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Hitting the Road

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Well, it took two weeks after I got my license to actually get a car, but it arrived on Saturday and I drove it on Sunday. I took it to work this morning, making this the first day of the school-year in which I haven’t arrived all sweaty.

I had no say in the car Interac decided to get for me. I guess they have some kind of business arrangement with car dealers like they do with Leopalace. They told me on Friday that they could send someone from the dealership to drop off my car on Saturday afternoon, but I told them I wasn’t going to be home then so they just had the car parked in its designated place and the keys delivered through my mail slot.

I was a little surprised that Interac never asked me to send them a photo or a faxed copy of my driver’s license. I could have simply lied two months ago about passing the test, told them I got my license, and proceeded to drive illegally until passing the test (or getting caught). I wouldn’t have done that even if I had known, but it’s strange to think how easily I could have.

When I got back to my place on Saturday I’d already had a few drinks so I would not be taking it out for a spin, but I did take the keys and go check out my new vehicle. There are only three parking spaces outside my Leopalace and they’re apparently all taken, but there’s another Leopalace right down the road—literally a minute’s walk—with available spaces and my car was waiting there at number 3.

It’s a Suzuki WagonR, probably the single most common car in Japan. My first reaction was disappointment at how big it is—Japanese roads are horrendously narrow—but I knew it could be worse. At least it’s the color I would have chosen.

I went inside and checked out the interior, again disappointed that there’s no auxiliary audio port so I can’t play my iPod through its speakers, but it appeared that the CD player plays mp3 CDs which means I can burn CDs with much more content than a single 80-minute audio CD. I started the car and figured out how to un-retract the side-view mirrors, as nearly every car in Japan has retractable mirrors due to the narrowness of the roads. The transmission controls are on the front panel and all of my gauges are digital. Other than that (and the position of the wheel of course) it was no different from any other car I’ve ever driven.

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After finishing up a bunch of walking-distance errands on Sunday, I got ready for my first genuine drive in Japan. I burned up an mp3 CD made up of every Pink Floyd album and headed out to my car. I got inside, adjusted the seat and mirrors, started her up, and confirmed that the CD-player works. The music for my maiden voyage would be Dark Side of the Moon, the best album (as it widely acknowledged) for testing speakers. (The speakers were, like the car, not the least bit impressive).

I released the emergency break and pulled out into the real road for the first time ever in a country not called “the United States of America”. The first thing I did was engage my windshield wipers while attempting to signal left. Oh yeah, forgot about that. (I’d make the same mistake three or four more times throughout the drive).

I started out along the same route I take to get to work, taking it slowly and nervously. Every time a car was approaching from the opposite side I’d feel pangs of anxiety, wondering how both our vehicles could possibly pass each other without side-swiping on this ridiculously narrow road. I felt more at ease when I took my first turn onto a larger street with clear markings between the right and left lanes.

After about five minutes I’d relaxed enough to start the music, though the anxiety picked up again when I reached the long road to M-sho, my first destination. It’s a long narrow road through the hills with no center line, so any time a car approached I’d slow down and get as far left as possible without driving off the road. Thankfully, it’s not a particularly busy road so there were plenty of stretches where I could just relax and enjoy the drive. After ten minutes I was almost completely at ease.

I reached M-sho, confirmed that the time to get there was indeed about 20 minutes, turned around in the parking lot, and made the 15-minute drive to K-chu.

Now that I’d confirmed I know the routes for my Wednesday routine, I proceeded to use the car for actual errands. I took it back into town and drove to the shopping center I normally bike to every week but which I’ll now be driving to. It was a nice luxury to be able to shop without concern over whether I’d have enough room in my back-pack to fit everything.

Once that was done, I had one final task to complete as there was barely a quarter tank of gas and I knew I should take care of that a.s.a.p. This was going to be the most challenging part of the day, but I might as well figure it out now.

I took the long way back to the main road (the 126—the road with everything on it), driving along my jogging route. This included a tiny stretch of road through some rice fields, a road too narrow for two vehicles. Much to my great relief, no cars were coming the other way while I drove there. I’ll be avoiding those kinds of roads as much as humanly possible, but I had to drive on it this time to get myself positioned to turn onto the 126 on the same side as the only gas station I know of.

I got to the station and pulled in, noticing the English word “IN” taped in giant letters on the ground where I entered. A worker directed me to the pump he wanted me to take, and I pulled up and got situated. Gas stations in Japan are a mix of full service and self-service and I wasn’t sure which this one was, but when nobody came up to me right away I figured it must be as I feared—self-service.

There was a big complicated machine at the pump with Japanese writing all over. At least I can read katakana so I knew which pump was for “regyuraa”, and I removed that pump from the handle and put it in my tank, hoping I could just pump and pay at the end. Of course no gas came out.

Oh well, I guess I have to be the dumb gaijin who doesn’t know how to pump gas. I approached one of the workers there and asked for help, using the word “hajimete” which means “first time”. He understood and naturally poked no fun at me, maintaining the typical Japanese professional friendliness the whole time. He took me to the screen and showed me which buttons to press and where to insert my cash. I put in a 5000-yen bill (about $50), hoping that would cover the cost but not really knowing because a simultaneous dollar-to-yen / gallon-to-liter conversion is too much for my mathematically-challenged mind. Luckily, the tank was full when I got to 3500, so apparently it costs about $35-$40 to fill my tank in Japan. That’s not as bad as I’d feared, but I’ve yet to see what kind of mileage I get.

The worker showed me how to take the receipt and scan it to get my change, and I thanked him and went on my way. That wasn’t so bad, and now that obstacle is clear. I drove down the road a bit, made the first U-turn I could, and returned to my parking space to end the journey.

With that one run I cleared just about every first of driving in Japan that I needed to. The obvious ones of driving on the left, remembering where the blinker is, avoiding crashing into oncoming traffic on super-narrow roads, navigating parking-lots and parking properly, and most importantly filling my gas tank. The only two other hurdles to clear are highway driving (because of the tolls) and getting caught on a one-lane road when there’s an oncoming car.

I’ve done enough driving in my life that I imagine I’ll get used to the big differences pretty quickly. I thought the most difficult thing to adjust to would be driving on the left with the wheel on the right, but now I think the narrowness of the roads is actually going to be what takes the most time adjusting to. Hopefully once I get a better feel for how wide my car is and how much room on the roads I have to work with, the anxiety will dissipate.

So the next stage of my life in Japan begins. So far the only difference a car makes is getting to and from work quicker and not having to work up a sweat in the process, but the car does also open up a whole new world of possibilities. I’ll probably wait until I’m much more comfortable driving to take advantage of them.

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