semi-honored. The exam consists of 10 non-trick questions, illustrated. Imagine a 10 page booklet with a big cartoon-like picture covering 80% of each page with one "true or false" question at the bottom. It went something like this: Number 1. "I had 3 beers, it is safe for me to drive." If you are wrangling at all for the correct answer, a glance at the picture reveals a classic cartoon type character with a cloud of bubbles above his head, apparently indicating some kind of hazy brain fuzz. Beer bottles are tipped over, and he appears to be trying to get up, wobbling from the bar stool. Oh, OK then, "False."

Yes, I got a 10 out of 10 on the written exam. A proud moment. The group of test takers waited 10 minutes while our answer sheets were graded. Those of us that passed proceeded to the next step (those that didn't, probably proceeded to the bar pictured in Number 1, above). We were escorted up the stairs to a large room with a full panoramic window view of the practical portion of the test in process. We took a number and and seat overlooking the testers circling the "obstacle" course below. In 40 minutes, I didn't see one candidate complete the course. Car after car was forced to take the short cut back to the starting point. Failed. You don't get to complete the run through for practice; instead, you are halted where you bombed, return to the start, and are left with nothing but trying to free another day to come back and do it again. And again. And again.

The entire driving course was more than three times the size of that church parking lot I used back in Ohio. This was a not a quaint "Little House on the Prairie" sized church. This was one that could house and populous community for Christmas or Easter Mass. The course was complete with simulated train tracks, single lane, double lane, as well as freeway like conditions. It tested every speed and turn a car could possible face on the road, and the hardest part of all is demonstrating the necessary neck tilt to the proper degree in an effort to check for imaginary cyclers before your every move. You take the test with a Prefecture owned car, to full capacity. The tester mans the passenger side, and 2 other testees take refuge in the back seat. Even after you fail your run, you have to serve as a passenger for the others - that's part of the test: can you handle the nerves? One driver in my first group only advanced 5 feet before having to return to base. He later confided in me he had never driven; in his country, "getting a license was a straightforward right at a certain age." The latter was news to me, the former? My shakes figured that out all on their own.

I've heard it takes even the best drivers 4 tries to pass, and it took me about that many tries until I slapped s good chunk of yen down on the short cut. On Sundays, for an approximate $80 one-shot lesson, you can execute an hour practice session on the test course with an off duty tester. Unlike the puritan test, the instructor lets you complete the full course, and he actually talks to you, answers questions and offers advice throughout the practice, detailing your marginal mistakes. I was enlightened to the fact that my failures boiled down to being over experienced for the job. I was "too good at the tight left turn that required a backing out maneuver." Too good? Yes, I was overconfident. Showing some nerves would help me appear to be taking extreme caution. So unexpected, so worth the eighty bucks.

The following try was my golden day. I appropriately faked some anxiety and nailed that back out turn with a 9.1 degree of difficulty. At the end of my banner run of the course the tester asked me what motivated me to get my driver's license after all these years in Japan. I told him it was because I was 6 months pregnant and I anticipated hauling more gear than just a purse. After I noted the non-faked expression of empathy on his face, I realized I probably should have opened with that on test run one, thousands of yen ago. Meanwhile, the two gentlemen in the back seat for me that day were on their 7th and 11th tries, respectively. I can only hope I see them in line behind me at a gas station one day (I'm not selfishly trying to ditch here and claim first in line, it's just think I'd only recognize them in the rear view mirror).

That was the first end to my sweet sixteen story, at 35, of getting my license in Japan. Wisdom at this age should have warned me that being licenced on the narrow network of Japanese roads would only leave me longing for the days of tooling around the controlled roads of the obstacle course. Yes, I have had more than my fair share of bumps, bruises and near misses. Two way traffic often shares one lane, taking turns. Drivers are generally friendly about yielding and letting the bigger car go first. The more daring, or less patient drivers try to squeeze by each other, and they literally kiss at this first meeting. Most cars on the roads have a hickey scar on the front side of the car. That classic brush with another car is inevitable, and somewhat of an initiation into the driving fraternity. Often times, drivers don't kiss and tell. They don't need to involve the police or insurance companies, they just exchange business cards, and carry on their ways. Twice have the police entered my love triangle.

They arrive in pairs, on their mopeds, with clipboards. They take a statement from each driver, encourage us to exchange personal information, call our insurance companies, then they wish us well and take off. The insurance companies enter the picture (via phone) and take over as negotiators and lawyers. I have 2 such friendly mishap experiences under my belt, 2 hickeys on the car, and a not so bad taste in my mouth about the process. On 2 other occasions, I've been stopped. Once was by a flat tire soon after I started driving. I was on my way home from work in the dark when a popped tire jolted me into a spin. I managed to pull over into what looked like a dark ally and was approached by a man who could have been mistaken for a Yakuza descendant. He snapped his fingers towards the house, and a crew of 4 or 5 men in construction jumpsuits ran out to his, and ultimately my, aid. Eight months pregnant, guilt free for not trying to join in the fix it job, I stood by and watched in grateful awe. Three of the members flashed open their cell phones. Calling for help? Why didn't I think of that? OK, I didn't have one. Getting a mobile phone would be the next step,right after learning how to change the spare on this Suzuki myself. On second thought, nothing worked faster than this team. They weren't making phone calls on their mobiles. Rather, they were providing light from their phone screens to assist the appointed Spare Tire Changer of the group. I was back on my way home faster than that nail popped through the rubber in the first place.

The other time I was stopped was soon after the "no cell phones while driving"
rules went into effect in Japan. As I mentioned during my flat tire chapter, I didn't have a cell phone. But somewhere in between the previous paragraph and now, that baby was born and a little girl in a child seat joined the act. We were on our way to a park when she was playing phone with her banana. Passengers, I believe, are exempt from the no phone in the car law, and, no, she does not have a record for baby talking into a piece of fruit. But I had her Elmo phone, talking back to her meaningful babble, which was lifelike enough from the view from the cop's speed trap to put the lights on and pull me over. They only needed to hear one chorus of an upbeat "da da da da, da da da da, Elmo's World" to be convinced that this was a real tool of 2 way communication. They didn't pass up the teaching opportunity, however, and they sent us off with the friendly advice, "not to take part in any distraction on the roads." Elmo went in my bag, and the banana went down her hatch. We said our thank yous and goodbyes and continued en route to the park, while a feeling of peaceful irony made me start appreciating the whole sweet part of the innocent sweet sixteen driving experience all over again.

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